Saturday, September 1, 2012

Requiem for an Ape – Sumatra’s vanishing orangutans.

Bohrok, Gunung Leuser National Park : For almost an hour, the Orangutan sat forlornly on the feeding platform. His expression improved slightly when he saw Mas Ota walking up the hill carrying a bucket of milk and a bag of bananas. He pounded on the wooden floor with both his arms and hooted his appreciation when Mas Ota threw a bananaat him. A few minutes later, more orang-utans emerged from different directions of the rain-soaked forest. A mother with an infant on her belly slid in graciously from the canopy above. A solitary young male swung in silently and dropped lightly on the feeding platform. A brooding older Orang utan hung on to a branch far away choosing not to join the party but watch from a distance at the Bohorok Orangutan rehabilitation center in Indonesia’s famous Gunung Leuser National Park, west of Medan in Sumatra.
Sumatran Orangutans (Pongo abelii) are listed as critically endangered species of great apes by the World Conservation Union, the United Nations and other agencies. There are only about 7000 of them left in the rapidly disappearing rainforests on the island of Sumatra. Bornean orangutan (Pongo pygmaeus) have fared slightly better and their numbers in the wild are pegged at about
35000 according to conservative estimates.

The Bohrok center is now in disrepair and the rehabilitation program established in 1970s, primarily to help young animals rescued from pet bazaars and burning forests learn how to adapt to life in the jungle, temporarily discontinued.

According to Mas Ota, a volunteer at the center for 15 years, many of the orangutans keep coming back to the center’s feeding platform out of sheer habit during their daily 1-2 km leisurely jaunt through the forests. A local forest conservation group is now running the center and is able to provide for the upkeep of the center from visitors fees.

According to many Indonesian conservationists putting orangutans back in the forest was not as simple as it sounded, nor as successful as might have been hoped. But the fact that once rescued, confiscated or found, the orangutans needed human help to adapt back to their natural surroundings cannot be faulted.

Apparently Bohrok’s goal was not simply to save a few orangutans from a life of domesticity, but to use the orangutans as an appealing symbol for the need to conserve the habitat that is home to Indonesia’s wildlife.

The sheer scale of biodiversity makes Indonesia’s rainforests one of the most important ecosystems on the planet. Rivaling Brazil in terms of biodiversity, 31.1 % of all species are endemic to Indonesian archipelago, consisting of 38000 species of plants, 1531 species of birds, 35 species of primates, 515 species of mammals including the Sumatran Tiger, Rhinoceros and Elephant, all of which are on critically endangered list.

The numbers of orangutans have been declining for years as human beings cut down the trees of the rain forest to grow rice to feed their families and make palm oil and rubber tree plantations. Some of the palm oil is used for products in the west like chocolate, ice-cream, toothpaste and cosmetics and more recently as source of biodiesel, but a large quantity of it is imported by India and China to adulterate cooking oil.

Orangutans are also killed to protect the crops and plantations and to acquire infants to sell as illegal pets. The trade of illegal orangutans sold as pets is profitable by Indonesian standards. An infant orangutan can fetch up to five hundred dollars in Jakarta, and thirty thousand dollars in the United States. Tourists buy their skulls as souvenirs.

Over two thirds of the Orangutan habitat has already been destroyed and the remaining habitat even, within the sprawling national park, is under terrific pressure from logging, mining and forest fires as well as fragmentation by roads.

Thousands of Orangutans don’t reach adulthood due to this relentless human disruption. The rapid conversion for tropical forest and peat land swamps into palm oil plantations in response to international demand in the last decade, according to some UN scientists, could lead to irreparable damage to orangutan habitat by 2012.

When I shifted the attention of my telephoto lens to a pack of leaf monkeys that had decided to join the party, I sensed a presence towards my left and noticed a sub-adult male orangutan clutching onto a cup gazing at me with great curiosity.

As I looked up from the viewfinder he made a sign that I immediately understood. He wanted me to take his pictures. I smiled back and he made a sign as if to say hurry-hurry. I was delighted and more than ready to indulge him. I had heard stories about their intelligence and communication capacity and here I was communicating with a handsome specimen of the species posing with a cup of milk in his hands.

Orangutan’s hands are similar to human hands with four long fingers and an opposable thumb, ditto their feet have four long toes and opposable big toe. Orangutans can grasp things with both their hands and feet and are known to use found objects as tools, for example they use leaves as umbrellas to keep the rain from wetting them and also use leaves as cups to help them drink water.

