The Body Shop Building Bridges to Save The World’s Rarest Orangutan

6 mins

A new species of orangutan, only recently discovered in Indonesia’s Sumatra, and now listed as the world’s rarest, is being protected from extinction thanks to efforts by eco beauty giant The Body Shop says Anthea Ayache  

Life is full of firsts. Even when it comes to the orangutan, a species that has inhabited this earth for well over two million years.

Just last month a new species of the popular red-haired ape was discovered in the remote jungles of Indonesia. The isolated group of Tapanuli orangutans were found in the northern Batang Toru forest on the island of Sumatra by scientists who had suspected their whereabouts for years, but had never had the fortune of a sighting. News of the finding prompted a global outpouring of love for the shaggy haired primates with celebrities including Leonardo DiCaprio’s foundation tweeting about the rare event. But the news elicited a bitter sweet reaction from the environmental community; joy at finally discovering the Pongo tapanuliensis, yet sorrow that these gentle apes were likely facing the very real possibility of extinction.

The Tapanuli orangutan is characterised by its frizzy hair and smaller face. Image: Andrew Walmsley

Experts were not wrong in their assessment. The Tapanuli orangutan – distinguished by its frizzy hair and small head – was last week officially listed as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). With an estimated population of just 800 surviving in a forest area of only 1,100 square kilometres, the species has already been branded the rarest great ape on Earth.

With an estimated population of just 800 surviving in a forest area of only 1,100 square kilometres, the species has already been branded the rarest great ape on Earth.

Tapanuli orangutans have lost 80 per cent of their population to habitat loss from human encroachment and, over the generations, have slowly but steadily been pushed back into their last remaining territory, the Tapanuli highlands and Batang Toru ecosystem.

The Tapanuli Orangutan will not breed healthily if they are isolated in pockets of rainforest. Image: Andrew Walmsley

A lush area of rainforest, characterised by cascading waterfalls, dense canopies and thousands of exotic flora and fauna, the Batang Toru ecosystem is also plagued by an open pit gold mine, a proposed electric power plant, illegal logging and hunting for food and the wildlife trade. While 85 per cent of the ecosystem has now been declared ‘protected’, some critical areas of primary rainforest remain vulnerable.

This lack of protection status combined with cumulative man-made threats, have driven orangutans – and other critically endangered species including the native Sumatran tiger and pangolin – from their homes, forcing them into isolated pockets of forest.

tapanuli orangutan

The biodiverse area is also home to the critically endangered Sumatran Tiger. Image: iStock

Managing these non-protected areas of primary rainforest is the focus of conservationists and is the aim of The Body Shop’s Bio-Bridges projects, an endeavour along with local partners Yayasan Ekosistem Lestari and the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme, to protect 130,000 hectares (1,300km2) of the Batang Toru ecosystem.

The Body Shop Bio-Bridges project – more commonly known as wildlife corridors – focuses on connecting habitats fragmented by deforestation, to areas of similar wildlife territory via strips of land that allow orangutans to migrate from one area to the next.

Developments such as gold mining and logging are threatening the continued existence of orangutans by separating the species native to the area and forcing them into isolated pockets where breeding numbers become too small for healthy population growth. The Body Shop’s bio-bridges programme intends to build corridors to conserve vulnerable orangutan habitats with the hope of repopulating their diminishing numbers.

Image: Andrew Walmsley

Simon Locke, International Environmental Sustainability Manager for The Body Shop and the man who engineered the bio-bridges programme, believes that fixing the fragmentation issue is key to their survival.

‘The Tapanuli orangutans are split into three locations. They are fragmented, they are living in endangered habitats, and they can’t connect. Without connecting these populations, their long-term survival is really at risk. Plus, there are threats in that particular area that means that the fragmentation could get worse, rather than better.’

One of the pressing issues facing the native species, is a proposed 510-megawatt hydroelectric dam. While it’s construction is part of a national drive to increase renewables to 23 per cent of the national energy mix by 2025, the choice for its location – occupying 645 hectares (6.45km2) of land along the Batang Toru river – would be a devastating blow to vulnerable species in the area.

The Batang Toru ecosystem is the last remaining habitat of the Tapanuli Orangutan. Image: Erwin Adriawan

‘I believe that some of the land in this area has already been bought up by power companies,’ explains Locke. ‘There’s also gold mining in this area, there’s geothermal energy companies interested, plus there are ever-growing populations in the forest areas. So, there’s a number of threats, but the key ones are from this particular dam project and other power companies.’

Building Bridges  

The Body Shop Bio-Bridges project is part of the ethical cosmetic company’s ‘enrich not exploit’ philosophy. Through donations from in-store transactions, they have been able to build an astounding 17.2 million square metres of Bio-Bridges across Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam and India so far, protecting critically endangered elephants, tigers, and orangutans amongst many others.

‘We’re looking to protect 75 million square metres of habitat by 2020’ explains Locke. ‘We want to build an additional ten Bio-Bridges by 2020, and we’re to arrange a minimum of £2 million (AED10m) to do it.’

He adds, ‘In Indonesia, we joined the Sumatra Orangutan Cultivation Programme last year, which was then funded through our Christmas promotion. The first stage was really to focus on the feasibility of a wildlife corridor, and the second stage, which is where we’re at now, is about calling for the Indonesia government to protect this habitat. I think everyone is hopeful that the announcement of this orangutan species is going to help focus the minds of government to do that.’

Since the discovery of the Tapanuli orangutan, and the global outpouring of will to ensure its survival, the Indonesian government has been pressured to intervene with the proposed hydro-electric dam.

Wiratno, the Director General of conservation of natural resources and ecosystems at Indonesia’s Forestry and Environment Ministry, told a news conference in Jakarta at the time of the discovery that its management will be a priority and is a ‘great challenge.’

Adding that they are ‘deeply committed to maintaining the survival of this species.’

While pressure groups continue to rally against the proposed dam, The Body Shop, and its regional partners, will play a crucial role in attempting to protect the newest yet most endangered ape in the world.

Christopher Davis,The Body Shop’s International Director of Corporate Responsibility and Campaigns says: ‘Just one year into the programme, it’s amazing that our Bio-Bridges programme will play such a crucial role in protecting one of the newest, most endangered species in the world. To discover a new species is hugely significant, especially if that species can be protected and enabled to thrive.’

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