Burning forests to make way for plantations to support the world’s insatiable demand for palm oil is one of the main causes of the astonishing decline in numbers of this species
Orangutans will be extinct from the planet within 10 years unless action is taken to preserve forests in Indonesia and Malaysia where they live, a conservation charity has warned.
The Bornean orangutan was officially listed as critically endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) last month, joining the only other kind, the Sumatran orangutan, in that classification.
In just 25 years, more than a quarter of Indonesia’s forests – 76 million acres, an area almost the size of Germany – have disappeared.
One of the main reasons is to clear land to make way for palm oil plantations. The oil is used to make a vast array of different consumer products from crisps, pizza, noodles and donuts to toothpaste, shampoo and biodiesel.
Earlier this year Greenpeace accused major brands such as Pepsico, Johnson & Johnson and Colgate-Palmolive of failing to make sure their products did not contain palm oil grown on deforested land.
Alan Knight, chief executive of the charity, International Animal Rescue (IAR), which runs a rescue centre in Borneo, warned the orangutan was now on the “precipice of extinction”.
“If the current destruction of the rainforest continues, then I have absolutely no hope that any orangutans will remain in the wild,” he said.
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Asked how long they might survive, Mr Knight said: “I would probably say 10 years if we cannot stop the destruction. I think the Sumatran will go before then if they don’t sort out the situation they are in.”
“It’s a real struggle and we are losing the battle.”
Forest fires occur naturally but some are started illegally in order to open up the land to palm oil plantations.
“The fires produce quite a good excuse … all of a sudden this area they wanted to produce palm oil on, it’s useful for nothing [after being burned], so they end up planting palm oil on it,” Mr Knight said.
Last year he said an area the size of “Kent, Sussex, Hampshire, Dorset and half of Devon” combined was burned in just three months.
Even the charity’s rescue centre, where they take orangutans who have been driven starving and terrified from the forests, was damaged by one fire.
They take in animals like “Mama Anti” and her baby who were found close to death last year and have since been returned to the wild. However Mr Knight said he feared that this might not be possible in the future.
“What keeps me awake at night is whether there is going to be a forest for use to release them into,” he said.
Last month, the IUCN said Bornean orangutan populations were declining “as the forests they live in are turned into oil palm, rubber or paper plantations, and others are killed by humans”.
Erik Meijaard, a member of the IUCN’s primate specialist group, said in a statement last month: “As orangutans are hunted and pushed out of their habitats, losses to this slow-breeding species are enormous and will be extremely difficult to reverse.”