Twenty-seven conservation experts from the Great Ape Health Consortium urged a letter to Nature Tuesday that all great ape tourism be suspended and field research be reduced in an effort to protect already vulnerable species from contracting COVID-19.
"The Covid-19 pandemic is a critical situation for humans, our health and our economies," lead letter writer Thomas Gillespie of Emory University told The Guardian. "It's also a potentially dire situation for great apes. There is a lot at stake for those in danger of extinction."
Since no gorilla, orangutan or chimpanzee has yet caught COVID-19, it is impossible to know exactly how it would impact our closest genetic relatives, but human respiratory illnesses as mild as the common cold have proved fatal to gorillas, The Associated Press reported.
Some parks are already taking measures to protect the animals. Virunga National Park in the Congo, which is home to a third of the world's mountain gorillas, is closing to human visitors until June 1 to prevent transmission, and Rwanda is also closing three parks home to gorillas and chimpanzees to tourists and researchers.
In Malaysian Borneo, meanwhile, the Sepilok Rehabilitation Centre is also closing to protect orangutans.
"This disease could be fatal for the already critically endangered orangutan: it is a risk that we cannot afford to take," Susan Sheward of Orangutan Appeal UK explained to The Guardian.
The International Union for the Conservation of Nature issued guidelines in response to the coronavirus March 15 urging interactions between humans and apes to be reduced to the minimum possible. It advised that the normal seven meter (approximately 23 foot) distance between apes and humans be expanded to 10 meters (approximately 33 feet) and that no one who is ill or has been in contact with someone who was ill within the past 14 days be allowed to interact with apes.
However, Kenyan conservationist Paula Kahumbu explained how, in the case of COVID-19, that might not be effective.
"We know that gorillas are very sensitive to human diseases," she told The Associated Press. "If anyone has a cold or a flu they are not allowed to go and see the gorillas. With coronavirus having such a long time of no symptoms in some cases, it means that we could actually put those gorillas at risk."
The one risk with shutting parks to visitors is that it might encourage the presence of poachers. The Great Ape Health Consortium said that risk assessments would have to be conducted to continue the parks' conservation work while protecting apes from the new illness.
"Such efforts should include ways to offset loss of earnings from tourism, while taking care not to interfere with work to save human lives," they wrote.
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Major consumer brands including Nestlé, Kellogg's and The Hershey Company have been getting some of their palm oil from an illegal plantation inside a protected forest that holds the highest density of critically endangered orangutans anywhere on Earth, a new report says.
The report is based on field investigations, interviews and transaction records analyzed by the Rainforest Action Network (RAN). It shows that local brokers are buying palm fruit from oil palms planted illegally inside the nationally protected Rawa Singkil Wildlife Reserve in Indonesia's Aceh province. These brokers, the report says, are then supplying the fruit to processing mills located immediately next to areas of illegal encroachment in the Leuser Ecosystem, of which the wildlife reserve is a part.
An oil palm plantation in Rawa Singking Wildlife Reserve, an ostensibly protected area.
Junaidi Hanafiah / Mongabay Indonesia
RAN reports that these mills then supply the processed palm oil to global traders, namely Singapore-listed Golden Agri-Resources (GAR) and Indonesia's Musim Mas Group. These companies, in turn, sell palm oil, directly or indirectly, to a who's who of household consumer brands, including Nestlé, Unilever, Mondelēz International, General Mills, Kellogg's, Mars and The Hershey Company, according to RAN. All of these palm oil traders and brands have adopted policies committing them to "No Deforestation, No Peatlands, No Exploitation" (NDPE) in the sourcing of their raw ingredients. By contrast, the mills where the Rawa Singkil-sourced palm fruit is processed lack the necessary procedures to trace the provenance of the crop, RAN says.
RAN's investigation also calls out global banks, including Japan's Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group, Dutch bank ABN Amro and Singapore's OCBC, for continuing to finance major palm oil traders, particularly GAR.
"The authors of this report are demanding that companies caught contributing to this destruction stop buying palm oil sourced from the rogue mills identified here, or financing the culprits processing and shipping illegal palm oil to the global market, until transparent and verifiable monitoring, traceability and compliance systems are established to ensure they are only sourcing truly responsible palm oil," said RAN.
Forest area that has been cleared to make way for oil palm cultivation in Rawa Singkil Wildlife Reserve.
Junaidi Hanafiah / Mongabay Indonesia
In the report, RAN said GAR had confirmed that six of its supplying mills were located near Rawa Singkil Wildlife Reserve, and that five had not established traceability to the farm or plantation where the palm fruit they source is grown.
The report said GAR had set new targets for its mills to achieve traceability to the plantation by the end of 2020. "While the company denied deforestation by referring to the findings of field investigations in 2017 and 2018 outside the Rawa Singkil Wildlife Reserve in the Singkil-Bengkung region, it did not comment on non-compliant suppliers within the nationally protected area or confirm its intention to instigate the results of RAN's investigation," the report added.
RAN said Musim Mas had confirmed that nine of its supplying mills were located near the wildlife reserve and that it had set the end of 2020 as the deadline for tracing the provenance of all its palm oil sourced from the region. The company also says it plans to increase its direct engagement with smallholder farmers seeking secure land titles and support for improvements in agricultural practices. Musim Mas confirmed that it would verify the findings of RAN's investigate and communicate to supplying mills that it would not accept palm oil products grown in Rawa Singkil Wildlife Reserve.
Many of the consumer brands named in the RAN report told Reuters that they would verify the findings while keeping their commitment to sustainable practices in palm oil production and supply chain management.
Encroachment and forest clearing for a plantation in Rawa Singkil Wildlife Reserve.
Junaidi Hanafiah / Mongabay Indonesia
A map showing the location of Rawa Singkil Wildlife Reserve on the island of Sumatra.
Rawa Singkil Wildlife Reserve, on the northwestern coast of the island of Sumatra, is home to the densest population of critically endangered Sumatran orangutans (Pongo abelii) in the Leuser Ecosystem.
More than 75,000 hectares (185,300 acres) of peat forests remain in the Singkil peatland, and are afforded the highest levels of protection under Indonesian law in Rawa Singkil Wildlife Reserve. Since the reserve was established in 1998, local conservationists have raised concerns about changes to its boundaries to accommodate palm oil development. The size of the protected area has declined from 102,400 hectares to 80,000 hectares (253,000 acres to 197,700 acres).
In the past 10 years, more than 3,000 hectares (7,400 acres) of critical lowland forest habitat within Rawa Singkil Wildlife Reserve has been cleared, largely for new oil palm plantations. A wide network of roads and drainage canals have been built to allow the deep peat soil to be drained and planted with oil palms.
Reposted with permission from our media associate Mongabay.
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The bright patterns and recognizable designs of Waterlust's activewear aren't just for show. In fact, they're meant to promote the conversation around sustainability and give back to the ocean science and conservation community.
