Happy World Rainforest Day! Celebrate while you still can.
The world’s rainforests house so many different species that we haven’t even found them all, yet it may not shock you that we continue to destroy the habitat for commercial gain.
A Planet Without Apes by expert and educator Craig Stanford gives us insight into one of the many repercussions of our invasion of the rainforests on the great ape species: chimpanzees, orangutans, bonobos, and gorillas. To celebrate, let’s look at just a few of them, and what we can do to save our closest relatives.
Deep in forests around the world, lumber companies chop down massive trees, leaving flourishing habitats dry, desolate landscapes.
Lumber occupies nearly every aspect of our daily lives. Your chairs, tables, counters, and classrooms all use some semblance of wood. This dependence on cheap wood to mass produce these various products leads to the immediate destruction of ape habitats.
While some suppliers claim to sell ethically sourced lumber, material from the Nyatoh tree often flies under the radar. Also labeled as “teak” wood, nyatoh comes directly from forests in Indonesia, where the world’s orangutan population dwells. Cutting down these trees and forming the paths that lead deep into the forest isolate gene pools, leading to inbreeding and fewer resources. The already sparse ape populations immensely as a result.
What can I do?
Actively avoid products labeled as “teak.” These labels can be misleading, and conceal the destruction behind the average wooden dinner table or lounge chair.
The device that you’re most likely reading this on contains a valuable mineral found in African rainforests. Coltan prevents devices from overheating, but the cost of such a material is far more than the money used to buy it.
Coltan is a conflict mineral, lying in the rainforests of the Democratic Republic of Congo, home to the remaining gorilla population. The dense rainforests house these gentle giants, providing cover and food in the form of fibrous stalks. Like the orangutans, their population is strained under the destruction that the mining causes to their fragile habitat. Aside from the aggressive efforts to find Coltan in the streams weaving through the rainforest, miners destroy the surrounding area and leave their own stain through bushmeat sales and disease.
What can I do?
The solution to this problem is a lot more complicated than not buying certain furniture at Pier 1. Coltan is, quite literally, in almost every technological product on the market. To ask tech companies to stop using Coltan all together is a big ask, and probably won’t be happening any time soon.
Miners and loggers risk their lives by entering these dense rainforests in search of lumber and Coltan. They operate under terrible conditions for laughable salaries, often sent in without food or other necessary resources. This situation creates the perfect breeding ground for bushmeat sales.
Bushmeat, in this case, is the meat of great apes like chimpanzees and gorillas. Rather than give their workers food as they venture into the forests, employers give them guns to shoot great apes with, so that they may harvest their meat instead.
The meager pay motivates these employees to not just kill and eat the apes themselves, but sell their parts for a decent price in discrete markets. Bushmeat has been a delicacy in certain parts of Africa for generations, served at important parties and events, or merely when one wants to show off.
The trade does not exist in Africa alone, but has stretched around the world, even happening in the United States.
(My professor once told a story about attending an ape conservation seminar in Africa, where they had a large dinner. The head of the party apparently served bushmeat, seeking to impress his guests.)
What can I do?
There are organizations actively dedicated to tracking and reporting sales of bushmeat around the world. Raising awareness of the issue is key, and unless you’re interested in joining one of these undercover prevention groups, there’s probably not much you can do aside from not eating bushmeat yourself.
There are videos out on the internet where baby chimps and gorillas climb onto an unassuming tourist, cuddling, exploring, and generally being adorable. While these videos may seem cute, they actually might kill a whole family of apes.
Great apes are extremely similar to us genetically, with chimpanzees being the closest (some >99% similar). However, this similarity makes them just as susceptible to disease as we are.
Apes can contract the flu, HIV, and even COVID-19 just as easily as we do. So while ape tours give us amazing opportunities to see our closest genetic relative up close, interacting with them physically puts them in harm’s way. While we remain vaccinated against these diseases, ape populations are not protected in the same way. Disease can easily circulate amongst a clan of apes, potentially killing a large number of them in the process. Such diseases have even touched apes through well-intentioned researchers, killing off many of the apes they sought to observe.
Such ape interactions between humans has decreased along with international travel during the pandemic, but as the world begins to open once more, the apes will be just as vulnerable as before.
What can I do?
If you happen to find yourself on one of these life-changing ape tourism expeditions, make sure to protect them from, well, you. Wearing masks on these tours remains highly encouraged, to prevent the spread of even the flu. Interacting with these apes is highly discouraged, as even the briefest contact can spread a virus.
Did you think zoos were the best case scenario? You, and many others, would be dead wrong. Locking these great apes in cages might seem like a better alternative to leaving them in their destroyed habitats, but the isolation and less-than-ideal living conditions prove otherwise.
Historic testing on great apes for medicinal and cosmetic products have killed many, and while the practice seems to have decreased in frequency, it hasn’t stopped altogether.
Invasive biomedical research is often conducted on apes due to their genetic similarity to humans. Many, however, are tortured or die in the process. Aside from use in experiments, the illegal pet trade and zoos continue to rip apes, and other species, away from their natural habitats. Apes often cover great amounts of ground daily, and cannot possibly be sustained in an area as small as an enclosure or home. Baby apes remain desirable as pets, rather than fully grown counterparts. To capture a baby, hunters often kill the rest of the family.
Separating them from other members of their species does them no good socially, and overall captivity leads to a miserable, and sometimes shorter, life than that in the wild.
What can I do?
Do not, I repeat, do not bring an ape into your home. They may seem like the perfect pet that movies and television portray them as, but the lengths to which people go to obtain these animals is far from conducive to a prosperous ape population.
Not supporting zoos or companies that have products tested on animals is another way of protesting the captivity of great apes.
The palm oil industry possibly incorporates all the elements discussed already. Palm oil is harvested from massive plantations, deposited right on territory inhabited by orangutans, the great ape most in danger of extinction.
To create a plantation, the towering trees that orangutans use to house themselves and their babies are cut down in droves. To truly level the land, companies burn the remaining foliage, with orangutans often caught in the crosshairs. This scorched earth policy leaves individual orangutans to wander around, often onto the same palm oil plantations or other farms in search of food.
Farmers don’t take too kindly to the apes eating their hard-earned crops, so they are either chased off the land or shot. Conservationists often try to save orangutans from this same fate by taking them in, but once they are cared for by humans, incorporating them back into wild populations can be near impossible.
Palm oil permeates our lives through the many products that we eat and groom ourselves with. Like teak, it is cheap, and thus put in everything. While many snack manufacturers banned the use of palm oil, many continue to use them.
(For a fun activity, see how many products around your home contain palm oil.)
What can I do?
Check your products’ ingredient list for palm oil. Apps are dedicated to this very thing, allowing you to search or scan your products for their use of palm oil. Like the other causes discussed so far, foundations and conservationist groups are dedicated to stopping the use of palm oil, and are always accepting members and donations.
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