Meet the man fighting to save the orangutans of Indonesia

Orangutans have lost more than 80 percent of their habitat over the last several decades due to intensive farming and deforestation across the rainforests of Indonesia.

Of all the animals on the planet, orangutans are some of the most genetically similar to humans. We share 97 percent of our DNA with the great apes, who have lost more than 80 percent of their habitat over the last several decades due to intensive farming and deforestation across the rainforests of Indonesia.

With the extinction of critically endangered Sumatran orangutans likely in the next ten years, and with the Bornean species soon to follow, advocates in the region are intervening to preserve the animals’ remaining habitat, as well as protecting orangutans from poaching and hunting.

For the last twenty years, The Orangutan Project has been working across Indonesia to reintroduce orangutans, purchase and protect rainforest habitats, and find solutions with indigenous communities that create economic opportunity for locals — without a negative long-term environmental impact.

Founder Leif Cocks has been working with orangutans for more than thirty years, and was part of the first successful reintroduction of a zoo-born orangutan. Reintroducing an orangutan is a process that takes years.

founder of orangutan project in forest Cocks is a passionate campaigner for orangutans and has been the President of The Orangutan Project since its inception. (Photo: The Orangutan Project)

They first spend time in a quarantined area, where they begin acclimating to the wild and gathering food. After being integrated into a group of wild orangutans, workers continue monitoring their progress, using basic commands to communicate in Indonesian.

“Through my work with orangutans, I’ve learned that they’re self-aware and intelligent beings just like we are, and they don’t deserve to be driven to extinction, certainly not in this horrific way,” Cocks said.

“I started this project to protect their remaining viable habitat, which is essentially scraps of remaining forest at this point, as well as protect the remaining wild population and rescue the ones that have been captured. We also protect elephants and tigers; every living thing has value.”

Across the region, large multinational corporations have converted rainforest to farms producing rubber and palm oil. The ubiquity of palm oil as a cheap ingredient in a variety of foods has meant millions in short-term profits for companies, but Cocks emphasizes that a focus on those short-term gains has left some species devastated and local communities without a viable economic future.

wildlife protection units in indonesia The Wildlife Protection Units (WPUs), entirely funded by TOP, are responsible for patrolling the Bukit Tigapuluh (BTP) National Park and buffer zone, where over 150 Sumatran orangutans have been released. (Photo: The Orangutan Project)

“The monetary cost of palm oil in the short term appears cheap, but I would argue that it’s one of the most expensive products in the world,” Cocks said. “The true cost is passed on to future communities, deprived of their ancestral land and future productivity. Productive monoculture farming in rainforest soil is not sustainable, so we work with indigenous communities to cope with this dramatic shift in their environment.”

The organization creates economic opportunity using a diverse model that includes jungle hunting, which is harvesting products for the Chinese medicine market as well as for dye-making and cooking. “Vanilla bean is in high demand, and we are also experimenting with shade coffee,” Cocks said. “You can extract a great deal of money from the rainforest without exploiting it.”

When corporations purchase and clear land, workers often capture and sometimes kill surrounding orangutans. The Orangutan Project partners with a local organization, the Center for Orangutan Protection, to find orangutans before they’re killed, as well as to rescue orphaned babies who may have been left behind. They also partner with a local ecological society to reintroduce orangutans and reestablish extinct populations.

man holds baby orangutan Founder Leif Cocks has been working with orangutans for more than thirty years. (Photo: The Orangutan Project)

“Most importantly, we fund obtaining land across Indonesia and protecting that land with park rangers. We are piecing together viable ecosystems to carry orangutans and other wildlife through the extinction crisis,” he said.

“It’s important to remember that protecting the rainforest is the cheapest and most effective way to prevent global warming, so this has an impact on everyone.”

As part of his work, Cocks also takes donors and other interested parties into the rainforest to meet orangutans and experience the environment he is passionate about preserving. “It’s a personal journey where people encounter humanity in the eyes of an orangutan and learn more about the importance of non human persons,” he said.

mockup of book In Finding Our Humanity, Cocks shares what the great apes, conservation, and a more philosophical approach to life can teach us about our humanity. (Photo: The Orangutan Project)

To further promote this idea, Cocks has written a book, Finding Our Humanity. Typically based in Australia, he’s currently on tour in the United States promoting the book, with an upcoming event scheduled in Long Island on July 11.

“My book connects people to this conservation work and to meaningful ways to bring about change. It’s about the humanity in non-human beings around us, but also how can we break out of this cycle of hope and despair that saps our energy and makes it hard to do the things we need to do to protect the environment,” he said.

headshot of writer Meghan Holmes

Meghan Holmes is an Alabama-born, New Orleans-based freelance writer and documentarian. She has a master's degree in Southern Studies from the University of Mississippi and is a fellow at Loyola's Institute of Environmental Communication. She also serves as project director of a nonprofit, Righteous Fur, working to connect regional artists and designers to nutria trappers in south Louisiana.

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