We think we know our family, that our parents have been honest in who you’re related to and who you’re not. That is until the day you meet a member that you had no idea existed, even more surprising if it’s in an out-of-the-way place such as Borneo, but it happened. I was standing with my camera at attention in a wildlife sanctuary, when suddenly out of the trees swung my distant cousin. As soon as I saw her eyes I knew, I could see she recognized it too, we stood staring at each other. Breaking the awkward moment was her daughter, reaching from her arms, offering me a piece of fruit.
Sadly, due to linguistic differences we were unable to discuss our shared history, sort out when her family moved to Sarawak and how we were related. Sure, we had some differences, she’s much hairier than anyone in my family, has longer arms, and clearly superior tree climbing abilities, but the face, just look, chubby cheeks and all; we’re related. I did some research and was able to find out about her family, or should I say our family, the hominids, and our similarities. We all use tools, interact socially, enjoy eating fruits, and have similar reproductive terms (9 months in the womb, 22-30 days menstruation). While my city life is fundamentally different than theirs, there are definitely people living in the Indonesian archipelago, even Borneo itself, that live similar nomadic lives in the jungle, wearing little, and enjoying the fruits of the wild. It is hard to consider the realities of the Orangutans and not believe that we’re related.
Even though we’re in the same family, we’re driving the Orangutans to extinction. In our lifetime we may see them go functionally extinct, surviving only in captivity, or there may be none at all. For animals that we’re so closely related to, that we’ve shared earth for millions of years with, this is disturbing. Just like people do with outcasts from their more direct family, billions of people are determined to ignore the overwhelming evidence that we’re related. While claims that we were related to animals seemed incredulous in a world we knew little about, it’s ridiculously simple-minded to hold those beliefs today. We’re now able to travel the world and see it ourselves, connect-the-dots, and understand the relations between animals. It was once possible to live in a world of only what is immediately around you, but knowledge is fully accessible, travel is relatively accessible, and we can see with our own eyes what it took millennia to understand: we’re just part of an interconnected, related animal world. With this knowledge comes the responsibility to do something to protect the planet from ourselves.
Even worse news for Orangutans than doubting our relations is the push for sustainable fuels. Palm Oil, a key ingredient in food production is a leading cause of deforestation of the Orangutan’s habitat. While many cheer the rise of “sustainable” products that avoid using petroleum products, the reality is not as rosy as we’ve been led to believe. Vast Palm Oil plantations are causing deforestation throughout the world, destroying the natural flora and fauna. As easy as it would be to believe that this progress is inevitable, we actually have a lot of control in the matter. We can become more conscious consumers and work towards protecting these areas instead of exploiting them. Below is information on Palm Oil and how you can see Orangutans yourself.
Find out how to see orangutans on the Lonely Planet Forum
Learn about the devastation created by Palm Oil
Read about products that contain Palm Oil, thereby putting the orangutans at risk
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