In fact, as I discovered later, two orangutans at Miwlaukee County Zoo have been playing with Ipads in their giant, gentle palms. They even have their favourite apps, often spending quite a bit of time finger painting with DrawFree, watching television shows and even playing games.

In the wild, Orangutans live a more solitary lifestyle than other great apes. Spending nearly all of their time in the trees, most of the day is spent feeding, resting and moving between nesting sites. They start the day feeding for 2-3 hours in the morning. Fruit makes up 65-90 % of orangutan’s diet. They rest during midday and when evening arrives they begin to prepare their nest on tree branches for the night in which they curl up and sleep.

Male Orangutans play almost no role in raising the young. Females are primary caregivers for the young and are also agents of socialization for them. Infant orangutans are completely dependent on their mothers for the first two years of their lives. The infant doesn’t even break physical contact with its mother for the first four months and is carried on her belly.

Watching the infant clutching on to his mother in front of me, I could see how the ‘cute-factor’ of young orangutan must have made them irresistible as pets, a fad that caught on in the 1960s when hundreds of orangutans were kept by wealthy Indonesians and Malaysians as status symbol. Most had left martyred mothers behind in Borneo or Sumatra.

But the real cost was much higher. Often both mother and infant were killed in the ‘collection’. The orangutan traders first had to separate a baby from its mother.

Nobody discovered a more efficient technique than Alfred Russell Wallace’s. “We found it to be a rather large one, very high up on a tall tree,” the great naturalist wrote. “At the second shot it fell rolling over, but almost immediately got up again and began to climb. At the third shot it fell dead. This was also a full grown female, and while preparing to carry it home, we found a young one face downwards in the bog. This little creature was only about a foot long, and had evidently been hanging to its mother when she first fell. Luckily it did not appear to have been wounded, and after we had cleaned the mud out of its mouth it began to cry out, and seemed quite strong and active.”

Obviously much of orangutan’s personality is an ape one based on millions of years of genetic inheritance. In fact, on the very day I was in Bohrok, on 26th January, 2011, an international team of researchers announced that they had successfully decoded the genetic sequence of Susie, a female Sumatran orangutan from Texas zoo, along with a few of her kin in the wild. The sequenced genomes of this great ape and her kin, our most distant living relatives in the hominid family, evolved more slowly than that of chimps and humans, the team found.

By analyzing certain variations in the DNA sequences, the researchers also concluded that the Bornean and Sumatran species diverged about 400,000 years ago. Since the split, the inhabitants of Sumatra became more genetically diverse than Borneo’s residents, despite their smaller population size.

But despite this knowledge the reality is inescapable. The species are dying. The extinction of Orangutan, especially the Sumatran orangutan in next 50 years is inevitable. The facts are plain.

I had, in my last five years, been campaigning to protect the last remaining rainforests of Indonesia and experienced first hand the devastation caused by rapidly expanding palm oil plantations. I have walked through deliberately started forest fires. I was shown but not allowed to photograph a burnt corpse of an orangutan. I had flown over the gigantic network of drainage system that was slowly wiping out peat land forests, the natural habitat of these orangutans.

Observing the orangutan mother and her infant at play I realized how much our species resemble each other. After all these primates are along with chimpanzees, bonobos and gorillas – the great apes – our closest animal relatives.

We share at least 97 % of our DNA with orangutans and the resemblance doesn’t end there. In the way they express themselves, in using tools, in solving problems, even in some of the aspects of the earliest linguistic abilities. The resemblance is complete in the way both humans and orangutans need creature comforts and can be creative in finding them.

Primatologist, Carel Van Shlack of University of Zurich discovered for example, that orangutans make what appears to be a leaf doll that they take to bed with them, just as human beings would. They also decorate their nests with a row of neatly arranged twigs.

The bucket of milk was empty, the bananas had disappeared and after a while the orangutans slowly started disappearing themselves. Mas Ota told me that the orangutans never stop in the same spot to feed for more than a couple of hours.

And anyway it was now time for them to go higher up in the canopy to start making their nests to rest for the night.

I wonder if orangutans had the ability to dream. And if they did, what did they dream about or is their sleep only filled with nightmares. Memories of burning forests, of being separated from their dead mothers, of cages and human cruelty. I wondered if they were able to dream a dream where there was an end to the relentless greed of the human species, whether they dreamed a dream of a never- ending paradise forest.

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