Each design is paired with a research lab, nonprofit, or education organization that has high intellectual merit and the potential to move the needle in its respective field. For each product sold, Waterlust donates 10% of profits to these conservation partners.
Eye-Catching Designs Made from Recycled Plastic Bottles
waterlust.com / @abamabam
The company sells a range of eco-friendly items like leggings, rash guards, and board shorts that are made using recycled post-consumer plastic bottles. There are currently 16 causes represented by distinct marine-life patterns, from whale shark research and invasive lionfish removal to sockeye salmon monitoring and abalone restoration.
One such organization is Get Inspired, a nonprofit that specializes in ocean restoration and environmental education. Get Inspired founder, marine biologist Nancy Caruso, says supporting on-the-ground efforts is one thing that sets Waterlust apart, like their apparel line that supports Get Inspired abalone restoration programs.
"All of us [conservation partners] are doing something," Caruso said. "We're not putting up exhibits and talking about it — although that is important — we're in the field."
Waterlust not only helps its conservation partners financially so they can continue their important work. It also helps them get the word out about what they're doing, whether that's through social media spotlights, photo and video projects, or the informative note card that comes with each piece of apparel.
"They're doing their part for sure, pushing the information out across all of their channels, and I think that's what makes them so interesting," Caruso said.
And then there are the clothes, which speak for themselves.
Advocate Apparel to Start Conversations About Conservation
waterlust.com / @oceanraysphotography
Waterlust's concept of "advocate apparel" encourages people to see getting dressed every day as an opportunity to not only express their individuality and style, but also to advance the conversation around marine science. By infusing science into clothing, people can visually represent species and ecosystems in need of advocacy — something that, more often than not, leads to a teaching moment.
"When people wear Waterlust gear, it's just a matter of time before somebody asks them about the bright, funky designs," said Waterlust's CEO, Patrick Rynne. "That moment is incredibly special, because it creates an intimate opportunity for the wearer to share what they've learned with another."
The idea for the company came to Rynne when he was a Ph.D. student in marine science.
"I was surrounded by incredible people that were discovering fascinating things but noticed that often their work wasn't reaching the general public in creative and engaging ways," he said. "That seemed like a missed opportunity with big implications."
Waterlust initially focused on conventional media, like film and photography, to promote ocean science, but the team quickly realized engagement on social media didn't translate to action or even knowledge sharing offscreen.
Rynne also saw the "in one ear, out the other" issue in the classroom — if students didn't repeatedly engage with the topics they learned, they'd quickly forget them.
"We decided that if we truly wanted to achieve our goal of bringing science into people's lives and have it stick, it would need to be through a process that is frequently repeated, fun, and functional," Rynne said. "That's when we thought about clothing."
Support Marine Research and Sustainability in Style
To date, Waterlust has sold tens of thousands of pieces of apparel in over 100 countries, and the interactions its products have sparked have had clear implications for furthering science communication.
For Caruso alone, it's led to opportunities to share her abalone restoration methods with communities far and wide.
"It moves my small little world of what I'm doing here in Orange County, California, across the entire globe," she said. "That's one of the beautiful things about our partnership."
Check out all of the different eco-conscious apparel options available from Waterlust to help promote ocean conservation.
Melissa Smith is an avid writer, scuba diver, backpacker, and all-around outdoor enthusiast. She graduated from the University of Florida with degrees in journalism and sustainable studies. Before joining EcoWatch, Melissa worked as the managing editor of Scuba Diving magazine and the communications manager of The Ocean Agency, a non-profit that's featured in the Emmy award-winning documentary Chasing Coral.
By Helen A. Lee
We cook with it. We bathe with it. We use it for mood lighting. Palm oil is an ingredient in processed foods, cosmetics, hygiene products, biofuels and candles; experts estimate it's found in 50 percent of the items on grocery store shelves. Inexpensive to produce, palm oil contains no trans fats, and has a high melting point, making it versatile and easy to spread. The result: increasing demand. In 1996, global production totaled 16 million metric tons. By 2017, it was 60.7 million.
But there's a problem. Palm oil may not cost much to produce, but it exacts a high price on the environment. And thanks to this often-invisible ingredient's complex international supply chain, efforts to reduce that impact are proving challenging.
From Virgin Forest to Grocery Store
The story of palm oil begins with clearing tropical rainforests and peatlands for plantations of oil palm trees, which thrive on warmth, sunlight, and copious rainfall. The trees — native to West Africa — produce clusters of orange-red fruit year-round, and can be harvested every 10–14 days when mature. For the most part, oil palms don't need much help, but some farms do use herbicides and insecticides. Oil palms produce 3.8 metric tons of oil per hectare annually — eight times as much as soybeans (.5 t/ha), and almost five times the yield of canola (.8 t/ha).
Palm fruit contains oil in its flesh (palm oil), and its seed (palm kernel oil). At diesel-powered mills, fruit and kernels are pressed to extract oil. The next stop is often a refinery, where bleaching improves the oil's color, deodorization reduces its smell, and "fractionation" can create different oils suited for different purposes. Then, the oil is shipped all over the world.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture says palm oil is the most consumed oil in the world, and its non-food uses are also increasing. India, China, Europe and Pakistan are the top importers, collectively using more than half of the global supply. In Asia, it's used in home cooking. In Europe and the U.S., most demand comes from manufacturers for everything from Oreos to toothpaste. You can find it in Silk soy milk, Secret deodorant, Nutella, Jergens lotion, instant noodles and Girl Scout cookies.
Palm Oil and Environmental Devastation
Malaysian and Indonesian plantations make up about 85 percent of the industry, with Guatemala, Benin and Thailand among the other top producers. Areas with low wages and abundant labor often welcome palm plantations — despite the industry's history of slavery, child labor, and land-theft — because of their potential to lift workers out of poverty.
Around the world, the business of palm oil harms the environment. During conventional cultivation, forests are cleared for plantations, bringing biodiversity loss, human-wildlife conflict, and habitat destruction affecting many species, notably the orangutan. A recent International Union for Conservation of Nature report notes that 50% of all deforestation on Borneo between 2005 and 2015 was driven by palm oil development.
This deforestation also contributes to climate change; the conversion of forests to palm oil plantations releases carbon dioxide that had been absorbed by old-growth forests. The Union of Concerned Scientists estimated in 2013 that 10 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions come from tropical deforestation.
These impacts have proven hard to combat, in part because palm oil is rarely the end commodity. Richard Zimmerman, executive director of New York-based non-profit Orangutan Outreach, calls it a "pervasive yet hidden" problem. Given all the chemicals, sugars, fats, and allergens shoppers are already trying to avoid, he said, "Palm oil is low on the list, if it's even on the list."
