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How to save orangutans

Green Lifestyle online

We chat with a true hero who has committed much of his life to saving orangutans affected by the palm oil crisis.

Leif Cocks from The Orangutan Project

Leif Cocks from The Orangutan Project.

Credit: The Orangutan Project

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Leif Cocks is the founder and president of The Orangutan Project, a not-for-profit, non-partisan organisation that works toward the protection of orangutans in Indonesia. He tells us here about his life’s work, the issues facing the people and animals of Indonesia, and how we can get involved to help save this amazing species from extinction.

How long have you been working with orangutans, and in what capacity?
I’ve been working with orangutans for 27 years; rescuing them, raising their babies, reintroducing them back in to the wild, and tracking them. My masters research was about orangutan welfare, but what I do now is work to help orangutans in a number of different ways. I do what it takes to help save the species from extinction and – hopefully – save individual animals from being killed.

In what ways are orangutans affected by the palm oil industry?
The main issue for orangutans is that their forest is disappearing for our short-term greed. Although it's illegal to create new plantations by Indonesian law, big business corrupt the law to either access land illegally, or to access it through illegal permits – mainly through corrupt politicians.

It just happens that palm oil is the most productive crop at the moment, so that’s what is usually planted once forests are illegally destroyed in South-east Asia. But if demand for palm oil disappeared tomorrow then certainly something else would be put on it. It’s really about big business gaining short-term profit by destroying the forest, and then replacing it with unsustainable forms of agriculture that make the land unviable in the long run. Unfortunately, this is common in countries like Indonesia and Malaysia, where the economic situations are so bad right now.

Money does in a sense 'grow' on trees there, so simply by getting access to land, people can make a lot of money. Rainforest soil is very nutrient-poor, but burning helps to release nutrients into the soil. Once the rainforest trees are cleared from land, the remaining leaf litter is often burnt, killing wildlife or driving animals into unsuitable areas.

Obviously the destruction of the forest is driving orangutans to extinction. But extinction is not a clinical scientific process – there is also the individual story of horror, of how these animals are butchered as the forests are cleared. About six thousand orangutans are killed each year.

If orangutans continue to live near a plantation where they were once living in a forest, the animals are usually killed as an 'agricultural pest'. They're usually killed in intensely inhumane ways; such as by machete’ing them to death or by pouring petrol on them and setting them alight.

Is there an alternative livelihood for local people that live in and around these areas?
The plantation owners try to convey that it’s wildlife versus people, or the economy versus the environment – all those are not true. It really is about a few big, greedy companies destroying the environment for short-term gain. Like I mentioned before, none of the agricultural practices in these areas are sustainable. Palm oil particularly so.

So, the issue is not wondering what the alternative is; the alternative is to leave the forest intact. That is the best economic solution in the long-term. The local communities benefit a lot more by having the forests intact, as they continue to have ways of gaining a living out of the forest, and working around the forests in a sustainable way which enables them to become prosperous. That’s not what happens when palm oil plantations take over, because the big companies take all the land, they spoil the fisheries, they destroy all the water sources, and they often will only employ people from the parent island Java, not the local communities. And, when the locals do get employed, they are normally involved in activities such as child labour and slave labour – it is horrific.

What the big companies do is they impoverish people. There is no economic benefit to the people of Indonesia, nor to the Indigenous communities because they lose all of their land. The women get driven off to brothels, and the men end up begging on the streets. Plantations are not good for the local communities, and it’s not good for future generations who lose their economic livelihood because this agriculture will destroy the land. Global warming is also caused by the destruction of forests, so future generations around the world will suffer because of this short-term greed.

Aren't there ways of obtaining palm oil that are considered sustainable?
The example of sustainable palm oil is a misnomer in my view. It doesn’t exist. Palm oil on an agricultural scale destroys the land. It saps all the nutrients and micro-nutrients from the soil. Rainforest soil, as any geography student could tell you, is poor. All of the nutrients are in the trees, which are removed for monoculture plantations. Palm oil trees extract all of the micro-nutrients and nutrients from the soil and they have to keep putting fertiliser on to keep them alive… but eventually these non-native plantations destroy the soil and the entire water supply, and it drains all of the water as well because palm oil is a thirsty crop.

What most people don't know is that orangutans tend to live in habitat outside of the older protected areas. Primary, or old-growth forest, is mainly held in national parks and hilly areas where orangutans, tigers and elephants don’t exist. Some companies say they are sustainable because they haven’t destroyed high conservation-value forests; but these assessments are done by people that the big company's pay. So the plantation may be in an area where there are 150 orangutans, but their 'external' assessment is that there are no orangutans… so then the companies can destroy the forest.

Any claim of sustainability with palm oil in South-east Asia, I believe, is fantasy. Companies sometimes claim sustainability because they haven’t destroyed primary forest, but I don’t care so much about primary forest because no orangutan can live in it.

Why do you think that orangutans are so special, and when did you first come to this realisation?
Orangutans are the most intelligent animal on the planet, second to only us. They suffer and struggle to survive, just like we do. And they certainly do not deserve to go extinct. There is no good coming out of this situation, except for a few greedy people who are already billionares. So for no good reason we are driving the most intelligent (non-human) animal on the planet to extinction and causing a massive amount of suffering. There is no question about it – saving orangutans is not only good for them, but good for all of us.

Tell us a bit about The Orangutan Project (TOP) and what the organisation is doing to address the palm oil issue.
What we say at TOP is that protecting orangutans is essentially not a palm oil issue. It just happens that palm oil is the crop of choice that has been replacing the forest.

The clearing of all the forests and the killing of orangutans are all against Indonesian law. The powerful, foreign-owned companies corrupt Indonesian officials to get access to the forest. You could ban all the palm oil in the world tomorrow and the forests would still be destroyed because there will still be an incentive to destroy the forest, purely for the (initial) value of the trees. If palm oil wasn’t the most profitable crop left then they’d simply plant the second most profitable crop, short-term.

There are the two main solutions that we support, as well as obviously backing these up with our wildlife protection units.

First and foremost, we need to make sure we having enough money for lawyers to take companies to the courts to get permits overturned. We have been successful in funding this, so far.

Secondly, we put international public pressure [on politicians] so that they feel uncomfortable about taking incentives to issue permits against Indonesian law.

I work with locals to find ways in which local communities and Indigenous tribes can prosper economically, while maintaining sustainable forms of agriculture. Co-existing with the forest allows for their children and grandchildren to also prosper and have a place to live in the future. That’s a large part of what we do, as well as obviously saving and rescuing the individual orangutans, and looking after the individual welfare of these beautiful, sentient creatures. We’re looking for real solutions for people, and addressing the key issues that will give real outcomes on the ground.

So what can the readers of Green Lifestyle do to help TOP continue its important work?
We ask people to do just two simple things...

One, to like us on Facebook, so that when we do petitions to highlight criminal activities that are happening, there is international public pressure. This makes people nervous about continuing their activities.

Secondly, we ask people to donate, or adopt an orangutan so that we have money to take companies to court and set up our wildlife protection units.

It all comes down to those two things – having the public support base so that we can shed light on the issue, and having the funds to undertake the work to make real change on the ground.