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Saving Asia's Orangutans May Also Help Reduce Carbon Emissions

  • Ron Corben

Sepilok Rehabilitation Center in Sandakan, Malaysia

Sepilok Rehabilitation Center in Sandakan, Malaysia

Indonesia and Malaysia have stepped up efforts to protect Asia's great ape, the orangutan. Saving the endangered "man of the forest" may also help fight global warming.

Under a canopy of green in Malaysia's Sabah state, tourists watch as orangutans are fed.

Tourist attraction A young male orangutan in Sepilok Rehabilitation Center in Sandakan, Malaysia

A young male orangutan in Sepilok Rehabilitation Center in Sandakan, Malaysia

The Sepilok rehabilitation center allows tourists to observe the orangutans – "the man of the forest" – from a viewing platform in the jungle.

"It is wonderful to see a wild animal so near. It is a big emotion," said Loula Patmora, who is from Italy. "It is very, very incredible to watch them. It's a big project, the rehabilitation center, because it is a very important thing to preserve this wild animal."

Center spokeswoman Jennifer Pitt says tourism spreads the word about efforts to protect these apes.

"The main message is just generally creating awareness for the plight of the orangutan," Pitt said. "They are incredibly endangered species and it's an issue which we all need to look at."

Veterinarian Jason Parker says most of the 200 young apes here were abandoned and rescued from palm oil plantations.

"The usual scenario is that a young orangutan – one to two years old – is separated from its mother for whatever reason – in floods, where the mother had been shot or sometimes the baby is literally found wandering around on its own," said Parker.

Forest conservation

The center helps the apes learn to live in the forest. When they are older, they are relocated to more isolated reserves, where they monitored to ensure they adjust to their new surroundings.

Orangutans are native to Borneo, which is divided among Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei, and on Indonesia's Sumatra island. The apes can weigh over 100 kilograms, and they live in the jungles, climbing from tree to tree to find food.

Conservationists estimate about 62,000 orangutans live in the wild. But the numbers have been falling for more than a century. First because of hunting by indigenous tribes and European colonialists, and now because jungles are being cut down for timber and to grow palm oil – used in foods, cosmetics and some fuels. Amy de Boer, Australian Volunteer at Sepilok Rehabilitation Center in Malaysia

Amy de Boer, Australian Volunteer at Sepilok Rehabilitation Center in Malaysia

Amy de Boer, an Australian volunteer at the center, says deforestation in Sabah is a chief concern in saving the orangutans.

"Basically the palm oil and also logging, the illegal logging of the rain forest is a major thing," said de Boer. "We were looking at a map of Sabah and just the areas of protected rain forest and it's really small. All the animals in that forest at the moment are competing for space and fruit and food, so it's a really big issue."

Conservationists say for years, laws to limit forest clearing were weak and poorly enforced.

But new efforts are being made to protect the jungle, and the orangutans, who may benefit from the effort to limit global warming.

Cutting jungles releases greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, into the atmosphere. Climate experts say those gases add to global warming, so leaving forests intact reduces emissions.

Among other efforts to reduce emissions, Indonesia has imposed a two-year moratorium on new projects to turn forests and peat lands into plantations. In Malaysia, the orangutan center staff says recent laws to protect the forests are being enforced and appear to be helping. And there is a new United Nations plan to pay countries to preserve their forests, which can help communities build their economies without cutting trees.

Protecting the endangered A young male orangutan

A young male orangutan

But Damayanti Buchori, a conservation director with The Nature Conservancy in Indonesia, says concerns remain. She says Indonesia's moratorium on plantations, which begins in January, is a stop-gap measure.

"We are still concerned that between now and the end of the year – there can still be loss of habitat at quite an alarming rate because people are trying to finish with whatever time they have left," Buchori said. "And also what happens after two years after the moratorium is finished?"

The effort to save the orangutan has become central to debates about economic development and climate change.

Here at the Sepilok rehabilitation center, those working to save young apes say Indonesian and Malaysian officials are taking action to reduce global carbon emissions, and to save one Asia's most endangered species, the orangutan.