The Orangutan (Pongo pygmaeus and Pongo abelii) is a highly intelligent creature - one that's endangered from human-caused habitat destruction and needs our help.
The name itself is derived from Malay, Indonesian, and hutan words that translate to "person of the forest". It's aptly named - like humans, orangutans are highly intelligent animals that have been researched to develop highly elaborate nests for sleeping and to even develop sub-cultures within certain populations.
I caught up with Leif Cocks, President of The Orangutan Project, so get his take on these amazing animals and what he's doing to preserve and protect their habitat.
Kyle: Where did it all start for you? Is there a particular story or moment when your passion for conservation began that comes to mind?
Leif: My relationship with orangutans started when I was working with the big cats at a zoo. The Orangutan Keeper, who worked there for 20 years, retired and I was asked to take his place. I discovered that not only did I like orangutans - they liked me. I was able to enter the enclosures with them and do things that others keepers could not. I continued to be their keeper for 12 years and developed the understanding that orangutans are sentient, intelligent ‘persons’ whose welfare and basic ‘rights’ can only be met by living free in protected habitats. To achieve this goal and to stop the species becoming extinct, I founded The Orangutan Project.
Kyle: Tell me more about orangutans. What makes them a unique creature within their ecosystem?
Leif: They are the most intelligent beings of the planet, only next to us, that adapts to the environment by passing on culture through each generation. A self-aware being, as intelligent as a six year old child, their drive to extinction is a story of horror as they are macheted and burnt alive as an agricultural pest.
Being one of the slowest reproducing species in the world, they are highly prone to extinction. If we don't act now, we could lose them in our lifetime.
Kyle: What is it about orangutans that motivated you to work towards their protection?
Leif: I've often heard it is 'wildlife versus people’, or ‘the environment versus the economy’. Both statements are false. The rainforest not only benefits the orangutans, but all wildlife that they live with, in the most biodiverse ecosystem in the world. The rainforest also benefits indigenous communities that rely on the rainforest and local communities that rely on the ecosystem services that the rainforest supplies for sustainable agriculture.
The conversion of rainforest to unsustainable forms of agriculture, such as palm oil and pulp paper, is only economical by passing the ‘true cost of production’ onto the marginalized – often indigenous and local communities. What we really need is a sustainable economy for Indonesia and for all future generations. Should we really let a few people get rich at the expense of many others?
Kyle: What should Canadians know about orangutans and how does the conservation of orangutans affect Canadians?
Leif: As the destruction of the rainforest has caused more global warming than all the transport systems in the world combined, the protection of orangutan habitat benefits all future generations - no matter how far away from these ecosystems you are.
The destruction is fuelled by and the lion share of profits go to a few multinational companies. A trio of Australian companies have been accused of exploration that affects pristine habitat in Indonesia. Also, Canadian mining company East Asia Minerals has been at the front of controversy over its attempts to mine within the rainforest.
Kyle: What can Canadians do to help the cause?
Leif: Canadians can adopt an Orangutan. We need funds to secure and protect as much rainforest as possible. In the forest that has been destroyed, we need to rescue, rehabilitate and release the orphans into safe habitat. And if you are in Vancouver, please join me at our Canada Launch Event on October 3.