Palm oil and its derivatives appear under a multitude of monikers, from "palm kernel oil" and "partially hydrogenated palm oil" to "sodium lauryl sulfate" and "glyceryl stearate." Other names, according to the Rainforest Action Network, include "stearic acid," anything that includes "palmitate," and "elaesis guineensis" (the oil palm's Latin name). Try finding products in your grocery store without these. Not that all these terms always mean palm oil — some are occasionally derived from other oils. But companies likely can't guarantee that, and there's no way of knowing from reading a package.
So how do we change things? One group trying to answer that question is the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), a 4,000-member-strong industry non-profit. Its approach includes offering financial incentives to stakeholders along the supply chain in return for implementing best practices.
RSPO members must demonstrate that plantation land was purchased, not stolen, and that they offer safe conditions for workers. The RSPO prohibits clearing primary (never-logged) forests and imposes requirements like: obtaining free, prior, and informed consent from locals for new plantings; analyzing and protecting fragile soils and areas of high-conservation value; and mitigating carbon impacts in place.
But right now, only about 20 percent of palm oil is RSPO-certified, and critics think the group's approach still doesn't go far enough. Greenpeace's Senior Palm Oil Campaigner Diana Ruiz said investigations show that brands shift responsibility for palm oil sourcing problems onto traders, and traders don't enforce on their end. "Once you get … all the way to the grower, there is no monitoring being done," she says — and no good way to address violations.
Beyond the produce section, palm oil can be found in almost everything in your grocery store, from from Oreos to toothpaste and beyond.
The Future of Palm Oil
Palm oil has a long supply chain, which makes reducing its use complex. "Historically, companies have not paid attention to what happens at the farm level, because [palm oil] is a secondary ingredient," said Neil Blomquist, a spokesperson for the education and advocacy group Palm Done Right.
That may be changing, as palm oil gets more publicity. Still, places where palm grows see a clear economic boom from the industry, and there's always a market for cheap consumables.
"It's a difficult industry to regulate for that reason," Blomquist said. "There's been a growing demand for palm oil, the lowest-cost oil that can be produced. So, increasing demand with an increasing population in the world is really what's driving the problems… with more and more rainforest being destroyed."
Ending the use of palm oil may not be the answer. "Going to a boycott could cause more problems," said Dan Strechay, the RSPO's US outreach and engagement representative. "Because if we don't buy palm oil — or ingredients that contain palm oil — it's not like we snap our fingers and we have additional materials to put in. Something else has to be grown to replace it, and other oil seeds may require more land."
But continuing as we are means ignoring the true costs of palm oil: to the environment and people living in palm-oil-producing areas. Said Zimmerman,"If the humans aren't doing well, the orangutans are not going to do well."
So, what do we do now? Eating fewer processed foods, buying locally, and otherwise voting with your dollars is a start. Keeping companies accountable for meeting their stated deadlines around sourcing sustainable palm oil is also key.
Ruiz says the next step is asking suppliers and traders to create more transparency around their reporting, and the public can help. "We have huge influence over these brands," she said. "The key here is to use that buying power we have as consumers and demand that companies do better."
This story originally appeared in Asparagus Magazine. It is republished here as part of EcoWatch's partnership with Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.
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By John R. Platt
Looking for something new to read? We've got you covered. Here are our picks for the best environmentally themed books of May 2019 — and it's quite a collection, with 13 new titles about a pioneering conservationist, the history of water woes in California, the dirty legacy (and future) of coal and even the psychology of climate change.
Check out May's baker's dozen below.
Wildlife and Endangered Species:
Supernavigators: The Astounding New Science of How Animals Find Their Way by David Barrie — Navigate your way to your local bookstore and pick up this fantastic book, which covers everything from migrating birds and sea turtles to ants and dung beetles. Barrie's got the human element covered, too: He's a Fellow of the Royal Institute of Navigation. (He also happens to be the great-great-nephew of Peter Pancreator J. M. Barrie.)
Undaunted: The Wild Life of Biruté Mary Galdikas and Her Fearless Quest to Save Orangutans by Anita Silvey — Galdikas isn't as well-known as her primatologist colleague Jane Goodall, but she should be. This YA biography tells her inspirational story, which becomes more relevant every year as orangutans become ever more endangered.
The Last Fish Swimming: The Global Crime of Illegal Fishing by Gohar A. Petrossian — We don't talk enough about illegal fishing, a problem that threatens to empty our oceans and push many species into extinction. This new book, by a noted criminology professor, hopes to change that. It defines the scope of the problem and offers a toolkit of policy recommendations to help solve it — while there's still time.
The Reality Bubble: Blind Spots, Hidden Truths and the Dangerous Illusions that Shape Our World by Ziya Tong — Smile, you're on secret surveillance cameras … unless you're working at a factory farm, power plant or garbage dump. In that case, go about your business without anyone seeing. Tong's globetrotting book examines these dangerous parts of the world that remain hidden from public view and reveals how that lack of transparency clouds our vision of the future.
Flint Fights Back: Environmental Justice and Democracy in the Flint Water Crisis by Benjamin J. Pauli — A sadly necessary book putting the activism that emerged during the Flint water crisis into the context of the broader struggle to maintain and protect democracy. If it can happen there, it can happen anywhere.
Coal by Mark C. Thurber — A detailed examination of why the industry that relies upon this massively polluting substance never seems to pay its full environmental costs. (Hint: Money has something to do with it, but it's a lot more complex than that.)
The Psychology of Climate Change Adaptation by Anne van Valkengoed and Linda Steg — It's time to dig into peoples' brains to help understand how and why they react to the already emerging threats of climate change. This forward-thinking academic book looks at the key psychological theories related to adaptive behavior, examines a few real-world cases, and then sets "an agenda for future psychological research on climate change adaptation behavior."
Climate Psychology: On Indifference to Disaster edited by Paul Hoggett — The flip side of the previous book, this one examines why people fail to respond to climate change, including new results from a series of research projects conducted around the world.
Greenovation: Urban Leadership on Climate Change by Joan Fitzgerald — An in-depth examination of how cities contribute to global warming, and how a handful of metropolises are innovating to help turn things around.
Climate and Society: Transforming the Future by Robin Leichenko & Karen O'Brien — A great book for undergraduates trying to wrap their heads around climate change and what they can do about it on a societal level.
The Dreamt Land: Chasing Water and Dust Across California by Mark Arax — The history of drought in California has been building for decades. Arax trekked around the state to examine the historic and ongoing battles over what humans, wildlife and crops get to drink.
Full Spectrum Resistance by Aric McBay — This two-volume series provides a powerful primer for activism on social-justice and environmental issues, using examples from more than 50 resistance movements around the world. The first book discusses how to build movements, while the second examines strategies for change.
That's our list for this month, but there's plenty more to add to your reading lists. For dozens of additional recent eco-books, check out the "Revelator Reads" archive — and come back in just a few weeks for next month's inspiring list.
