Wed, Dec 18, 2013 - Page 9 News List

Orangutans vanish from their forest home

Plantations are destroying the Sumatran apes’ habitat, leaving just 200 of the animals struggling for existence

By Gethin Chamberlain  /  The Observer, LONDON

This is what happened to Gokong Puntung and his mother.

The one-year-old ape — now recovering with the help of SOCP — was rescued from Sidojadi village in February. He had been captured a month earlier in the Tripa forest.

A group of fishermen spotted Gokong Puntung and his mother trapped in a single tree and unable to reach the rest of the forest without coming down. The men apparently decided to try to grab the baby in the hope of selling it. One climbed the tree, forcing the mother to fall to the ground, where another man set about her and beat her with a length of timber. In the confusion, mother and baby became separated and the fishermen were able to get away. They sold the animal for less than £6 to a plantation worker.

“We got information from people who heard an orangutan crying in one house,” SOCP vet Yenny Saraswati says. “They went in the house and found the baby orangutan in a chicken cage. The owner said he had bought it from people who had taken it from the plantation.”

It was a very unusual case: More often, the mother is killed.

“They are very good mothers — better than humans,” she says. “A lot of human mothers don’t care for their babies, but I never saw an orangutan mother leave her baby. They always hug them and don’t let them cry.”

That is why poachers tend to kill the mothers, Anto says.

“They hit it with sticks. One person uses a forked stick to hold its head and the others hit it and beat it to death. But the young orangutans they sell,” Anto adds.

The effect on Tripa’s orangutans has been disastrous. Cut off from the population on the rest of the island, they teeter on the brink of viability; experts say they really need a population of about 250 to survive long-term and, because orangutans produce offspring only once every six or seven years, it takes a long time to replenish a depleted population.

Those that remain in the forest face other dangers. Some die when the forest is burned, others starve to death as their food supply is destroyed.

If the orangutans did not already have it tough, there may yet be worse to come: Gold has been found in Aceh’s remaining forests and mining is starting.

“If there is no government effort to protect the remaining area, we will never know the orangutans here again,” Anto says. “If this continues they will be gone within 10 years.”

In response to the criticism over its use of unsustainable palm oil, Superdrug said: “Superdrug is aware of the complex issues surrounding palm oil and its derivatives, which are currently used in some of its own-brand products, and is committed to working with its suppliers to use sustainable alternatives when they become widely available.”

Estee Lauder Companies, which makes Aveda hair products, said: “We share the concern about the potential environmental effects of palm oil plantations, including deforestation and the destruction of biodiversity and habitats.”

The statement said that its palm oil (made from the pulped fruit) came from sustainable sources.

However, the company said the majority of its brands used palm kernel oil (from the crushed palm fruit kernels) and that it was working to develop sustainable supplies.

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