The Sumatran orangutan has never been as threatened as it is right now, says world-renowned orangutan expert and conservationist Dr Ian Singleton.
In August this year it was placed back on the list of the World’s Top 25 Most Endangered Primates at the biannual congress of the International Primatological Society held recently in Hanoi, Vietnam in response to a highly controversial new spatial planning law passed on February 12 by the government of Aceh province, North Sumatra.
The spatial plan outlines the procedures for obtaining concession permits within the boundaries of the Leuser Ecosystem which covers 2.6 million hectares of rainforest and is home to 85 per cent of the remaining wild Sumatran orangutan population as well as tigers, elephants and rhinos. The concession permits include the building of roads and clearing of vast tracks of forest for palm oil plantations.
“Whether or not we have these magnificent great apes, and Sumatran elephants, rhinos and tigers in 15 years time will depend on decisions being made today,” says Singleton. “We have to act now.”
Singleton has dedicated his life to conserving the orangutan and is the director of the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme (SOCP) and co-founder of Earth 4 Orangutans.
SOCP has been successful in taking companies who are illegally burning forests and clearing peatland to court and winning.
“We’ve got directors of companies in prison now and companies paying damages of $30 million to the Indonesian Government for destroying their forests and peat lands,” Singleton says.
He believes one of the reasons SOCP are being successful is that people are sharing this stuff on Facebook and Twitter.
“These things do influence what goes on in the world nowadays and it’s important for people to realise that,” he says. “When I started working with orangutans 20 years ago Greenpeace would criticise a company for doing something illegal in their plantation or concession and the company would just deny it and it was very hard to take it any further. Now satellite images and hotspot data on fires is free to download. You can look, measure, map, quantify and share what these companies are doing on the other side of the world before breakfast. Progressive companies are realising that and starting to look for solutions. The Round Table on Sustainable Palm Oil is one outcome from that. The bottom line is that as a consumer you have got all this access to information and the ability to use it so you have never been as powerful as you are right now. You have a voice and access to people who need to get that information.”
That includes politicians, foreign Governments and ambassadors, the European Union and Scandanavian companies because much of the investment in palm oil comes from overseas, he says.
Prior to attending the biannual congress of the International Primatological Society, Singleton climbed Mt Kilimanjaro with fellow conservationist and ape expert Ian Redmond to a bid to raise awareness of global warming and money for the Earth 4 Orangutan project. They chose Kilimanjaro because its ice cover could be gone in as little as six years.
“Indonesia is number three in the world in terms of carbon emissions behind America and China, and its producing it by chopping down and burning its forests and peat. Fifty-six per cent of all the tropical peat land (carbon) in the world is in Indonesia,” he says. “Don’t just think of this as question of just saving an orangutan. This affects everybody. We’re not lunatics or tree huggers. What we are trying to do is what everybody needs to be doing. We need to be looking at the problems and resources we have, i.e. planet earth and try to look for solutions and the bottom line is sustainability. When I started out as a zookeeper I wasn’t thinking about climate change, I was thinking ‘save the monkeys’. And I still am, but I’m saying save the monkeys because once we lose the monkeys this is really bad for all of us in many, many ways.”
Ways people can help says Singleton include donating money to organisations like Earth 4 Orangutans which rescues orphaned orangutans and reintroduces them back into the wild; boycotting palm oil or choosing to buy sustainably produced palm oil certified by the Round Table of Sustainable Palm Oil; as well as signing and sharing petitions (change.org/leuserheritage) on Facebook and Twitter, or having your say on International Day of Action #SaveLeuserEcosystem on September 22.