Reposted with permission from our media associate The Revelator.
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EcoWatch teamed up with sustainability activist and Instagram influencer Margarita Samsonova via Facebook Live to give you the tools you need to make a massive impact on this planet through volunteer work.
Here are five steps including valuable "pro-tips" to get you on your way to a life-changing experience as a volunteer abroad.
1. Imagine Your Capabilities
Step one is using your imagination to discover what you are capable of. Samsonova explained that she never would have thought she'd be where she is today. "I just had a passion but I couldn't even phrase it," said Samsonova as she shared how the path she once imagined didn't make logical sense at the time. She had no idea who she would one day be when she first recognized her passion to study zoology and thus make a difference on the planet.
Samsonova trusted and surrendered to her passion, eventually discovered her message, and today she has a video with 22,000 views on Facebook and 106,000 followers in Instagram. She's inspiring people around the globe to do the work. And she gets to spend at least one month each year doing volunteer abroad work.
2. Do the Research
Research everything until you find the organization of your choice. For example, you might start by searching "penguin rescue center" + "your preferred destination." Once you find a specific organization, be sure to check reviews as well.
In case you find yourself stuck on third party websites that disclose the name of specific organizations and cost large amounts of money. Samsonova shared a "pro-tip" for you.
On that website, view the description for the volunteer opportunity you've found. Copy and paste some of the words in that description to your preferred search engine including the country. For example, copy and paste words like "spend time giving medications to turtles + Costa Rica" to your search engine. There's a high chance you will then find the name of that organization and void the fees from the third party website.
3. Follow the Money
As described in the Instagram post below, it can costs money to volunteer. Samsonova offered another "pro-tip" — $20 - 30 per day is the recommended cost you should pay. If an opportunity costs more than that, it's important to get back to researching and find out where that money is going.
Another way to avoid paying money is telling the organization about any value you can add while you are there. If you are a skilled worker, you can discuss offering your services in exchange for a the volunteer opportunity.
4. Be Patient
Those who offer volunteer work are often times incredibly busy people who are working on saving orangutans from illegal logging operations, rescuing sea turtles from poachers and capturing ghost nets trapping endangered species such as the vaquita.
"Things can be really slow. They can be located in the middle of no where with limited service. They have other things to think about. The process can be quite long ... they might forget to reply," said Samsonova.
She urged viewers to avoid taking these circumstances personally and explained an experience she once had where the messages were very short and she thought they might not want her to come. "Maybe I shouldn't go," she wondered.
She realized they were just too busy to have long conversations. "If you want to come, come here, trust me we will show you everything," is the message she received.
5. Take Responsibility
Volunteering abroad will open your eyes to the destruction we cause as humans and what we can do to avoid harming to the planet.
"You never come back the same person from a trip like that because it changes your perspective, your opinion on life on how other people live in different countries," said Samsonova. "With every trip I do I come back a better person."
Samsonova wrapped up the interview by discussing the massive impact volunteering typically has on a person. She said she never comes back the same person after a trip. "How can I care about shoes and nail polish if there are penguins out there that are dying?"
Wilmar International, which supplies 40 percent of the world's palm oil, has teamed up with the sustainability consultancy Aidenvironment Asia to develop a comprehensive mapping database to better monitor the company's palm oil supplier group.
More than 80 percent of Wilmar's palm oil comes from third-party suppliers. Greenpeace, which has long pressured the palm oil giant to monitor its suppliers across all of their operations, hailed the move as a "potential breakthrough."
"Wilmar supplies palm oil to most of the world's major food and cosmetics brands. So today's announcement is a potential breakthrough," said Kiki Taufik, Global Head of Indonesian Forests Campaign, Greenpeace Southeast Asia in a press release. "If Wilmar keeps its word, by the end of 2019 it will be using satellites to monitor all of its palm oil suppliers, making it almost impossible for them to get away with forest destruction. Greenpeace will be watching closely to make sure Wilmar delivers."
The production of the widely used vegetable oil—which is found in chocolate, baked goods, soaps, biofuel and much more—has cleared much of Malaysia's and Indonesia's tropical rainforests and is linked to wildlife habitat degradation, human rights violations and climate change.
Norway to Ban Deforestation-Linked #PalmOil #Biofuels in Historic Vote @rainforestnorw @rnfrstalliance @ran https://t.co/pN1zpaFT9y— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1544214616.0
The new plan commits Wilmar "to map its suppliers' entire landbank by the end of 2019, as well as concessions from which it does not yet source," according to Greenpeace. The database will also allow high-resolution satellite monitoring to check for deforestation or development on peat. Suppliers that are caught will be immediately suspended.
The new initiative adds weight to Wilmar's current No Deforestation, No Peat, No Exploitation (NDPE) policy.
"Companies in the palm oil supply chain will now gain better visibility into the plantation companies they source from in terms of their operational locations and especially their compliance with the NDPE policy," Eric Wakker, co-founder of Aidenvironment Asia, said in a joint press release with Wilmar. "It will also allow companies to act faster against suppliers found to be involved in deforestation and peatland development."
Greenpeace is urging other palm oil brands to make similar moves to clean up the industry.
"As the world wakes up to the climate and extinction crisis, inaction is not an option," Taufik said. "Wilmar has taken an important step and must now put its plan into action immediately. Stopping deforestation requires industry-wide action. Other traders and brands must now follow with credible plans to map and monitor all of their suppliers. Equally important is action to end exploitation and human rights abuses in the palm oil sector."
Last month, Greenpeace released a report that accused Oreo cookie maker Mondelēz International of sourcing palm oil from "rainforest destroyers." Mondelēz gets much of that supply from Wilmar International, the group said.
In the report, Greenpeace said that between 2015 and 2017, 22 of the company's palm oil suppliers destroyed more than 70,000 hectares of rainforest in Southeast Asia—an area bigger than the city of Chicago—of which 25,000 hectares was forested orangutan habitat.
BREAKING: We're delivering a giant Forest Destruction Flavor cookie to Mondelez, the maker of Oreo, at its global H… https://t.co/da4nTWPQT4— Greenpeace USA (@Greenpeace USA)1542128079.0
By Alan Knight
At the end of September, four rescued orangutans returned to their home in the rainforest after undergoing lengthy rehabilitation at International Animal Rescue's (IAR) conservation center in West Borneo, where I work as a chief executive. Amy, Kepo, Ongky and Rambo had been rescued by our Orangutan Protection Unit at various times during the previous eight years. They then joined 100 other orangutans at the center being meticulously prepared for life back in the wild by our dedicated team of vets and caregivers.
The majority of the orangutans at our center are victims of the illegal pet trade. They have all suffered terrible cruelty and neglect after being taken from the wild as babies. They likely saw their mothers being killed as they fought to protect their infants. The traumatized young orphans were then sold or kept as pets by their captors, often living as part of the family until they grew too big and strong to handle. Then they were chained or cooped up in small wooden crates and soon forgotten, left to languish in misery far from the forest where they belong.
