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World Wildlife Day


FOUR PAWS training orangutan orphans in Borneo

Asia’s last great apes are threatened with extinction


 2 March 2016. Palm oil production, tropical wood logging, coal mining and disastrous fires: the habitat of the orangutan, which is only found on Sumatra and Borneo, is being systematically destroyed. Despite national and international laws on the protection of species, every year sees two to three thousand orangutans brutally killed, on oil palm plantations, near coal mines, and also by small farmers. Orangutans are under severe threat of extinction: according to UNEP (United Nations Environment Programme), by next year their numbers may already have dropped so significantly that the species would pass the point where it would ever be able to recover on its own.


To mark World Wildlife Day on 3 March, FOUR PAWS wishes to raise awareness about the plight of these great apes. The animal welfare organisation has already been working for nine years to help the orangutans of East Kalimantan.


Dr Signe Preuschoft, head of the FOUR PAWS orangutan project, explains: “Indonesia relies heavily on income from tropical wood, from the coal that lies just a few centimetres below the forest floor, and above all from palm oil. In 2015 alone, Indonesia produced 32.5 million tonnes of palm oil, of which 26.4 million tonnes were exported. This industry clears vast areas of forest every year to make room for monoculture oil palm plantations, and palm oil has now become the most-used vegetable oil on the planet.”


The forest fires that occur every year also put the wild animals in great danger. Last year alone, the devastating fires burned 2.6 million hectares of rainforest and farmland in Indonesia. There are no official figures for how many orangutans lost their lives. During every dry season, these fires are ignited intentionally – the cheapest and easiest way to clear the forest for agriculture.

Dr Preuschoft says, “The fires didn’t affect our Orangutan Academy here in Borneo, as conditions in the dry season weren’t that extreme. But it still shocks and upsets us that a great many orangs must have died in the fires elsewhere. We can expect an increase in the numbers of orangutan orphans over the next few months, whose mothers were either killed by the fires, or could no longer find food, and thus will have ended up in conflict with humans.”


Fire-raising has been a problem in Indonesia for a long time. Dr Preuschoft: “The Indonesian Government turned a blind eye to it for years, but is now punishing these offences more often, after protests from neighbouring countries about the smoke that drifted for months from Sumatra and Kalimantan, and the cost to even human life.” The disaster relief unit of FOUR PAWS is currently supporting technical fire-prevention measures in the Sungai Wain rainforest, a protected area of Kalimantan. Partner organisation Pro Natura Foundation is setting up firebreaks there, to limit fire damage in the future and protect the area’s wildlife. In addition, a team of local people, including some FOUR PAWS Orangutan Academy team members, are being trained as a volunteer firefighting unit.


In the FOUR PAWS Orangutan Academy, orangutan orphans are made ready for a life of freedom. As soon as the team of experts is confident that an orang can cope with life in the wild, the animal is released into a large, protected area of the forest. A side-effect of the FOUR PAWS orangutan project is that other endangered wild species, such as the Sunda clouded leopard, the hornbill, the sun bear, and many others, can also now live more peaceful lives in the protected area.


World Wildlife Day takes place every 3 March. It was proclaimed in 2013, to mark the opening for signature on 3 March 1973 of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES, also known as the Washington Convention). The convention aims to protect endangered wild species.

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