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Earth Hour Header 2014
SAVING THE ORANGUTANS
When I found Max, he couldn’t walk. He was disorientated, terrified, and the burns to his feet and body were too severe. He didn’t make a lot of noise as I perched him upon my back, but he clung to me tightly, fingers wrapped around my arms and shoulders, the same way babies cling to their mothers. I was concerned about the amount of smoke he’d inhaled, and worried about the damage his burns may cause. But as I made my way through the smoky, burning forest, my biggest concern was his survival.
There’d been a terrible fire near Tanjung Puting National Park in Borneo, and land had been destroyed. It was strange for that time of year, but fires like it had become all too common. Local farmers, like many before them, had attempted to clear a segment of forest for crops, but their flimsy precautions were no match for the dry conditions, and the fire had raged out of control, burning through the vulnerable habitat of endangered orangutans like Max.
As tears rolled down my cheeks, I held Max’s hand across my chest and pushed through the smoke and debris, watching as plant life and smaller species perished in the flames. I begged him to fight, to find the strength to push through.
But it was too late.
Succumbing to his injuries, Max lay dead across my shoulders. I stopped for a minute; angry an innocent creature had been stripped from the earth without the decency of being spared his suffering. I wished he’d had something left to give, anything at all, to fight for a life he deserved to live.
But the truth is he’d been fighting all his life.
As an orangutan in the Indonesian forest, Max faced considerable daily challenges just to stay alive. Several hundred orangutans just like him are illegally hunted and trapped for the international pet trade, and many more are displaced and killed through deforestation - a process that sees forests logged and converted to agriculture and plantations which are built to produce palm oil, cocoa, acacia, rice and subsistence crops found in butter, cooking oil, shampoo and ice-cream. Though conservation attempts exist to mediate these issues, another threat has emerged for the orangutan: climate change.
Usually associated with marine life and polar bears, climactic change is a constant worry for the conservation of land mammals like the orangutan. In Indonesia’s unforgiving climate, rising temperatures, drought and illegal logging dry out the orangutan’s forest home, making the species’ habitat susceptible to fires that burn viciously through their homes and food supply. Animals like the orangutan, who cannot survive in cleared forests, are forced out of their homes toward human settlements in search of food and shelter. Considered a pest, an orangutan caught trespassing on farm or plantation land is trapped, beaten and killed on site.
Approximately 12,000 orangutans have been killed in perpetuated fires since the year 1983. Scientists fear the drier climactic conditions increasing in Indonesia will encourage the spread of fires and accelerate the presence of the climate change killer, leaving staggering numbers of orangutans displaced and orphaned.
Without immediate mediation, it’s thought that forest cover in Borneo will be as little as 32 percent in the next few years, a direct result of exploitive and unnecessary habitat fragmentation. But despite extensive reports, documentaries and information made available by conservation groups, the international public still fails to understand the connection between human impact and climate change, putting vulnerable species at risk of extinction.
And until human beings prioritize the conservation of energy and habitats, orangutans like Max will continue to perish.
In order to save orangutans, we must first save their forest. Education and awareness strategies, like those implemented by the WWF’s ‘Orangutan Conservation Strategy’, are vital in the quest to correct the indifference to the survival of the orangutan. By encouraging the public to reduce carbon emissions and promote clean energy and consumer responsibility, these initiatives seek to protect and restore the orangutan’s habitat and increase the percentage of protected area.
When sustainable forestry and agriculture is brought to fruition, the welfare of the orangutan and other species affected by deforestation and climate change will benefit from a transformed and responsible consumer market, whose mutual symbiosis with biodiversity compliments the natural world.
With the number of orangutans estimated to decrease by more than 50% over the next 40 to 50 years, the need to act has never been greater. Find out how to support clean energy and habitat restoration and make a clean energy pledge.
Elissa Sursara is a conservationist, documentary filmmaker and environmental writer. Follow Elissa on Twitter @ElissaSursara