As Palm Oil Farms Expand, It's A Race To Save Indonesia's Orangutans : Parallels Demand for palm oil is destroying the habitat of endangered Sumatran orangutans. One group is working to rescue, rehabilitate and reintroduce these often-orphaned primates back into the wild.

As Palm Oil Farms Expand, It's A Race To Save Indonesia's Orangutans

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It's hard to avoid palm oil. It's in cookies, soap, doughnuts, lipstick - about half of the products in the regular supermarket. But as demand has grown for palm oil, the commercial cultivation of palm trees has impacted animal habitats. From the Indonesian island of Sumatra, NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports on the orangutans that are refugees from the palm oil industry and one man's quest to protect them.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: I've come to a patch of forest about an hour's drive from Medan, the capital of North Sumatra province. I'm here to meet Dr. Ian Singleton, a former zookeeper from the U.K. He's now director of the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Program. The program takes in mostly orphaned orangutans and eventually releases them into the wild.

IAN SINGLETON: I'll take you up and show you the - what we call the isolation cages, which is where orangutans have to spend a minimum 30-day quarantine when they first arrive, so masks on. We're just going to dowse our boots and wash our hands before we proceed up the hill.

KUHN: Singleton keeps his apes at a distance from people and from each other, too - at least until he's sure they're healthy.

We're heading up the hillside towards the quarantine. There's some fenced-off areas and some houses, and beyond that is forest. Ian, tell me about the forest, you know, on this part of the island. What's it like?

SINGLETON: We're in an agroforest area. The road from Medan to here is kind of the only road out of Medan that's not palm oil as far as you can see.

KUHN: Singleton says his orangutans are refugees. Their parents were killed; their forest homes were destroyed to make room for palm oil plantations. Most of the orangutans Dr. Singleton rescues will go back to the forest, but not all. Near the quarantine, Dr. Singleton introduces us to a large male orangutan named Leuser. He can't go back to the forest because he's blind.

SINGLETON: He wandered too close to a village at the edge of the forest, and three farmers there carrying air rifles to shoot squirrels and monkeys and found him and decided to take potshots at him as well. So they put 62 air rifle pellets into him, including in his eyes. He's still got 48 inside him, but otherwise he's perfectly healthy and fit.

KUHN: Another one who can't go back is a female named Tila.

SINGLETON: She came here as a youngster, tested positive for hepatitis. We checked it. It was human hepatitis B, which means we can't release her to the forest because there's always a risk that she'll infect wild primates.

KUHN: How might Tila have contract hepatitis, human hepatitis?

SINGLETON: Biting the guys who kept her, almost certainly. Yeah.

KUHN: Many orangutans were kept by humans as illegal pets. Singleton says these animals at his program are the lucky ones, and the tough ones.

SINGLETON: You know, the orangutans that make it this far are the real survivors. I mean, everybody else is dead. I mean, the ones that get here are the ones that are hard to kill.

KUHN: After they're healthy, the orangutans are taught how to get along with members of their own species. These young ones are swinging on ropes and eating coconuts.

SINGLETON: This is where they really learn how to be an orangutan again. You know, they need to know how to protect their food, and fend off attack, and you find out who are the bullies, and who are the wimps. So they've really got to figure out their place in orangutan society, and that happens here.

KUHN: They pucker up their lips and sort of kiss, right?


KUHN: Any particular significance to any of those?

SINGLETON: Yeah, (pucker), like that. That's a sign of kind of annoyance. I mean, if you see a wild orangutan in the forest, that's not used to people, and they see you, they'll immediately do that. I don't say the word fear, but it means kind of uneasy.

KUHN: Besides caring for these primates, Dr. Singleton also campaigns to stop illegal clearing of forests for palm oil. He's fighting to protect an important part of the orangutan's habitat, a 6.4 million acre swath of Sumatra called the Leuser ecosystem.

SINGLETON: It's probably the biggest single contiguous forest block in all of Southeast Asia now, and it's the only place in the world where you get Sumatran orangutans, elephants, tigers, and rhinos living together.

KUHN: Singleton says his work is getting harder in that there are fewer forests left to take the orangutans he rescues. It's getting easier in that pressure is growing on palm oil producers not to destroy forests. So finally I asked Dr. Singleton, should consumers boycott palm oil?

SINGLETON: Personally, I think we should be supporting more sustainable production. But as an individual, do whatever makes you feel happiest. You only get one chance on this planet, you know.

KUHN: Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Medan.

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