Sumatran orangutans are one of the most critically endangered species on the planet and could be the first out our great apes to become extinct in the wild if we do not take radical steps to protect the rainforests in which they live.

Helen Buckland

Helen Buckland

The Sumatran orangutan have been pushed to the brink of extinction because of the humans encroaching on their territory and turning the beautiful rainforests into palm oil and paper plantations, as well as gold mines and roads. Not only are the orangutans and a wide range of other animals in danger because of this practice, but the loss of the rainforests will also have a massive impact on climate chance - which effects us all.

We caught up with Helen Buckland, the director of the Sumatran Orangutan Society (SOS), to chat about their latest fundraising campaigns, the plight of the Sumatran orangutan, and what more needs to be done to ensure their survival.

- You have launched the Ape-Ril campaign, so can you tell me a bit about it?

We launched the Ape-Ril campaign three years ago and it started off by being a way to encourage our male supporters are around the world to unleash their inner ape and go wild for orangutans by growing a beard; sponsored beard growth was the main impetus being the campaign originally. This year we are really keen to open it up to everyone to get involved: so women and kids as well.

We wanted to put some ideas together about everyone can get involved and so it is notjust about men and beards anymore. We want women to dye their hair bright red for example, and there are many other suggestions in the Ape-Ril fundraising guide, including a bake sale or wearing a cut-out beard so you look a bit more like a orangutan. It is really about focused month of raising awareness about the Sumatran orangutans, the threat facing them in the wild, and raising funds for their protection.

- The campaign is now in its third year, so how can people get involved to raise awareness and money for the Sumatran Orangutan Society?

We have our main SOS website, which is and we have our Ape-Ril website - which is just for the campaign - and that is On that site, there is some information about what we are doing, some great photos, and you get set up an online fundraising page directly from that website. The online fundraising page is great as it is like a blog, you can post a photo and let people know what you are doing and post updates throughout the month and let people know how you are getting on.

If you share the link, people can really follow you and your story of how you are going wild for orangutans throughout the month. There is also a fundraising guide on there as well as some social media images that people can put on their Facebook timeline. There is also a competition as we have a 'Hairy Hall of Fame.' So, there are many ways to join the orangutan crew for the month.

- As I said, the campaign is in its third year. So how money from Ape-Ril campaigns in the past been used by SOS?

The thing about a community fundraising campaign like this is that the funds are raised are available for us to use wherever they are most needed. So, we have run a huge range of projects in Sumatra and campaigned from here in the UK. The funds that we have raised in the last couple of years have helped us with our Rainforest Restoration Project and we have now planted over 1.5 million trees - not just with Ape-Ril funds - to restore damaged rainforests in Sumatra; that is recreated lost orangutan habitat.

We have also used the funds to support our Orangutan Rescue Programme. Since 2010 with have rescued sixty four orangutans that were either being kept illegally as pets or have been trapped on farmland and not in a patch of forest that was big enough with enough food to survive. We have rescued those animals and have moved them back into safe forests. We have already rescued eleven orangutans this year, so that is quite a big problem and an area that really does need funds and donations to help keep the rescue team on the road and helping orangutans. It also supports the general work that we do here in the UK, which includes campaigning; which is a really important aspect of the work, as we need to make sure there are safe habitats and safe forests in Sumatra and stop the rainforests falling.

Some of the campaign work that we have done recently included our Clear Label Not Forests Campaign, where we called on the European Parliament to pass new legislation that palm oil should be labelled clearly on products. Palm oil is an ingredient that we find in all kinds of packaged food products, as well as cosmetics, lipstick, shampoo and soap but the production of palm oil one of the leading threats to orangutans because forests are being cleared for palm plantations to grow for this commodity.

Our campaign convinced the European Parliament to make it mandatory for palm oil to be labelled on packaging; it was previously hidden under the generic term vegetable oil. It means that consumers now have much more information at their fingertips and can now make informed decisions about what they buy and they can ask companies where the palm oil in their products has come from to make sure that it is not coming from areas that use to be prime orangutan habitat. That was a really important piece of work that we were able to carry out thanks to people supporting us through things like the Ape-Ril campaign.

- You are the director of the Sumatran Orangutan Society, so how did you get involved with the SOS? And what drew you to this role?

