Forest cover in Indonesia is vanishing at a truly terrifying rate, but it can be hard for conservationists to drive home the severity of the situation – what happens on a string of islands in a far-off corner of the globe can seem very removed from our daily lives. But it's a different story when we're brought face to face with the victims of Indonesia's deforestation crisis. 


Yes, watching the video is pretty tough going, but it's an important wake-up call. Most of the orangutans are youngsters orphaned as a direct result of the destruction of their rainforest habitat. One of them was rescued after collapsing from dehydration, according to this Daily Express report. In a natural, wild setting, these young apes would not leave the care of their mothers until they were at least eight or nine years old.

The footage was captured on the island of Sumatra, one of two islands that supply most of the world's palm oil (Borneo is the other), that seemingly omnipresent ingredient used in some of the most mundane consumer products on our grocery lists, everything from soap to snacks. With such high global demand, palm oil production in Indonesia has soared in recent decades: according to the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), the nation's palm oil plantations expanded more than seven-fold to 7.8 million hectares (that's an area about the size of Scotland) between 1990 and 2010. That expansion has come at huge environmental cost as plantations overtake what remains of Indonesia's rainforests, which shelter some of the most astounding biodiversity on earth.

Orangutans are among the species that have been hardest hit, particularly since the areas where you're likely to find them are just the sort of fertile hotspots favoured for palm oil plantations. According to WWF estimates, as many as 230,000 roamed these rainforests a century ago; today perhaps fewer than 50,000 remain on Borneo and Sumatra. The Sumatran orangutan (Pongo abelii), listed as Critically Endangered by the IUCN, is particularly at risk.

While other factors are also to blame for the disappearance of the forests, a new EIA report released this week implicates palm oil as the biggest driver of the destruction. It also warns that the clear-cutting of forests to make way for plantations is driving a wave of illegal logging and undermining efforts to bring much-needed reform to Indonesia's forestry and timber sectors. “Illegal logging in oil palm concessions is out of control and Indonesia’s revamped timber laws have completely failed to rein it in,” reveals EIA forest campaigner Tomasz Johnson.

And that is grim news for the distinctively shaggy, highly intelligent animals we also know as the 'red apes' (who share approximately 97% of their DNA with humans). In the words of primatologist and renowned orangutan expert Dr Birute Mary Galdikas: "If orangutans go extinct, it will be because of palm oil."

Top header image: Rainforest Action Network, Flickr