Saturday, 1 November 2014

Saving the Orangutan - dedicated to the inspiring people at the coalface of conservation

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As featured in 'Wonders of The Monsoon' BBC2 8pm, Sunday 2nd November 2014

Words and facts in this post are quoted from 'To catch an orangutan' read the complete story here. Any opinions expressed or implied in this post, or any other, are my own unless otherwise stated.


Where people and wildlife live in harmony

The final episode of Wonders of The Monsoon is perhaps the most surprising and important of them all. It focuses on the relationship that has developed over thousands of years between the people who live in monsoon regions and the wildlife that they share the space with.

The Bishnoi sect believe that all life is sacred and have been known to lay down their lives for nature, even to protect trees. As a consequence of this philosophy, their marginal farmland supports a higher density of people than any other desert in the world. On the Philippine island of Palawan people still hunt in the forest and live in caves. Their lives are underpinned by a closeness to and a spiritual respect for nature. For thousands of years, wildlife that lives in these areas has been protected, helping to keep the much of this part of the world the bio-diverse place that it still is.

But the relationship across the Monsoon region, from the Himalayas to Northern Australia, now faces a challenge from worldwide demand for the Monsoon's bounty, especially the clearance of forests for cash crops.

Filming the orangutan rescue

At the end of this episode we feature, what for me, was one of the most emotional shoots I have ever done. I joined cameraman and producer Jon Clay to help document the story of a select group of people, part of the Sumatran Orangutan Society, who have dedicated their lives to protecting and rescuing one of our closest cousins - the Sumatran orangutan. My primary role was to document the shoot for our 'behind the scenes section that follows the main show. The result is a sequence that I hope will inspire you to stop and think.


(If the video doesn't play please visit the BBC website)

As cameraman Jon Clay writes on the 'Wonders of The Monsoon' programme page: "Crouching in the dirt, bloody and sweaty from 4 hours of scrabbling through the tangled forest, straining to keep the camera steady and pointed skywards, the thought occurred to me: what if the rescuers get it wrong… what if the 40 kilo orangutan falls from its branch 20 metres above us and lands on me?"

"I was on my knees beside four Indonesian men who held the corners of a small square net and they were all staring upwards, constantly shuffling – two paces right, one step back – as the woozy orangutan shifted its weight in the branches above. This was the HOCRU team – the Human Orangutan Conflict Response Unit – and they had just fired a dart loaded with sedative into the body of the mother orangutan."


"Their intention was to remove the orangutan and her infant from the fragment of forest we were in (where they were vulnerable to hunters and had no chance of meeting other orangutans) and release them into a large national park nearby."

"Finally, the drug took effect and the orangutan let go her grasp…" The vets quickly jumped to action to assess her.

 Vets assess the orangutan before transporting it to the release site


The Palm Oil Quandry

"On the drive to this rescue site I had seen for myself the dramatic impact that the rapid expansion of palm oil plantations has had on the landscape of Sumatra" - Jon Clay 


"Palms tend to be planted on newly-cleared forest land, rather than abandoned agricultural land, despite the availability of large amounts of suitable cleared areas. As palms do not begin to produce a crop for five years after the area is planted, the ability to sell the timber to subsidise these first non-productive years is attractive." - 2007 UNEP/UNESCO report


"The IUCN lists this transformation as one of the “major threats” to the now “critically endangered” Sumatran orangutan. Now, as we waited for ‘our’ orangutan to wake up I took the opportunity to quiz Panut Hadisiswoyo – founder of the Orangutan Information Centre in Sumatra, the organisation that runs HOCRU – about the threat to these animals. Perhaps rather surprisingly, he is not anti palm oil – he recognises that the plantations offer jobs and prosperity, and points out that oil palms are by far the most efficient producers of vegetable oil compared to other oil crops." 

"He claims that the reason rainforest is still being cut down to make way for palm plantations is not a lack of alternative land, but because the hardwood timber from the forest can be sold to help finance the establishment of the plantation. His claim appears to be substantiated by a report published in 2007 by the United Nations Environment Programme and UNESCO." Wonders of The Monsoon programme page



  "Whatever the future holds for the lands of the monsoon, all of us are now connected and surely have a part to play."   

Additional Information on Palm Oil
  • Palm oil is obtained from the fruit of the oil palm Elaeis guineensis, which originates from Africa.
  • Oil palms produce more oil per hectare than any other crop in the world.
  • From several million tonnes in the 1960s, palm oil production has grown exponentially: doubling every 10 years.
  • South East Asia produces over 85% of the world’s palm oil - with Indonesia producing over 23 million tonnes of palm oil every year.
  • The RSPO (Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil) was created in 2004 in Zurich, with the first boatload of RSPO-certified palm oil arriving in Rotterdam in November 2008

Changes to labelling of palm oil in the UK
Until recently, palm oil wasn’t always easy to detect in lists of ingredients as it could be listed simply as ‘vegetable oil’. New food labelling regulations will come into force in the UK from 13 December 2014, which make it mandatory that the type of vegetable oil used must be stated on the packaging.






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