Amy's story is a typical one. She was being kept as a pet by villagers in Jambi, Sukamarau, in Central Borneo. When our rescue team found her, she was slumped in a dark wooden cage with a heavy chain around her neck. She was thin, dirty and depressed, and her brown eyes gazed blankly at Dewi, our vet, when she approached her. Poor Amy had nothing but a filthy piece of old cloth in her cage to comfort her.
When the IAR rescue team found her, Amy was found chained by her neck in a dark wooden cage. International Animal Rescue
Amy's rescue was the first step on her journey to a new life. After spending eight weeks in quarantine, she was given a clean bill of health by the veterinary team, and her rehabilitation could begin. At 6 years old, she was too big to go to school for baby orangutans and so entered the next stage of rehabilitation at our center—forest school. Here, among others of her own kind, Amy gradually developed the skills she would need to survive in the wild. She spent her time climbing and moving around in the trees, foraging for food and building a new nest each night to sleep in. Our monitoring team gathered data on her progress, reporting that she was a fast learner, was making excellent progress and would soon be a candidate for reintroduction into the wild.
The day of her release was a joyful one. It is so uplifting to see an orangutan return to their rightful home in the forest. It makes all the team's hard work worthwhile. At the same time, however, everyone at IAR is acutely aware that our work rescuing, rehabilitating and releasing orangutans only addresses the symptoms of the problem but not the problem itself. Habitat loss and illegal hunting are the primary causes of the decline in orangutan populations.
Amy just after her release back to wild. International Animal Rescue
Rapid and relentless deforestation for industrial-scale agriculture, particularly palm oil and timber plantations, leaves orangutans without food and shelter, exposing them to hunters who kill orangutans and capture their babies to sell as pets. The apes are also in danger of coming into conflict with local people as they stray into villages and onto farmland in search of food. Fires started on an annual basis as part of land clearance operations in Indonesia are also responsible for the loss of thousands of acres of rainforest and the lives of hundreds if not thousands of orangutans.
In 2016, the Bornean orangutan joined the Sumatran orangutan on the International Union for Conservation of Nature's Red List of Threatened Species, an indication that the species is coming perilously close to extinction. Further evidence of the population's decline came in a report published in the journal Biology in February this year. Its authors concluded that the Bornean orangutan population had fallen by 148,000 between 1999 and 2015 and now stands at between 70,000 and 100,000 individuals. The numbers could fall by at least another 45,000 in the next 35 years, the conservationists predict. What, then, can be done to pull the orangutan back from the brink of extinction?
In addition to supporting the work of groups fighting to save the orangutan, we conscientious consumers can all ensure our choices and purchasing habits are not contributing to the orangutan's desperate plight. "Buyer beware," as the saying goes, More than 50 percent of groceries contain palm oil, from toothpaste and shampoo, to ice cream and pizza. And it's frankly impossible to know for sure from a label whether something has genuinely been ethically and sustainably produced.
None of us wants the orangutan to pay the price for our lifestyle choices, and therefore it's better, wherever possible, to shop locally and steer clear of items whose origins are unclear. It is, after all, better for the environment as a whole—and better for our own health—to consume products grown closer to home that don't leave a giant carbon footprint on the planet as they travel to reach us.
Further action we can all take to help our critically endangered cousin is to raise awareness among friends, family and colleagues of their plight. And raising the alarm about the threats facing the species couldn't be easier thanks to social media.
The name "orangutan" is derived from the Malay and Indonesian words orang meaning "person" and hutan meaning "forest." What a tragedy it would be to let this precious "person of the forest" vanish from the face of the Earth forever. But if we all have the will and determination to step up and prevent that from happening, I do believe we still can.
Alan Knight is the chief executive of International Animal Rescue, a UK-based animal welfare nonprofit. Alan was made an officer of the Order of the British Empire in the Queen's Birthday Honours List in 2006 for his services to animal welfare.
This article was produced by Earth | Food | Life, a project of the Independent Media Institute.
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We already know that orangutans are some of the smartest land animals on Earth. Now, researchers have found evidence that these amazing apes can communicate about past events—the first time this trait has been observed in a non-human primate.
A new study published in the journal Science Advances revealed that when wild Sumatran orangutan mothers spotted a predator, they suppressed their alarm calls to others until the threat was no longer there.
This behavior is called "displaced reference," or "the capacity to transmit information about something that is not present or about a past or future event," the authors wrote in the study. It's so rare that its only documentation in a non-human species is the dance of forager honeybees.
The way the University of St. Andrews researchers designed their experiment is hilariously charming. They draped themselves in white, spotted, patterned and tiger-stripe sheets and crawled on all fours underneath mother orangutans in Sumatra's Ketambe forest.
After spotting a #predator nearby, Sumatran #orangutan mothers temporarily withheld calling out in alarm. This beha… https://t.co/Vjvnk0fRFr— Science Advances (@Science Advances)1542387306.0
The researchers crawled for around two minutes before moving away from the orangutans' sight. Instead of making an instant cry, the primates stayed quiet for an average of seven minutes before they made their alarm calls.
"When exposed to predator models"—the researchers nonchalantly explained—"Sumatran orangutan mothers temporarily suppressed alarm calls up to 20 min until the model was out of sight."
Adriano Reis e Lameira, one of the researchers, explained to Science Magazine that the females stayed quiet in order to not draw attention.
One female "stopped what she was doing, grabbed her infant, defecated [a sign of distress], and started slowly climbing higher in the tree," Lameira said. "She was completely quiet."
"Twenty minutes passed. And then she finally did it." Once she started her warning call, it went on for more than an hour.
Since orangutans are closely related to humans, this study could provide clues about the evolution of language itself, Carel van Schaik, a primatologist at the University of Zurich in Switzerland, who was not involved with the study explained to Science Magazine.
Check out this video for more about the study:
Orangutans are the only great apes—besides humans—to 'talk' about the past www.youtube.com
Palm oil is an ingredient in many of the company's popular products, including Oreo cookies, Ritz crackers and Cadbury chocolate bars.
The report comes a day after Mondelēz announced it has excluded 12 upstream suppliers as a result of deforestation practices. The Illinois-based snack food giant started its journey to sustainable palm oil in 2009 and committed to sourcing certified sustainable palm oil (CSPO) in 2013, according to WWF's palm oil scorecard.
Despite this commitment, Greenpeace said in its report that between 2015 and 2017, 22 of the company's palm oil suppliers destroyed more than 70,000 hectares of rainforest in Southeast Asia—an area bigger than the city of Chicago—of which 25,000 hectares was forested orangutan habitat.
