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Orangutans: Palm oil industry still threatens the lives and habitat of ‘people of the forest’

The New York Times reports:

The men came at Hope and her baby with spears and guns. But she would not leave. There was no place for her to go.

When the air-gun pellets pierced Hope’s eyes, blinding her, she felt her way up the tree trunks, auburn-furred fingers searching out tropical fruit for sustenance.

By the end, Hope’s torso was slashed with deep lacerations. Multiple bones were broken. Seventy-four pellets were lodged in her body. Her months-old baby had been ripped away.

Hope, who was named at a rehabilitation center, is a Sumatran orangutan — a critically endangered animal that scientists warn could be the first major great ape species to go extinct. As jungle and swamp are cleared for palm oil plantations, orangutans, whose name means “people of the forest” in Malay, are losing the very habitat that gives them their identity.

All around the Indonesian island of Sumatra, charred landscapes of blackened tree stumps and singed earth attest to the devastation wrought by humans.

“Twenty thousand hectares are cleared and a couple trees are left and the orangutan looks around and says, ‘What happened to my forest?’” said Ian Singleton, the director of the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Program.

Two nations, Indonesia and Malaysia, provide the world with more than 80 percent of the palm oil used in everything from biofuel and cooking oil to lipstick and chocolate. Last September, amid concerns over diminishing habitat for endangered species and dangerous carbon emissions from mass burnings to clear land, Indonesia stopped issuing new licenses for palm oil plantations.

But as Hope’s plight shows, directives issued in air-conditioned government offices can mean little in poor villages. The global appetite for palm oil is still voracious. [Continue reading…]

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