Orangutans as a species are under extreme duress. If you haven't already heard, fires have been decimating Indonesian forests, destroying everything and every living creature in their wake. While seasonal forest fires are relatively normal in that part of the world, the scale and scope of this year's fire season is unprecedented and completely devastating. For more on the fires ripping across Borneo: http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/oct/26/indonesias-forest-fires-threaten-a-third-of-worlds-wild-orangutans image credit: theguardian.com
Generally speaking, my blogging is chimp-oriented but today I want to talk to you about another great ape. Orangutans are large-bodied, long-lived apes that live in the forests of Borneo and Sumatra- and only in those two places. It is estimated that orangutan populations have declined by 50% in recent decades, almost entirely due to anthropogenic (human) causes. Bouncing back from such a decline is particularly difficult for orangutans because it can take them 8-10 years to wean offspring and birth a new one. So even though female orangutans may live up to 40 years in the wild, they don't start reproducing until about 12 years old so- if we do some quick math on this- female orangutans generally max out at about 4 offspring in a life time. Currently, the ICUN lists Sumatran orangutans as "critically endangered" and their Borenean counter parts as "endangered," however the most recent published population sizes for this subspecies may be inflated. In a terrible twist of fate that has escalated over the last few months, Borenean orangutans have been facing a far more direct and immediate threat: wildfires.
But the good news is that there is an easy way to support orangutans and all of the other wildlife that share the forest with orangs.
Yesterday, I challenged my readers to go strawless. Today, I have an equally important and seasonally-appropriate challenge to put you: this year, have yourself an Orangutan-friendly Halloween. Just like going strawless, this challenge is far more difficult than it seems.
The problem is palm oil: it is ubiquitous. All over the world, palm oil is used in everything from make-up to shampoo to your favorite candy and chocolate delights. So your challenge, should you choose to accept it, is to avoid confectionaries that use palm oil and palm-oil-derived products this Halloween and help save some orangutans.
What’s the big deal about palm oil? Let me tell you:
First of all, clearing land to make room for palm oil is absolutely devastating rainforests across Southeast Asia. However, the problem is so much deeper, and so multi-facetted.
Right now, the most relevant facet is fire. Not only are logging conglomerates clearing land that supports hundreds of species of endemic and endangered wildlife, but they are also implicit in burning hundreds of protected acres that are not intended for logging to the ground. As a means to clear and prime land for palm oil production, people routinely burn existing vegetation. But the fires can easily spin out of control.
In fact, right now, as I am typing this, our friends in Indonesia are risking their lives and lungs to fight out-of-control fires in the worst fire-season on record. While we cannot even begin to measure the devastation to local wildlife, we already know that hundreds of acres of forest have been destroyed by fire.
“But Kris,” you say, “I just checked- none of the ingredients in my shampoo say 'palm oil.'” And that is exactly what palm oil plantations and irresponsible corporations want you to think. Unfortunately, its a sham! Palm oil is called by tons of other names, most of them derived from chemical-vocabulary, to confuse and trick consumers. I thought that was absolutely crazy too, until I started digging around a bit. Here is a list of all of the alternative names for palm oil that you might find lurking in your products.
I’ve embedded several links in green text into post if you would like to learn more about palm oil and how you can be a responsible consumer. If you are as upset as I am about how close we are to losing orangutans forever, you should check out this grass-roots funding campaign. This research team has dropped everything to help fight fires around their field site and beyond, and they’re funding their efforts on their own.
To make this challenge as easy as possible for you, here’s a list of safe Halloween treats. And look, it isn’t even the lame candies! Some of my favorites are on here (and thank goodness because I am not at all sure I could go without peanut butter cups).
If you think that helping wildlife by supporting sustainable products is a great first step, but it isn't enough, I agree with you. Here are two links to projects that are on the ground fighting fires in Borneo right now. If you can spare a few dollars, you can directly contribute to saving the lives of Borenean orangutans and all of their forest friends, not to mention helping us to stop the global environmental crisis caused by these fires.
A friend asked me last week when I was going to post my next blog... I thought that today would be as good a time as any to jump back in. Especially because I have such great news: I have officially been awarded a grant from the Wenner-Gren Foundation in support of my second field season. This means that I am officially headed back to KNP in January. There are no words to express how happy I am about this award! It’s kick-started my preparations for next season, which is always exciting! As soon as the flight is booked I’ll have a count-down going…
In other news, over the weekend, we held a small regional conference here at UNM: the 3rd Annual Meeting of the South Western Association of Biological Anthropologists. Lots of research came out of our lab and project and everyone who presented did an incredible job!
My best friend, M, won the prize for best talk, presenting a piece of her dissertation work about how we can use strontium isotopes to reconstruct landscape use among extinct taxa (for more information, check out this paper she co-authored). Labmate D gave an excellent talk updating us on his dissertation research and sharing his findings about the social strategies of adolescent male chimpanzees (here is a link to his abstract from the Biennial Meetings of the International Primatological Society last summer in Vietnam). And I presented some preliminary results from my research, adapting a technique from Machanda, Gilby, and Wrangham (2014) to determine if play partner preferences among immatures foreshadow adult patterns.
Oh, and I also won a prize for the best use of SWABA in a talk. No big deal.
So there’s been an up-tick in positive academic news in the last few weeks!
An update on the straw situation:
Guys, avoiding straws is a lot harder than it seems. They are so insidious! On the one hand, I am primed to go strawless under normal circumstances because I prefer drinks with no ice- and no it’s not only the PTSD from my Entebbe departure. I have always preferred drinks with no ice.
However, as it turns out, a strawless existence is not conducive to (1) driving across the country, (2) drinking any beverage at any bar or restaurant, or (3) being a graduate student who just really needs a soda with her fastfood lunch sometimes. As it turns out, cups that do not include a lid and a straw are an order of magnitude more spillable than those with lids and straws. In a non-travel context, not using any straws is similar switching to making everything (including your iced coffee) at home: really hard. In a restaurant setting, servers are like straw pushers and are constantly littering beverages with those little plastic siphons even when politely ask them to refrain. It is so far against their expectations that it blips right out of their brains. And by the time the straw is submerged in whatever beverage- its already too late! I’ve taken to bringing my own straw (I am totally serious, I have been saving and reusing straws whenever I can in order to cut down on my straw habit). Whenever I can remember, I tell servers that I’m a germaphobe and need to use my straw so please don’t bring me a drink with a straw in it. I’m not the most successful with this strategy because I forget… a lot… but baby steps.
You may think that my tone is overly flippant and I want to assure that I take the threat of straws and other plastics to marine- and land-living wildlife very seriously. If anything, the humor in my tone is reflective of how ridiculous it is that something a silly as a straw, a tool concerned primarily with comfort, is so pervasive. I never expected that it would be so difficult to parse out of modern life, let alone that completely deleting straws from my life would be this close to impossible.
For those of you on the go all day every day, try going strawless. For those of you with the time to dine out, try to go out and refuse all the straws. Notice how many straws are served to you. Did you ever consider this before? Did you encounter more straws that you thought you would? Next, see how hard it is to remember to ask your servers to hold the straw. Then observe how often servers forget to hold that straw. Then come leave some comments- tell me how it went! This is my personal challenge to you.
This blog is a forum share my personal experiences as a field researcher and traveler.