Why we should care about the plight of orangutans

“Human and environmental health are inextricably connected – ceasing deforestation will counter climate change and help avoid future pandemics.” Green Party member Nick Bowett outlines why humans – particularly those who are environmentally-minded – should care about the plight of orangutans.

Nick Bowett

Bonobos are closely related to us, so we can almost see the world through their eyes, if, for example, we think of platforms as rooms and sticks as tools. This attachment is far reaching and enables us to empathise with them, with a little concentration, but I want to focus on the semi-inviolability, lives and magnificence of a particular primate called the orangutan, those Eastern tree dwelling angels who seem to have a constant serenity, but, today, secretly, an unspoken disquietude.

According to a court judgement given in Argentina in 2015, orangutans should have a right to life, liberty and freedom from harm. I’m sure Sandra, the orangutan in question, was cared for well in Argentina, but her consequent move to an animal sanctuary in Florida gave her more space and company – aspects of life we tend to take for granted. If we travel across the Pacific to their homelands, on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra, we see a very different state of affairs, as thousands are killed each year. Officially, it is illegal to kill or even injure orangutans on these islands, but unfortunately prosecutions rarely follow. Rainforest is cut down so that the timber can be monetised, while the cleared land is predominantly used for palm oil production. As their natural homes are encroached upon, orangutans get into conflict with humans, so they are often subsequently killed. Mothers are infamously shot, clubbed or stabbed to death so that their babies can be seized and sold into the illegal pet trade.  

Rainforest covers approximately 2 per cent of the world’s surface and it contains 50 per cent of the world’s species. In the cry of Extinction Rebellion, which, in my view, is a generalised cry of distress from the natural world, the cry of the orangutan can perhaps be heard because by some estimates these resplendent bonobos are heading towards extinction. Living an environmentally friendly life involves recycling when you can and living as lightly on the earth as possible, somewhat like a typical orangutan. To support orangutans, please limit your purchase of products that contain palm oil.

Orangutans are highly intelligent and contain 97 per cent of our DNA. They can build and use sophisticated tools, think reflectively, make rudimentary structures, learn by observation, use and understand sign language and even converse about the past with each other. We realise they are so intelligent that when we see an orangutan with earphones on we think she might, at some level, be able to understand what she is listening to. Orangutans are vegetarians, although they occasionally eat meat if they find an animal that is already dead. Maybe their forebears chose to be virtuous. Their ancestors could have opted for this diet because of some interior desire to be compassionate to other animals. The gentleness and serenity of the typical unflustered orangutan makes me think that these animals are more than animals, indeed, I think of them as spirits of the forest. In fact, in Malay, orangutan means ‘man of the forest.’  

To see orangutans as equivalent to humans contradicts the precepts of many faiths, including my own, but I think we could all, as the human race, come to a universal recognition that these celebrated animals should be regarded as quasi-members of the human community. Expanding the ambit of our empathy to the point where we collectively endow all orangutans with (partial) human rights will reward humanity in the end because empathising with these marvellous creatures will encourage us to leave pristine forest alone. Human and environmental health are inextricably connected – indeed, as folks in the environmental movement know all too well, ceasing deforestation will counter climate change and help avoid future pandemics.  

If we allow wild orangutans to go extinct we wouldn’t only lose delightful sights and whooshing treetop sounds, but an entire culture. To fight for the rights of orangutans and other creatures that live within rainforests, we must support companies that don’t, even indirectly, assault these treasured environments, and support administrations that go out of their way to protect these wondrous ecosystems. Watching nature on screen, or live through regional ecotourism, should perhaps be popularised, in the same way as football was popularised, so that money can be made from leaving rainforests alone. What right does our generation have to steal an evolving marvel (because they could develop into beings that are as intelligent as humans) away from its chosen home and the gaze of future generations? The furry, friendly, all too often fiery, men of the forest have my full support and I hope they have yours as well.