Today I spent my day packing for another trip. I am heading off to Borneo and Sumatra in Indonesia to photograph one of the most wonderful animals that I have ever met – the wild orangutan. In Malay, orangutan means “man or person of the forest”. There are two species of orangutan, the Sumatran orangutan (Pongo abelii) and the Bornean orangutan (Pongo pygmaeus). While both have shaggy reddish fur, Sumatran orangutans have longer facial hair and are slightly darker in color. Scientists believe that the Sumatran orangutans have closer social bonds than their Bornean cousins. Bornean orangutans are more likely to descend from the trees to move around on the ground. While both are endangered, the Sumatran orangutan is on the IUCN’s critically endangered red list.
Many Americans don’t know that around 100,000 fires have been burning rainforests in Borneo and Sumatra since July. Schools were closed and more than 6,000 people suffered from acute respiratory infections. The fires were intentionally set by palm oil plantations to clear areas away in order to plant more palms. Due to lack of rains, the fires have been burning out of control for months destroying precious habitat of the orangutans and other animals. Much of the forested areas in Indonesia and Malaysia are on tropical peat soil which is so carbon-rich that it burns forever once it starts going. Lack of rain and intentional draining of the peatlands by the palm plantations has contributed to these fires. Peat soil stores enormous amounts of carbon. Clearing and draining these swampy peatlands leads to heat-trapping emissions for years. The recent fires have torched the peatlands and have emitted about 1.4 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents.
Palm oil is cheap. It is used in thousands of products that people use every day, from baked goods, to cosmetics to household cleaning products. There is a huge demand for this product. Indonesia and Malaysia, who have large tropical forests, are the dominant producers of palm oil in the world today. Many animals are being driven toward extinction as their natural habitat is being converted into massive oil palm plantations. The orangutan, the Sumatran tiger, rhino, elephant, sun bear are just a few species that live in Borneo and Sumatra.
And, I am sorry for the gloomy blog – I will lighten it up in my next blog, I promise. I just need to get this story out to everyone. It weighs so heavy on my heart. These orangutans are precious. There are various studies about this great ape that say that we humans share somewhere between 96% and 98% of the same DNA. We cannot risk losing them….
Last comment: Please look on labels of products that you buy for palm oil. We can all make a difference…..thanks everyone!