Happy International Orangutan Day – or not so happy, as the case may be. August 19th is being marked to recognize the dangers facing the most iconic victim of the palm oil industry.
I first encountered orangutans twenty years ago. I was holidaying on the island of Borneo and came across a sanctuary where young orphaned orangutans were being returned to the wild. The Sepilok Rehabilitation Centre is now a well-know stop on the tourist trail, but at the time, visitors could wander unrestricted into the jungle as rangers took food for the young orphans. When the orangutans heard the sound of the ranger they would appear out of nowhere and descend to the ground to grab a piece of fruit from the ranger’s bucket.
It was an incredible experience, made all the more special because we were able to get so close to the orangutans. One cheeky chappie stole a tourist’s scarf from her neck, played with it for a bit and then tossed it aside. A little while later, he came down from his treetop vantage point, unzipped a girl’s money belt, started pulling out notes and eating them. Every time she pulled his hand from her money belt, he used a foot to help himself to more cash.
As we were leaving the sanctuary the same orangutan was sitting on the boardwalk, like he was planning to wave us farewell. But that’s not what he had in mind. As I walked past, he grabbed my hand. I tried to pull it free, but he was too strong for me. I was stuck. With no sign of the ranger, I had to bribe the orangutan to let me go, handing over a silver pen to secure my free passage.
The orangutans really got to me and I have been hoping to incorporate these amazing primates into one of my stories for many years. I finally did in my latest Choose Your Own Ever After story for tweens.
The Call of the Wild is a pick-a-path story, that lets the reader decide how the story goes. In this one, nature-loving Phoebe has to choose between going to a super-cool party with her friends or helping out at a save-the-orangutan fundraiser.
The story is light and fun, but the facts behind it are serious. Orangutans are rapidly losing their habitats in Asia due to widespread palm oil cultivation, logging and fires. At the current rate, orangutans will be extinct in the wild in the next ten years in Sumatra, and soon after in Borneo. What a tragedy – one that some amazing charities are fighting to avert. Will they win or will they lose?
I wish I could make a choice on that one.