Dr. Karmele Llano Sanchez was working as a vet on the Indonesian island of Borneo when she was called to treat an orangutan called Jojo. It was an experience Sanchez says changed her life forever.
Jojo was being kept illegally as a pet, and when Sanchez found him he was chained up by his ankle and surrounded by litter and dirty sewage water. She broke open the chain and gave him some medication. But once she was done, she had to put the chain back on and leave Jojo because there was nowhere to take him.
This encounter, back in 2008, drove her to set up a center to rehabilitate orangutans. A year later, she went back to get Jojo. After years of mistreatment and poor nutrition, he was disabled and had been left unable to survive in the wild, but he would never be chained up again.
Today, Sanchez’s team of more than 250 people at the Indonesian branch of International Animal Rescue is on the frontline of rescuing and rehabilitating vulnerable orangutans on Borneo before releasing them — when possible — back into the wild.
About 87 percent of the world’s orangutans live on Borneo, although their numbers have fallen dramatically over the past two decades. Conservationists estimate 150,000 have been lost from the island’s forests in the past 16 years alone, leaving as few as 70,000.
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Some of the animals that Sanchez’s team has rescued had been taken from their mothers to be illegally sold as pets, or had spent their entire lives imprisoned or chained up in captivity, like Jojo. But a significant number had ended up stranded, starved or orphaned as a result of the systematic destruction of the rainforest for a cheap, mass-produced commodity few consumers have even heard of: palm oil.
From snack foods to cosmetics, about half of the packaged items in our grocery stores contain palm oil. To produce the oil, huge swaths of rainforest in Indonesia and neighboring Malaysia are cleared every year. As well as being a significant driver of climate pollution, human rights abuses and labor exploitation, this deforestation destroys fragile, biodiverse habitats on which animals such as orangutans — but also rhinos, tigers and elephants — depend.
While some brands proudly advertise their use of sustainable palm oil — meaning production has to meet certain environmental and labor standards — in reality, there’s no such thing, Sanchez says.
“Sustainable? I mean, monoculture cannot be sustainable, period,” says the 39-year-old, shaking her head. “If you maybe ask me about a more environmentally friendly palm oil, yes, it would be possible. Although at the moment it does not exist.”
The work Sanchez and her team does is messy, complicated stuff that involves bringing together companies, government authorities and communities in an effort to get primates back to their natural habitats — even if this isn’t everyone’s priority — and ideally prevents the need for any rescue efforts to start with. Sanchez is adamant that while this kind of cross-sector work is hard, it is vital since rehabilitation and reintroduction efforts alone are not a solution.
“It’s like when you are sick and you get a [painkiller] — you treat the symptoms but you don’t really solve the root of the problem. You can be treating the symptoms forever, right?” she says.
The answer, says Sanchez, lies in the private sector’s willingness to take the environment into account long before any forest destruction has occurred, to ensure orangutans’ habitat is not destroyed. While some companies have realized that it’s good for them to explore more sustainable ways of development, there are still so many that just don’t care, she says.
Then there’s the problem of companies relying on International Animal Rescue to remove orangutans once they have cut down forest. “It’s good that they call us [when they need help],” Sanchez says. “But, on the other hand, they should have never cleared forest where there were orangutans in the first place. We want to protect the animals, we want to save the animals, but we don’t want to be like a garbage cleaning service for these companies, you know: ‘I clear everything and then I find a couple of orangutans and then you come and pick them up. Problem solved!’ Right?”
Individuals have a role too — “you know, us, normal people,” Sanchez says. As palm oil consumers, we all need to put pressure on the private sector to do the right thing because we have power. If we stop consuming items, the whole system collapses.
“We can’t continue consuming as much as we do and pretend that we are going to protect the environment, it’s just not possible,” she says. “Chocolates, ice cream, snacks, Doritos — you know, you can live without them.”
Sanchez is hopeful there’s still time to do something if we act fast. “We are this generation of people seeing this massive extinction of wildlife species happen, you know,” she says. “It’s kind of at our fingertips and we are able to do something about it. Maybe it will be too late for the next generation. That’s a big responsibility. But it’s also a good feeling. That’s what keeps us going.”
U.K. viewers can follow Sanchez and her team in Borneo as they fight to save indigenous orangutans in “Red Ape: Saving the Orangutan” at 9 p.m. BST on May 10 on BBC Two.
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