Orangutans Not Going Extinct

08/21/2013 09:54 am ET | Updated Oct 21, 2013

The first ever World Orangutan Day happened this year on Aug. 19, 2013. Mark that down.

From a simple chat on Facebook with Abbie Barnes, a teenage girl in the UK who has fronted petitions calling for responsible palm oil :

Abbie: "Ive had an idea...
Is here a world orangutan recognition day?
Like, a proper one?

Me : World Orangutan Day. We set it up ourselves.
Lets give it time to promote. third week of August or something, when does school start again in UK? Here, its firest week of Sept

Abbie : Varies. i startback later in sept. umm. yeah, probably 1st weekish.
If i could get a tshirt, some flyers made etc, i could do some stalls at local fayres. its summer now, they will be on. just need the stuff.
could sell things to fundraise too

All typos from that chat retained here to keep it genuine.

From that little chat, World Orangutan Day was born. We picked Facebook as the venue as that was where we exchanged casual chit-chats, shared moments both happy and sad and where we knew all the orangutan lovers. We thought it'd be cool to do an orangutan event but never figured on it being the runaway worldwide success that it turned out to be!


Bloggers from as far as Siberia wrote about it and major environmental groups including Greenpeace International and GRASP-UNEP announced it. A big part of the credit has to go to the people at Izilwane who used their connections to National Geographic to spread the word on palm oil and orangutans.

Anyway, back to orangutans. They won't be going extinct anytime soon. Maybe in 50 years if we don't heed the alarm calls but I doubt that. The orangutans have a lot going for them.

Unlike pandas which are darn hard to breed in captivity (congratulations to Zoo Atlanta for the twin pandas born there last month ) orangutans are fairly easy to breed in captivity. So, unlike the dinosaurs or the dodo bird, orangutans are not going to disappear off the face of the earth.

So what's with the constant cries of looming extinction by conservation groups? I think what they mean is localized extinction and we're seeing lots of that happen.

Both Indonesia and Malaysia, countries where orangutans can only be found, are both working at a break neck speed to increase palm oil plantations in order to meet what they see as strong demand for palm oil, not just for our foods and our cosmetics but in biofuel to heat our houses and drive our cars.

Adding to the pressure on orangutans and indeed primates in Africa, is the flawed policy of the Consumer Goods Forum and its members that have pledged to peddle zero deforestation consumer goods to all of us good consumers only by the year 2020.

If we connect the dots between the Consumer Goods Forum's pledge and the plans by palm oil companies to double if not triple their plantations coverage, there lies the localized extinction of the orangutan in many regions in Borneo and Sumatra, perhaps even the forever extinction of unique primate species like the Drill, Preuss Red Colobus and the Nigerian/Cameroon chimpanzee.

These three special primates are doomed. Flanked to the east with a palm oil plantation operated by Herakles Farms of New York and Wilmar group of Singapore to the west, they stand no chance. They will go extinct. Not enough people care about them for these primates to be saved.

Orangutans on the other hand, have enjoyed great publicity especially in Europe and Australia where mainstream media continue to talk up the atrocities being committed against them. The U.S. has a long way to go in terms of awareness and I use this simple example. A pro orangutan group on Facebook, Palm Oil Investigations, only has to identify what brands use palm oil and they get a huge backlash from consumers against the brand.

In the U.S., when I posted about Starbucks or Kelloggs using palm oil, I get this glazed over Homer Simpson look. Hopefully World Orangutan Day will change some of that. The best thing to come out of the event was having Lush Cosmetics USA join in at the last minute to offer funding to make all our Wish List items at World Orangutan Day a reality.

The best thing about Lush's participation however will be the offer to feature the orangutan rescue organisations on some of their selected products. I pray that this brings the awareness that is so badly needed from American consumers.

Without increased awareness of the plight of the orangutans, these are my predictions for orangutans in the wild based on what I see happening on the ground today.

An 80 percent drop in population maybe? -- for the 6,000 estimated Sumatran orangutans which live in one of the most hostile and lawless environments in north Sumatra and Aceh province.

A 90 percent drop in population for the um... maybe 45,000 or maybe 69,000 Bornean orangutans... what the heck, lets call it less than 6,000 Bornean orangutans left in the wild by the time the members of the Consumer Goods Forum meet their target in 2020.

I hesitate with the population numbers as exact figures have never been accurate. I personally prefer to stick with these numbers for orangutans which place them at around 20,000 to 27,000 left in the wild, today.

These simple off-the-hip projections are based on the simple fact that neither Malaysia nor Indonesia have shown a willingness to conserve orangutans at their existing levels today. What makes it worse is that so few of us actually care about what happens to the orangutans. We're cheering on the pledges for zero deforestation products when we should be clamoring for zero deforestation today as some brave companies are forging ahead with.

For World Orangutan Day 2014, I predict that we will be able to offer the same heart wrenching stories which made World Orangutan Day 2013 such a big draw worldwide. Orphaned orangutans will continue to be rescued, rehabilitated adults will continue to be released and the struggle will go on to 2020 when so few wild orangutans are left, that we will be too embarrassed to keep quiet any longer.

This post has been updated since its original publication.