Map showing orangutan habitat and forest loss in Kalimantan, Indonesiafrom Greenpeace report "Dying for a cookie: how Mondelēz is feeding the climate and extinction crisis"
Mondelēz gets much of this so-called "dirty palm oil" from Wilmar International, the world's largest palm oil trader, according to the report. More than 80 percent of Wilmar's palm oil comes from third-party suppliers. Despite adopting a "No Deforestation, No Peat, No Exploitation" policy in 2013, Wilmar has failed to monitor its suppliers across all of their operations to determine whether they comply with its policy or are destroying forests, Greenpeace said.
"It's outrageous that despite promising to clean up its palm oil almost ten years ago, Mondelēz is still trading with forest destroyers," Kiki Taufik, the global head of Greenpeace Southeast Asia's Indonesia forests campaign, said in a press release. "Palm oil can be made without destroying forests, yet our investigation discovered that Mondelēz suppliers are still trashing forests and wrecking orangutan habitat, pushing these beautiful and intelligent creatures to the brink of extinction. They're literally dying for a cookie."
BREAKING: We're delivering a giant Forest Destruction Flavor cookie to Mondelez, the maker of Oreo, at its global H… https://t.co/da4nTWPQT4— Greenpeace USA (@Greenpeace USA)1542128079.0
Palm oil is the most common vegetable oil in the world and can be found in chocolate, baked goods, soaps, detergents and much more.
The report comes on the heels of Greenpeace and Iceland Foods' viral "no palm oil Christmas" commercial that was banned from UK televisions for being "too political."
Iceland's Banned TV Christmas Advert... Say hello to Rang-tan. #NoPalmOilChristmas www.youtube.com
Greenpeace is urging Mondelēz to cease ties with the Singaporean oil processing company.
"Mondelēz CEO, Dirk Van de Put, promised to offer consumers 'snacking made right.' But there is nothing right about palm oil that is produced by killing orangutans and fueling climate change," Taufik said in the press release. "This must be a wake up call to Mondelez and other household brands to take action and cut Wilmar off until it can prove its palm oil is clean. Ultimately, if big brands can't find enough clean palm oil to make their products then they need to start using less."
On Monday, Mondelēz emphasized its goal of 100 percent sustainability and transparency across the palm oil industry.
"Mondelēz International remains fully committed to driving change in the palm oil sector and today's actions against 12 upstream suppliers reflect that commitment," Jonathan Horrell, global director of sustainability at Mondelēz International, said in a press release. "We will continue to pursue existing and new initiatives that seek to drive effective change across palm oil-growing communities. The company understands that this complex challenge can only be solved through collaboration with all actors in the palm oil supply chain, from growers to suppliers and buyers, as well as local and national government and non-governmental organizations."
Rock Band Occupies Palm Oil Tanks With Activists Protesting Deforestation #Dropdirtypalmoil @reallucylawless… https://t.co/oEYp1cdEFW— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1537974431.0
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Ulet Ifansasti / Getty Images News
By Edward Davey
The world is vastly underestimating the benefits of acting on climate change. Recent research from the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate finds that bold climate action could deliver at least $26 trillion in economic benefits through 2030. This ground-breaking research, produced by the Global Commission and more than 200 experts, highlights proof points of the global shift to a low-carbon economy, and identifies ways to accelerate action in five sectors: energy, cities, food and land use, water and industry. Our blog series, The $26 Trillion Opportunity, explores these economic opportunities in greater detail.
There's a "forgotten solution" for achieving major economic, development and climate gains—transforming the way the world feeds itself and manages its land.
At this week's UN General Assembly, members of the Food and Land Use Coalition will meet with heads of state and CEOs to raise the profile of this issue and encourage greater action. They have new research to support their case. The food and land use chapter of the New Climate Economy's Global Opportunities Report sets out how decisive action on food and land use is at the heart of the inclusive growth story of the 21st century. The report finds that more sustainable food and land use business models could be worth up to $2.3 trillion, and that they're critical to delivering a more climate-secure and resilient world.
Five areas offer the most opportunity for action:
1. Avoid deforestation and close the forest frontier.
The first-order priority is to end deforestation by closing the "forest frontier" or intact forests, to development. If the world fails to protect its remaining tropical forests, keeping global temperature rise to 1.5 or 2 degrees C (2.7-3.6 degrees F)—the level the international community has agreed is necessary to prevent the worst climate impacts—becomes almost impossible.
Increased support for protected areas, indigenous peoples' rights and better land use planning and enforcement are fundamental steps. Securing indigenous rights to land tenure makes strong economic (as well as moral) sense. Further progress on the deforestation-free supply chain movement is also urgently needed, both in terms of scaling up implementation by companies that have already made commitments, as well as in bringing new companies and markets on board.
2. Increase agricultural productivity.
There are significant gains to be made in increasing agricultural productivity and ensuring greater uptake of climate-smart agriculture. Across the world, farming practices can be made much more efficient and resilient by providing training services for farmers, strengthening smallholder cooperatives and investing in state-of-the art farming techniques. The closure of the forest frontier provides farmers with the incentive to intensify their production on existing land. Reforming global agricultural subsidies, currently worth $519 billion per year, could also lead to vastly better outcomes from the farming system. For example, incentives for cattle expansion in the Amazon could instead be reformed to support investment in forest restoration or raising livestock in harmony with forests and other ecosystems.
3. Restore forests and landscapes.
There is a major economic prize to be won in restoring degraded forests and agricultural land. By allowing degraded forests to recover to natural forest, supporting agroforestry and other strategies, restoration could lead to economic gains of $35–40 billion per year within 15 years, as well as a myriad of social and environmental benefits. There are a number of measures to spur public and private sector investment in restoration, including incentives from national governments and multilateral development banks providing "first-loss guarantees" to investors committed to restoration.
4. Reduce food loss and waste.
One-third of all food produced is lost or wasted along the food chain, costing the global economy an estimated $940 billion annually and producing about 8 percent of global emissions. If food loss and waste were a country, it would rank as the world's third-largest emitter after China and the U.S.
Saving just one-quarter of the food currently lost or wasted would be equivalent to the amount of food needed to feed 870 million people annually. It also makes good business sense: Recent research found that companies investing in food loss and waste reduction saw a median benefit-cost ratio of 14:1. Coalitions such as Champion 12.3, which brings together executives from business, government and organizations, have a critical role to play here.
5. Improve diets.
A comprehensive global effort to address the double burden of malnutrition and obesity will be critical to securing better and more inclusive growth in the 21st century. Across the world, almost a billion people suffer from inadequate diets and insecure food supplies. At the same time, current trends towards diets high in processed foods, refined sugars, fats, oils and red meat have resulted in more than 2.1 billion people becoming overweight or obese. This increase in collective body mass is strongly associated with the increased incidence worldwide of chronic non-communicable diseases, especially type II diabetes, coronary heart disease and some cancers. If current trends continue, these chronic diseases are predicted to account for two-thirds of the global burden of disease. The global economic cost of obesity alone was estimated to be around $2 trillion in 2012, roughly equivalent to the global cost of armed conflict or smoking.
