spea magazine

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Trouble in Paradise

The island of Bali is part of the Republic of Indonesia, the largest archipelago in the world, with over 18,000 islands. A popular tourist destination, known for its natural attractions, perfect climate, and relaxed atmosphere, this island of flowers, temples, and friendly people is considered a real gem by travelers worldwide.

orangutanIn September of 2008, Maria Renner, a current graduate student in SPEA pursuing two Master’s degrees in Public Affairs and Environmental Science, chose to take a year off from her two and a half year program to work as the Coordinator of the Sumatran Orangutan Society (SOS) based in Bali, an organization dedicated to the conservation of Sumatran orangutans and their forest home. Immediately upon landing the job, she sold her car, gave away her furniture and said goodbye to family and friends, putting classes and her Western life on hold…deciding to continue, as she puts it, “to spread the awareness of alternative paths through education.”

This particular alternative path leads to the Malaysian and Indonesian islands of Borneo and Sumatra – now the only two islands that support the forest habitat of Earth’s largest arboreal animals, orangutans. The orangutan is one of our closest relatives in the animal kingdom, sharing 96.4 percent of our DNA. Indigenous peoples of Indonesia and Malaysia call this ape “Orang Hutan,” which literally translates as “Person of the Forest.”

Sadly, the revered orangutan (Pongo spp.) is now critically endangered, with rapidly decreasing populations due to the destruction of rainforest for palm oil plantations, other cash crops, hunting, and trafficking. Millions of hectares of forest have been cleared to make way for lucrative plantations, leaving the orangutans forced to live in fragmented patches of habitat.

Orangutans who wander into palm oil plantations are attacked with machetes, poisoned, or burned alive since they destroy the ripe palm fruit. The slash-and-burn methods of clearing forest not only release enormous amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, but creates vast monocultural fields.

Furthermore, palm oil is found in virtually all foods, most times not even labeled, so consumers may unknowingly support the destruction in Indonesia. Awareness of the link between palm oil and the rapidly shrinking orangutan populations is not well known. In fact, scientists predict that if the current rate of deforestation continues, orangutans could be the first of the Great Ape species to be extinct.

rennerAs SOS Coordinator, Maria Renner arranges educational school visits, writes articles for local newspapers; coordinates with SOS’s sister office in Medan, Sumatra; creates fundraising events; manages volunteers; writes public awareness articles; and creates publicity about the palm oil-orangutan link. SOS in Sumatra currently works to replant rain forest trees, arrange conservation camps for school children, and to train local communities, building feeding platforms for the orangutans, training local guides in Sumatra, and providing food and medicine to forest rangers and orangutans.

For more information on the Sumatran Orangutan Society, visit http://www.orangutans-sos.org/.

Photo of Orangutan by Helen Buckland, for SOS.