In the summer and autumn months of 2015, forest fires raged across Sumatra and Borneo, two of Indonesia’s largest islands and amongst the largest in the world. Both are the only natural homes left to the wild Orang-utan whose species has suffered on numerous levels as a result of the human-made fires. Humans have suffered a great deal as well; an article in The Guardian back in October describes the labelling of the wildfires as a ‘crime against humanity’. Several people died and over half a million respiratory infections were reported. Several communities have been displaced. But we have the option to speak up against the greed and recklessness that has led to such destruction. The Orang-utans do not.
Palm oil is one of the most profitable commodities in the world now, being used in a variety of food and cosmetic products, essentially as filler. The classic slash-and-burn technique to clear away old crops is used in full effect and there is little to no governmental regulation of such practices. Considering how much money palm oil brings to Indonesia and many of its inhabitants, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that a blind eye is turned to the process that has helped increase the rate of production, regardless of its inherent problems.
From a global perspective, Orang-utans have an extremely limited range. The conservation of their habitat is crucial in maintaining and even possibly increasing that range. Hunting, agricultural practices, and cultural perceptions have made it next to impossible to do this. Add the wildfires to this equation, and you have a recipe for absolute disaster. Orang-utans are struggling to survive as their homes are burned to the ground, their food being scorched from the Earth in the process, and their lungs are being filled with the same pollutants that so many humans are forced to inhale in the midst of the poisonous haze.
According to an al-Jazeera report from early November, many locals view Orang-utans as pests to be removed, or chained up for amusement or profit. I won’t go into the details of what a group of villagers did to a mother Orang-utan and her infant child. Luckily, the two were saved by International Animal Rescue from the brutal treatment they suffered from. So many more aren’t so lucky. In an environment where all living beings are struggling to survive, any encroachment from a foreign entity is looked at with malice.
The wildfires have abated with the onset of heavy rains in late October. But the resulting devastation persists to this day. Many Orang-utans have been saved, with much of the focus understandably on the survival of the females and infants. The news outlet Express reported on the rescue of a male Orang-utan who wandered onto a palm plantation, resulting in villagers repeatedly shooting at him with an airgun. Apparently, it’s common for Orang-utans to wander anywhere that fruit grows, especially during the dry season where it’s less abundant in the surrounding forests. In the aftermath of the wildfire, though, there is little forest to return to.
International Animal Rescue is on the ground in Borneo right now, working around the clock in their efforts to save as many affected Orang-utans as possible. I strongly recommend anyone reading to check out their website, http://www.internationalanimalrescue.org/orangutan-sanctuary, to see if there is anything you can do to help in this dire situation. I only spent a very brief time in Borneo, and I’m no expert on animal rescue. I do, however, believe in humanity and this is exactly what is needed in this situation. There are opportunities to donate to this cause and there are opportunities to volunteer, as well. Even if you can only do a little, like spreading this message or directing people to the website I mentioned above (to which I have no affiliation with), do it. I understand that there are many humans in need as well, all over the world. But humanity ought to extend to more than just our species. It should extend to all species who have a will to persevere, and to live. Without that extension, we’re trivializing what it means to be human and we are undermining the potential of our own species to be as good as it can be.