Public policy and private sector action can deliver major changes here, whether through the use of economic instruments such as a "sugar tax," the issuance of public health guidelines such as the Chinese government's advice on reduced meat consumption, or through innovative private-sector approaches such as The Cool Food Pledge, the Better Buying Lab or blending mushrooms into burgers.
Better Economic Growth
Action across these five areas would lead to better and more resilient economic growth. It would also make it more likely that the world will meet the Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Agreement on climate change. Despite much progress, there is still a great deal to be done—and a massive prize to be won.
Main image: A worker carries a Sumatran orangutan (Pongo abelii) as being prepared to be released into the wild at Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme's rehabilitation center on Nov.14, 2016 in Kuta Mbelin, North Sumatra, Indonesia. The Orangutans in Indonesia have been known to be on the verge of extinction as a result of deforestation and poaching. Found mostly in South-East Asia, where they live on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo, the endangered species continue to lose their habitat as a result of corporate expansion in a developing economy. Indonesia approved palm oil concessions on nearly 15 million acres of peatlands over the past years and thousands of square miles have been cleared for plantations, including the lowland areas that are the prime habitat for orangutans.
By Jason Bittel
At last count, there were 505 nonhuman primate species living in the wilds of 90 countries across the globe. That might make you think of Earth as the Planet of the Apes (plus monkeys, lemurs, tarsiers and lorises), but according to a large study published last month, those statistics are a little misleading.
In truth, just four nations—Brazil, Madagascar, Indonesia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC)—harbor 65 percent of all primate species. And nearly two-thirds of the primates living in those hot spots (we'll call them the Big Four) are facing extinction.
Primates can be loosely defined as mammals with opposable thumbs, but they come in all sizes and dispositions, from timid, one-ounce pygmy mouse lemurs to stately, 550-pound Grauer's gorillas, to drunk 12-pound vervets. And the places these animals call home are just as diverse. Let's see how the humans in the four most primate-heavy countries are managing (or failing) to save their cousins.
Big, Beautiful Brazil
That more primates—crested capuchins, dwarf marmosets, red-bellied titis, sakis, uakaris, night monkeys and so on—live in Brazil than anywhere else should come as no surprise. The South American country is nearly as large as the U.S., and within its borders lies 60 percent of the Amazon rainforest, which accounts for more than half of all the rainforest left on Earth.
Unfortunately, Brazil allowed agriculture and timber operations to clear 114 million acres of this prime primate habitat between 2001 and 2016—the largest loss of forest over that period among the Big Four. (The next closest, Indonesia, lost half as much.) Even more concerning, Brazil has recently shifted toward more environmentally exploitative government policies and looser conservation laws, which scientists suspect will lead to even more deforestation.
Mining is also threatening Brazil's primates, and not only because it's tearing up the land. A 2017 study found that the country has at least 126 dams holding back mining-contaminated water and that these structures are "vulnerable to failure in the forthcoming years." And when these dams do burst, they befoul every waterway for hundreds of miles downstream with a wave of toxic sludge. (Mining dam collapses are dangerous for non-endangered primates, too. Twenty people died in 2015 when a large mine-tailings dam collapsed on the Doce River.)
But for all of Brazil's environmental woes, the country is also full of hope. According to Russell Mittermeier, coauthor of the new study and chair of the IUCN Species Survival Commission Primate Specialist Group, Brazil is the most successful among the Big Four at maintaining its primate diversity. He attributes this to the work of the country's large community of primate conservation professionals.
Take the northern muriquis, the largest monkeys in the New World. Also known as wooly spider monkeys, they can grow to more than four feet tall, and people often hunt them for meat. Further, the large tracts of Atlantic forest they once inhabited have been sliced and diced to the point where only pockets of the monkeys remain.
But in recent decades, organizations like the Muriqui Institute for Biodiversity, the Pro-Muriqui Institute and the National Institute of the Atlantic Forest have formed to give these monkeys a boost. While northern muriquis are still critically endangered, one population has risen from just 22 individuals to at least 354 as of 2015. (For a related Brazilian primate success story, check out my earlier piece on golden lion tamarins.)
Brazil is also capable of halting its deforestation habits and has done so in the past. From 2005 to 2012, the country reduced its rate of forest loss by a whopping 80 percent.
Brazil is the architect of its own destiny, for good or ill, but as of now, Mittermeier thinks it will tip toward the good. "It's the country where we have the highest likelihood of keeping all known species and subspecies into the next century," he said.
DRC's Future Is Very Much TBD
Gorillas, chimpanzees, monkeys and the most adorable of the adorable (though a bit gross), bushbabies, all call the Democratic Republic of the Congo home—as does one of the world's fastest growing human populations. The mountainous jungles of this large central-African nation are lush, but rampant government corruption and myriad warring factions run just as thick here. Together, these factors make the DRC the most worrisome of the Big Four.
The DRC has some of the planet's most important great ape conservation areas—places like Virunga National Park, home to the mountain gorillas that Dian Fossey made famous and Kahuzi-Biega National Park, where you'll find the rare Grauer's gorilla (as few as 17,000 are thought to remain).
As in the other Big Four nations, logging and agriculture threaten the DRC's wildlife, but poaching is the biggest problem here. Almost every primate known to inhabit this country has at some point ended up for sale in its bushmeat markets—even the tiny talapoin, which weighs about as much as a teacup Yorkie. At a single market in Kisangani, the country's third-largest city, one study found more than 8,500 primates over the course of four months—including many critically endangered ones, such as the Dryas monkey and, yes, the Grauer's gorilla.
It's likely that several of the products you own are adding to the loss of primates in the DRC. The country produces more than half of the world's cobalt, which is a key component in the lithium ion batteries that power smartphones, computers and electric cars. In just the past five years, demand for cobalt to fuel these industries has tripled, and experts expect it to double again by 2020.
The cobalt mining industry brings more roads, more deforestation and more workers looking for relatively easy sources of protein into the DRC's otherwise remote forests. A study from 2017 estimated that 8 to 10 million people make a living each year at these surface mines—and that translates to a lot of primates on the plate.
While corruption and lack of government accountability are rife in the DRC, even here there is hope. A recent census of the mountain gorillas Dian Fossey studied shows that the gorilla's numbers have actually increased since 2010, making it the only great ape population on Earth proven to be on the upswing.
Madagascar's on Its Own
The African island of Madagascar has the luxury of sharing precisely zero land borders with another country. This is good news in some ways, as it means the island's wildlife is protected from violent conflicts and from poachers spilling over from neighboring countries (as happens on the DRC-Rwanda border and the Brazil-Colombia border). But islands come with their own biodiversity risks.
