Photo: Racing Extinction
For a little orangutan named Chocolate, the future just got brighter.
Orangutans have been on decline since the mid-70s, and numbers in both Borneo and Sumatra have increasingly dropped. While poachers remain a primary culprit, the biggest danger lies with the expansion of palm oil plantations, which continue to threaten Earth’s disappearing rainforests.
“Palm oil plantations are a multi-pronged disaster,” says Wildlife Asia’s Shayne McGrath. As the organization’s conservation director for the Leuser Ecosystem, McGrath explains that the palm oil industry burst onto the scene over 40 years ago in Malaysia, then spread quickly to Indonesia, known as the palm oil capital of the world.
“Palm oil acreage worldwide increased from 15 million acres in 1990 to more than 46 million acres in 2014,” he says. “Much of this new palm oil acreage is coming at the expense of tropical forests, and Sumatra is being pushed to the edge of collapse.”
Prior to his role with Wildlife Asia, McGrath spent years traveling the southern half of the continent, working with biodiversity groups, scientists and government officials who felt the pressing need for change. While monitoring the destruction, McGrath and his team came across the Leuser Ecosystem, a protected area valued for its contributions to local wildlife. The area’s biodiversity is threatened by deforestation, and its once hidden roads are now easily accessible to poachers.
It was during these travels that McGrath came across a ray of hope in the form of a young orangutan.
“We found Chocolate while on investigation around the Tripa Peat Swamps, where some amazing legal battles were taking place centered on illegal palm oil practices,” McGrath explains. “Tripa is known for hosting the highest density of orangutans found in the wild. We knew many were disappearing into the illegal pet trade, and had been asking if anyone knew where we could see an orangutan. We were told there was one in a house up a remote rural road.”
Severely malnourished, McGrath says the ape was exposed to horrible conditions, and already a few years old. “From first meeting him, it was obvious we had to get him out of there quickly or his future wasn’t looking good at all. It was a week of wrangling with NGOs and police before he was finally handed over to the Police and Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Program.”
Four years of rehabilitation efforts would follow. In that time, Chocolate received veterinary care and proper survival training. The day finally arrived when the young ape was released back into the wild, and McGrath is confident he has what it takes to build a happy life.
“To know he’s back in the forest building nests is a massive relief,” he says. “For a little orangutan, that guy certainly has a big personality, and deserves to live free in the treetops.”
Despite a positive outcome, McGrath explains that Chocolate was one of the “lucky ones,” and not every ape who falls gets back up.
“It’s been a long road for Chocolate to regain this freedom, but many don’t make it that far,” he claims. “He’s definitely a lucky one.”
The Problem Isn’t Palm Oil, It’s People
The conflict remains a long and arduous one, as approximately 50 percent of packaged foods in America contain palm oil. According to Chelsea Matthews of the Rainforest Action Network, the purpose of palm oil is to replace the trans fats that were once prominent in today’s popular snack foods.
“The use of palm oil has already increased by nearly 500 percent in the past ten years,” she explained to Planet Experts. “It’s flavorless and very versatile – it can be used for a variety of purposes from enhancing texture, to acting as a conditioning agent, to increasing shelf life. Above all, it is cheap, but palm oil is artificially cheap because the industrial-scale palm oil plantation model is built on cheap labor and cheap land. The plantation workers facing brutal forced labor conditions, the communities whose traditional lands are being stolen, and the critical forests being bulldozed are the ones paying the price for this commodity.”
As a forest campaigner, Matthews’ work with RAN began in 2011 after a stint in Ecuador with a local environmental NGO. Her time in Latin America gave her insight into food corporations’ attitudes and control over local people and acreage. She now strives to challenge even the biggest conglomerates and their alleged disregard for ecosystems and biodiversity.
According to Matthews, PepsiCo is a heavy instigator of palm oil demand. She says that while several companies have implemented more responsible tactics over the years, Pepsi and its venture partner Indofood (the biggest food company in Indonesia and one of the largest palm oil growers in the world) repeatedly fail to make the grade.
“Companies like PepsiCo could spend a few extra pennies per package to ensure the palm oil they use is not linked to this destruction and abuse,” she claims. “Every day PepsiCo delays in taking meaningful action means more rainforests destroyed, more species pushed closer to extinction, more workers’ rights abused, and more communities impacted by palm oil production. It is clearly not acceptable.”
Shayne McGrath agrees, and urges members of the public to think twice before plunking down their money on cheap snacks.
“Every time we enter a supermarket we’re making a choice, conscious or otherwise, if orangutans like Chocolate will survive or die,” he says. “We as the consumers of this planet are responsible for the realities we see every day in Sumatra – the fires, the destruction driving extinction of the world’s most amazing and iconic species. And for what? A bag of chips or a snack bar when a piece of fruit would have been a better meal anyway? Unbelievable. Things have to change quickly, or the whole picture looks pretty grim.”