A friend travelling in Borneo recently returned with harrowing tales from an orangutan sanctuary in Kalimantan, Indonesia. Some orangutans there had been rescued from various abuses, and even the sex trade.
News reports also confirm a string of horrors. Orangutans have been burnt, shot, stoned, stabbed and tortured in Borneo. The case of one young rescued orangutan kept as a sex slave for years in a village has been well publicised.
Last year, a decapitated orangutan was found floating in a river in South Barito district, Central Kalimantan province, with signs of extensive torture, including arms almost lacerated off.
I will spare you further distressing details. But suffice to say that orangutan abuse is not uncommon. Palm oil plantation workers even pay for orangutans to be killed as these animals eat palm fruit, according to a report by Friends of the Earth.
Orangutans are also captured and sold as pets – as are other wild animals. In June, a woman was arrested in Kuala Lumpur for keeping a baby sun bear as a pet in her apartment. The bear was spotted when it stuck its head out of a window and roared after she left it alone when she went home for Hari Raya.
The global wildlife trade is worth tens of billions of ringgit. Even when rescued, animals may be too damaged to return to the wild, especially if taken young from their mothers. Rehabilitation centres may be their only hope of survival.
Animal abuse and the exotic animal trade are horrifying, yes, but the real threat to wild animals is simply that there’s not much “wild” left. The forests, their home, have shrunk due to logging and the expansion of palm oil plantations around the world. When we don’t even respect the rights of indigenous tribal populations – consider how often the Orang Asli and native Sarawak tribes have gone to court to defend their land – what hope is there for animals living there?
Last year, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature said in a report that 193 animals and plants are under threat of extinction – their famous “Red List” – due to palm oil plantations around the globe.
The Sumatran rhino is already extinct in the wild here. The last male rhino, Tam, died in May in a sanctuary in Sabah. The leatherback turtle has disappeared. The Malayan tiger, a national symbol that adorns our passports, is also under threat.
According to a 2010 report by Traffic (which fights the illegal wildlife trade), one group in Sabah took 22,000 pangolins – a widely traded animal used for food and medicine in China – in 18 months. Other animals under threat include the Asian elephant, clouded leopard, dugong, Malayan tapir and many, many bird and plant species.
We were once noted for our biodiversity, being a “megadiverse” nation, ranked 12th in the world. The Convention on Biological Diversity lists an estimated 15,000 species of vascular plants, 742 bird species and more than 150,000 species of invertebrates in Malaysia.
Now, with the loss of rainforests, those figures are questionable. Malaysia had the world’s highest rate of forest loss between 2000 and 2012, according to a global forest map developed with Google and other partners using satellite images (from Nasa Landsat), the environmental website Mongabay reported.
The country’s total forest loss during this period amounted to 14% of forest cover in the year 2000, or more than 47,000sq km. That’s an area larger than Denmark. We’re replanting, but timber and oil palm plantations are no comparison to rainforests, as they sustain only a tiny fraction of biodiversity. Do we consider that when weighing the merits of monoculture crops?
The wealth and resources of the forest are incalculable, not just in possible medicinal benefits and such. Nature has a science and a system that we don’t even fully understand. And that system is fragile. A United Nations report in May estimated that human society is in jeopardy from the damage to ecosystems – a shocking one million animal and plant species are at risk of extinction.
Already in parts of China, people have had to hand-pollinate plants because of the loss of bees, which have a huge role in pollination. In South Africa, there is concern over the disappearance of great white sharks, which are important for coral reef ecosystems, as they control numbers of smaller predators, which impacts herbivorous fish, and consequently algae growth, and thus corals.
We’ve behaved like spoilt teenagers partying in a grand old heritage house. We’ve trashed the place. In every room, every corner, there’s destruction and disrespect.
It’s time we clean up. We have no choice, in fact. If we are to prevent catastrophic climate change, and we have very little time to do so, then we have to look for ways of living and developing that promote sustainable ecosystems. Preserving our forests should be paramount, as they absorb carbon dioxide. This is not just about saving wildlife; this is about saving ourselves and the planet.
Human Writes columnist Mangai Balasegaram writes mostly on health, but also delves into anything on being human. She has worked with international public health bodies and has a Masters in public health. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org. The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.
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