The landmass now known as Madagascar separated from the Seychelles and India between 84 and 95 million years ago and it boasts an array of species found nowhere else on Earth. This includes five families of primates made up of 15 different genera and 111 species and subspecies.
"Madagascar is far and away the highest major primate conservation priority in the world," said Mittermeier.
But he notes that 90 percent of its natural habitats have already disappeared, thanks to agriculture and logging over the past century. "You have all of this incredible primate diversity found nowhere else in an area about the size of three New Jerseys," he said. "And New Jersey is not a very big state."
The Malagasy government has done very little to enforce its own environmental laws. Fortunately, local communities and NGOs are taking matters into their own hands. For instance, the only way tourists can gain access to the Andasibe-Mantadia National Park—home of the indri, one of the world's largest living lemurs—is by hiring a local guide.
NGOs are also taking the reins to save the critically endangered golden-crowned sifaka. About 6,000 of these cream-colored beauties remain in the northern stretches of the island, where forest fragmentation has greatly reduced their habitat. A local Malagasy NGO known as Fanamby teamed up with Conservation International in 2005 to secure a 49,000-acre protected area for the sifaka. Their numbers continue to decline, but so long as there are protected forests, there is hope.
Indonesia Is a Mixed Bag
Last comes Indonesia, a nation of more than 17,000 islands in the Pacific. Known for its orangutans—some of which have lost more than half of their habitat over the past 16 years to palm oil plantations—Indonesia is also home to googly-eyed tarsiers, lanky gibbons and lovely little langurs.
The country also has the largest population of Muslims on Earth—which is good news for its primates for one simple reason: Primates aren't considered halal, so Muslims usually won't eat them.
But while Indonesian primates have dodged the dinner plate, they have not escaped habitat destruction. Widespread clearing of tropical forests for palm oil and timber has put many primates here on the ropes. Without their natural homes, the animals sometimes seek food and shelter near human communities, where they are viewed as garden pests and killed. Weighing up to 220 pounds, orangutans are particularly conspicuous crop raiders, and when found, they're often shot.
The endangered Javan gibbon, also known as the silvery gibbon, is also running out of room to roam. Logging has pushed these animals out of the lowlands they prefer and into higher elevations, but there's obviously a limit to how high the gibbons can go and still survive. At most, only about 4,000 silvery gibbons remain, and some scientists estimate that their habitat has been reduced by up to 98 percent in all.
Still, conservationists aren't giving up on the gibbon yet. They are about to release into the wild a half dozen silvery gibbons that were born in captivity. It's not a magic bullet, but each primate returned to the wild population helps expand genetic diversity and gives the species a tiny boost toward staving off extinction.
As to where the Indonesian government stands on primate conservation, the timbre of a recent news story is not encouraging. The country is set on a massive hydroelectric dam project and appears to be actively downplaying concerns about the effect its construction could have on Tapanuli orangutans, a species discovered just last fall and already feared to be endangered.
The Good News?
Realizing so many of our cousins face so many existential threats of our own making can be disheartening, but there is one silver lining: No primate has gone extinct in more than 100 years. (There have been some close calls, though. For instance, the Bouvier's red colobus monkey was thought to be extinct until scientists rediscovered it in 2015.)
"This is the only larger group of mammals for which we did not lose at least one species or subspecies in the 20th century," said Mittermeier. The question now is, can we make it another 100 years with our family tree intact?
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By Sara Novak
You can't protect an animal that you don't know exists. Tapanuli orangutans, for example, are found only in the Tapanuli region of Sumatra; they were only identified as a species last year, when scientists found them to be genetically different from other Bornean and Sumatran orangutans. With just 800 left, this newly discovered species is the most critically endangered ape.
It's hard to believe that with only seven great ape species on the planet—Tapanuli, Sumatran and Bornean orangutans, eastern and western gorillas, chimpanzees and bonobos—a species could have gone undiscovered until 2017. But, in fact, new research shows that many mammals still fly under the radar.
The olinguito, a carnivorous member of the raccoon family, wasn't discovered in Colombia and Ecuador until 2013. The Burrunan dolphin was found in the waters off Australia in 2011. In a new study published in the journal Ecology and Evolution, Molly Fisher and other researchers at the University of Georgia used a predictive model to conclude that 303 mammals have yet to be discovered.
Most of these unknown mammals, the researchers found, are likely in tropical regions of the world, many of which are threatened with habitat destruction. This makes discovering them a race against time before they go extinct. "If a species goes extinct before we discover it, how can we know what went wrong? If we lose a species without knowing it existed, we lose a lot of information," said Fisher.
Fisher said that she chose to study mammals because they are the most charismatic of terrestrial species, and therefore more likely to be protected. But less glamorous creatures, like plants and arthropods, are disappearing at even faster rates than mammals, which is worrying to scientists.
"We're concerned about why extinction rates are on the rise," said Fisher. "We're losing a lot of biodiversity, most of which exists in our remaining forests in places like the Amazon." Some researchers now talk about "biological annihilation," citing cascading extinctions, dwindling population sizes, and range shrinkages among vertebrate species.
Sumatran Orangutan Conservation ProgrammeMaxime Aliaga
Fisher and her team employed scientific modeling to measure discovery and extinction rates. Without direct interaction, however, it's impossible to know whether a species has disappeared completely or just hasn't been seen in a while. This occurred recently with the Guadalupe fur seal, a species found in California and Mexico that was rediscovered after years of suspected extinction.
The model used by the University of Georgia researchers is similar to one used to predict the remaining unknown number of plant species in 2011. It was constructed by counting the total number of species discovered and described by scientists from 1760 through 2010 by five year increments. "The model utilizes a statistical technique called 'maximum likelihood,' which allows scientists to approximate the total number of species that are likely to have existed in order to produce the number of descriptions actually recorded by taxonomists, scientists who classify new species," said Fisher.
As the number of such scientists has increased, so has the number of classifications accounted for in the model. The researchers also noted "taxonomic efficiency" or how good scientists are at discovering new species. Like the Tapanuli orangutan, many species once thought to be identical are, upon closer inspection, found to be genetically distinct. Dr. Michael Krützen from the Department of Anthropology at the University of Zurich was part of the team that helped discover the Tapanuli using genomic analyses from orangutan samples. He said that Tapanuli orangutans differ significantly, most notably in tooth and skull shape, from those outside the region, because their populations had been disconnected for at least 20,000 years. But with so few of them left, it's easy to see why the species wasn't discovered until recently.
Fisher and her team approximate that 5,860 mammal species currently exist. She was surprised to find that Europe and Asia had a significant number of undiscovered mammals. The model showed that 10 percent of species in this part of the world have yet to be discovered, possibly because many are located in lightly populated Siberian regions.
7 Amazing New Fish Species Discovered in 2017 https://t.co/bgbUq28XEM @wwwfoecouk @GreenpeaceUK— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1514888706.0
Reposted with permission from our media associate SIERRA magazine.