Last week a fellow blogger, Debra Purdy Kong, alerted her readers to the fact that August 12 was World Elephant Day. Being someone who is very concerned about the number of the world’s animals whose survival is endangered and even critically endangered, I immediately googled “world animal days” to look for Days for more animals deserving of recognition and protection. My two favourite animals, both of which are endangered due to climate change and/or destruction of habitat, have world days that have already past for this year. World Tiger Day was July 29 and International Polar Bear Day was February 27; their shoutouts from Robby Robin will have to wait until next year.
However, I immediately noticed that August 19 – today – is World Orangutan Day! Another animal whose existence is endangered thanks to destruction of their habitat. Let’s take a look at the story of how the heavy use of palm oil in items ranging from cosmetics and shampoos to baked goods has impacted the existence of the orangutan.
From Orangutan Outreach:
To recognize the most iconic victim of the palm oil industry, International Orangutan Day has been set for August 19th, EVERY YEAR! The aim of this campaign is to help encourage the public to take action in preserving this amazing species.
From 1992-2000, the population of the Sumatran orangutan is considered to have declined by more than 50%. Estimates suggest there are as few as 6,500 Sumatran orangutans in the wild.
The Bornean orangutan population fell nearly 43 percent in the past decade, from an estimated 35,000 in 1996 to 20,000 in 2006. Since these studies were done, deforestation rates have continued to climb which means the actual populations could be well below these.
The name “orangutan” literally translates into English as “person of the forest”. It comes from Malay and Bahasa Indonesian orang (person) and hutan (forest).
Orangutans are extremely intelligent creatures who clearly have the ability to reason and think. Their similarity to us is uncanny. Baby orangutans cry when they’re hungry, whimper when they’re hurt and smile at their mothers. They express emotions just like we do: joy, fear, anger, surprise… it’s all there. If you take a few minutes and watch an orangutan, you’ll swear they’re just like us. And they kind of are…
In prehistoric times, orangutans lived throughout Asia– roaming as far north as China. Today deforestation and the spread of humans have limited the untouched rainforest to a few remaining areas in Borneo and Sumatra [parts of Indonesia]. It is only on these two islands that there are large enough forest areas to sustain a viable breeding population of orangutans. But even here the forest is rapidly disappearing. During the last 50 years their habitat has been eaten away by urban growth, plantations and farmland. The spreading of oil palm plantations into deforested land – unless it is stopped – could spell the end of all wild orangutans…
Orangutans are the only non-human great apes left in Asia, but due to all the threats against them their chances of survival are quickly diminishing.
Why are orangutans considered the most iconic victim of the palm oil industry? Not only is palm oil bad for the environment – and a major cause of climate change – but it is also the leading cause of orangutan extinction. It is estimated that 1,000 to 5,000 orangutans die every year as oil palm plantations take over their habitat. Indonesian rainforests are cut down for one reason only, to plant oil palm trees, which can only be grown in tropical climates; Indonesia and Malaysia now account for 85% of the world’s palm oil production.
It turns out that palm oil is everywhere, in nearly everything, without us even realizing it. It’s now the most widely used vegetable oil in the world, bar none. Half the packaged food products found on supermarket shelves now contain palm oil, including all manner of baked goods, such as cookies, bread, and potato chips (gasp, don’t tell me this!), as well as in chocolate and milk for vitamin enhancement. It’s used extensively in cosmetics and everyday items such as soaps, shampoos, detergents, and toothpaste, not to mention as a biofuel. And we never even know what’s in what we buy, we just buy the products. Canadians found this out recently when we wondered why our butter didn’t soften when we left it out on the counter; the explanation was that palm oil had been added to the cattle feed in order to make the dairy cows more productive. Good grief. It’s time for all this to change.
In another era, the oil from sperm whales was used for similar purposes … until there were hardly any of those magnificent marine mammals left in the oceans. Why do we never learn? If you have a chance, speak out about reducing industries’ use of palm oil and help save the orangutans from needless extinction.
So why, you ask, did I include mosquitos in the title of this post? Well, it turns out that tomorrow, August 20, is World Mosquito Day. Can you imagine more of a contrast?! Don’t worry, this day was not established to celebrate the mosquito and encourage its protection. It has been observed since the 1930s in honour of Sir Ronald Ross’s discovery in 1897 that the anopheles mosquito is what transmits malaria to humans. Needless to say, that discovery was a game changer, bringing about important steps in containing the spread of malaria.
Mosquitos continue to be a scourge all over the world, from their ability to drive people in northern climes absolutely frantic in the summer with their swarming and biting to the many terrible diseases they carry, from malaria to dengue fever to yellow fever to zika and more. And there is absolutely no “concern” that the mosquito may become endangered. No matter what damage we do to their environment. Not at all. If only.
So, on this World Orangutan Day, give some thought to how we as individuals can voice concern about the ubiquitous yet largely hidden use of palm oil and its related destruction of tropical rainforest and orangutan habitat.
And tomorrow, on World Mosquito Day, take the time to be thankful for all the health workers, researchers, and aid workers who work tirelessly to protect vulnerable populations from the deadly diseases carried by the dreaded mosquito.