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Wild orangutans are found on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo, where they spend most of their time high in the treetops. These impressive great apes depend on the diverse fruits and plants of the rainforest to survive, but illegal logging and the conversion of natural forests to oil palm plantations has destroyed much of their habitat. As a result, Sumatran orangutans (Pongo abelli) are currently listed as critically endangered with fewer than 7,000 remaining in the wild, while the number of Bornean orangutans (Pongo pygmaeus) has plummeted over the past two decades from 300,000 to less than 55,000 today.
Research teams working in Indonesia and Sumatra have been studying the ecological and biological needs of the orangutan for nearly two decades. The Philadelphia Zoo has joined the efforts of the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme (SOCP) and the Tuanan Orangutan Research Project to protect this elusive primate.
In conjunction with advocating for orangutan-friendly land use policies and increased enforcement of logging and development restrictions, SOCP has been using conservation drones to identify areas with illegal logging and reporting it to the authorities. They have also been rescuing orangutans from high risk areas and rehabilitating them in a rescue center until they are prepared to return to the wild, where they are released in a safer location.
The coastal peat swamp forests of Tripa are being relentlessly logged and converted for palm oil plantations despite the fact that they’re home to some of the highest densities of critically endangered orangutans in Sumatra.
Palm oil is the world’s most widely produced vegetable oil. It can be found in approximately 50% of the packaged foods we eat as well as in body lotions, soaps and shampoos, cleaning products, laundry detergents and cosmetics.
Forest clearing to make way for oil palm plantations often destroys valuable habitat, displaces wildlife and negatively impacts local communities. Even more far reaching are the carbon emissions released when forests and peatlands are cleared and burned.
Today, the rapid increase in this type of non-sustainable palm oil production across Borneo and Sumatra is one of the greatest threats to orangutans and a significant contributor to global climate change.
Photos credits: PanEco/YEL
The “Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO)"—a not-for-profit association that unites palm oil industry stakeholders such as palm oil producers, processors and traders; consumer goods manufacturers; retailers; and environmental and nature conservation organizations—is working to develop and implement global standards for “certified sustainable palm oil (CSPO).” In other words, palm oil that’s grown in ways that don’t destroy habitat and threaten wildlife and local communities.
But there is still much work to be done. The UNLESS Campaign for Sustainable Palm Oil is building a growing community of advocates for orangutans who are working to ensure that the “Principles and Criteria” used to guide the RSPO’s certification process are as rigorous as possible; and that manufacturers that have joined the RSPO and committed to source sustainable palm oil by 2015 follow through on this important commitment.
Dr. Serge Wich, Professor in Primate Biology at Liverpool John Moores University and Lian Pin Koh of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, have developed a powerful conservation tool.
“Conservation Drones” are remote control airplanes outfitted with a combination of still and video cameras that can be carried around and launched from small open spaces. Using drones makes it easier to detect orangutans and orangutan nests high in the treetops and to collect more accurate data on how oil palm plantations and illegal logging are impacting their habitat.
Before drones, researchers would have to pay for expensive satellite images or pricey Ultralight flights to get a quick snapshot of wildlife activity. Now those same researchers can gather up to the minute data and use it to determine how best to protect orangutans.
The Zoo works with the Conservation Drone project to bring to life the impact our daily choices have on orangutans living a world away and to inspire change.
Dr. Meredith Bastian, the Zoo’s Curator of Primates, spent seven years working with wild orangutans in Indonesia. During her years in the field, she collected behavioral, botanical and genetic data at the Tuanan Field Station and compared it with data collected at her own field site, Sungai Lading. She also participated in the training and management of Indonesian field assistants at three field sites and conducted extensive research on the behavior, genetics and reproduction of wild orangutans. Much of her research continues to be published together with the work of her colleague, Prof. Dr. Carel van Schaik, director of the Tuanan Orangutan Research Project in Indonesia.
The Philadelphia Zoo is proud to be partnered with Seventh Generation in our efforts to save orangutans. As leaders in environmental stewardship, Seventh Generation has been setting the green standard for their colleagues and customers for more than twenty years.
Through our partnership we’re working together to support orangutan field research, drive the market for certified sustainable palm oil and engage our audiences in the UNLESS Campaign for Sustainable Palm Oil.
We’ve also created the Green Ambassadors Orangutan Project, a program linking Green Woods Charter School students in Philadelphia with students attending the Sustainability Academy at Lawrence Barnes School in Burlington, Vermont. Together these children will learn how sustainable palm oil can benefit people and wildlife and become “agents of change” by raising awareness and driving the market for sustainable palm oil.
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