Save the orangutans, save the world

The Age: Charles Purcell: May 19, 2010

       Orang-utans are endangered as forests are cleared for palm oil.

The Prime Minister has been accused of reversing his position on several things: asylum seekers, the emissions trading scheme, schools, pink batts. But there is one promise he really should consider keeping – and it actually belongs to the bloke who had the job before him.

In 2007, former prime minister John Howard promised $500,000 over four years to help save the endangered orang-utans in Indonesian forests after meeting a young boy with a love of orang-utans. Howard suffered the usual foolish headlines about being a monkey’s uncle, but it was a noble intention.

And humans really should care about orang-utans. Last year the University of Pittsburgh released a study that claimed orang-utans may be mankind’s closest relative, sharing some 28 unique physical characteristics with them – compared with only two with chimps, previously considered our closest relative. The study was considered controversial by some, but there is little doubt that the orang-utan and the other great apes remain connected with us on the tree of life on a deep level.

In the cynical world of politics, where every announcement and decision is examined scrupulously for electoral advantage, offering to help an endangered species when Howard knew he would be held up for derision was a courageous decision.

And the world is now full of endangered species. The UN recently reported that fishing as an industry could be ruined by 2050 due to overfishing, leaving millions of fishermen unemployed. And this year’s UN Global Biodiversity Outlook described the declines in biodiversity “alarming” and that we are reaching a “tipping point” where many plant and animal species are at risk and the deforestation of the world could lead to irreversible damage to the planet.

The deforestation of the orang-utans’ environment came to light with the release by Greenpeace of a YouTube video that showed an office worker opening up a Kit Kat wrapper and biting into what he thought was chocolate, only to discover he was eating an orang-utan’s finger as his horrified colleagues watch. The video ended with the statement: “Give orang-utans a break – stop Nestle buying palm oil from companies that destroy the rainforest.” The good news is that this week Nestle said it would work with the not-for-profit group Forest Trust so its use of palm oil would not contribute to the deforestation of the orang-utan’s habitat.

As demonstrated in the powerful documentary The Burning Season, it is estimated that the equivalent of hundreds of soccer fields of rainforest are cut down every hour in Indonesia for crops such as palm oil. The sight of young orang-utans wandering the scorched earth looking for shelter and kin after the destruction of their habitat is harrowing. (Other creatures such as the delightful gibbon also face extinction due to habitat destruction. I challenge anyone to stare into a gibbon’s eyes and not be charmed by their inquisitive intelligence.)

So you could call offering to help the orang-utans a litmus test on how Australians care about our natural world.

In the past we were more intimately connected with the birds and beasts of our world, but today humans have largely become distanced from nature. We are too busy listening to directions from our GPS systems to glance at the wonder of the world outside.

Our food is brought to us prepared from farms where the average city dweller has never visited. We call the “possum man” in to get rid of possums by any means necessary when one of them dares to scuttle on our roof. We resent Sydney’s bats crapping on our cars even if the spectacle of them flying over the city at night is magnificent. We run past the animal displays at the Royal Easter Show on the way to the showbag pavilion. “Tree ninjas” work in the middle of the night illegally assassinating trees that block million-dollar harbour views. Spikes are spread on rooftops across the city to deter birdlife. We resent the noble, long-beaked ibises that gather in parks at lunchtime looking for food, ignoring the fact that we have a hand in the destruction of their normal water habitats they normally reside in. The colonies of wild rabbits that have taken up residence underneath the Harbour Bridge delight locals — providing a welcome glimpse of nature in the steel and concrete city — but council plans to wipe them out.

Sometimes takes a David Attenborough to help us re-discover the joy of nature or the surprise birth of a baby elephant nicknamed Mr Shuffles. The reaction to James Cameron’s world of Avatar may seem slightly corny, but it does suggest that we continue to have a profound longing for a greater connection to nature, one that cannot be replaced by iPods and plasma screen TVs.

With the government’s abandonment of the emissions trading scheme, it could at least honour Howard’s promise to help the orang-utans. It would demonstrate much heart and prove that we care about things apart from national broadband schemes, real estate and mining.

In fact, Australian can contribute to the global emissions cause by funding the Indonesians not to cut down their forests during their annual burning season, which helps make Indonesia the world’s third-largest carbon emitter. This may be more cost effective than attempting to compensate domestic energy concerns for their reductions in carbon emissions.

Save the forests, save the orang-utans – and help save our world.

Charles Purcell is a Fairfax writer.


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Orangutans are endangered and at risk of extinction. Habitat destruction results in hundreds of orphaned orangutans, who rely on our care every year. You can help by adopting one. Their dedicated ‘nannies’ teach them everything they need to know for when it’s time to release them back to the wild. You can follow their progress through Forest School.

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