I have been at SOS for over nine years now. Prior to that, I was doing some research in Indonesia about the impact of the palm oil on orangutans; which is directly linked to the role I have now. Before that, I was very interested in the intelligence of great apes. There are a group of great apes in a facility in America that have been taught to speak sign language an can now communicate with humans using American sign language - these apes are also teaching their own offspring using sign language. I found that fascinating and I went over there to volunteer at that facility.

I came back from that trip really passionate about protecting these fantastic animals in the wild - that means protecting their habitat as well. I got involved with SOS, as it was an organisation that was doing some fantastic work on the front line in Sumatra, where they are working with local conversationalists who are fighting for the forests and the orangutans.

- When you think of endangered animals, perhaps the orangutan is not one that immediately springs to mind. Just how endangered a species are they?

There are two species of orangutans; there is the Borneo orangutan, which gets far more media coverage than the Sumatran species. You see many orangutan rescue centres and a lot of people travel to Borneo to see the orangutans. The Borneo orangutan is endangered but the Sumatran species is critically endangered as there are only 6,500 left in the wild; they could be the first great ape to become extinct if we don't act urgently to save their forests.

Orangutans are also fantastic ambassadors for the rainforests - I know that it seems like an issue that is very far away and on the other side of the world - but the forests where the orangutans live in Sumatra is the only place in the world where orangutans, tigers, elephants, and rhinos all live together. If we save the forests for the orangutans, then we are also saving these other critically endangered species who share their home. I think orangutans should be the new poster child for climate change as protecting rainforest and stopping the deforestation of rainforests is one of the best ways we can act to combat climate change.

- What have been the major factors to their decline in recent years?

The human development of the forest for agriculture is a major factor. The palm oil industry has been a major driver of deforestation. Basically, are arboreal animals and need trees to survive - they live in trees, they build a new nest in the trees every night to sleep in, the food that they eat is found high up in the forest canopy - so if you are cutting down trees, it is pretty much a disaster for orangutans. There is a lot of competition for land on Sumatra and Borneo, which are the only two islands that they exist on.

There is the palm oil industry, there is the pulp and paper industry, roads are built, there's gold mining - basically, humans are expanding into areas where orangutans and other species are living in and we are finding more and more cases of orangutans being stranded in tiny patches of forest that are surrounded by plantations and farmland. They are unable to survive in these patches of forest and they are seen as a pest because, in order to survive, they may raid the crops of the farmers and steal the fruit that they are growing. As a result, they can be shot or, if there is a mother and a baby, the mother will be shot and the baby will be sold into the illegal pet trade.

There is really a whole range of problems that all come down to the forest falling and our main focus is to intervene, change the fate of the species by keeping those forests standing, and restore lost forests. We work really closely with the locals in Sumatra to help them value the forests.

- The Sumatran rainforest is being destroyed at quite a rate to make way for gold mining and oil palm plantations - threatening many species not just Orangutan. What is the realistic future for the Sumatran Orangutan? How quickly could they disappear if major steps are not taken?

Certainly, within our lifetime it is very possible… there is one large area of forest in Sumatra that is the last stronghold for the species called the Leuser Ecosystem. At the moment, the government is proposing massive development plans to turn these forests into oil palm plantations, gold mines, and roads and if that happens we are really only looking at a few years for the orangutans to survive.

When roads and developments go into the forest, more and more humans flock to the area, the forests will be fragmented and the orangutans won't be able to move around and find enough food to survive, and there will be a lot more poaching for the pet trade. At the moment, we are fighting hard to make sure that these plans don't ever come to fruition because it could spell disaster for the species. This is the most urgent battle that we have to fight for them.

- SOS was established back in 1997, what impact do you feel the organisation has made during that time?

One of the big strengths of SOS is that we set up a set up a sister organisation in Sumatra and all of the funds that we raise and all of the projects that we support are run on the front line by Sumatran conversationalists - everything we do is to support them and their work. They are the ones that are able to work with the government and try and influence policy so that… there are a lot of laws that exist in Indonesia to protect orangutans and the forests that they live in, however, those laws are not really being enforced - this results in a lot of illegal deforestation.

Because we have such a strong relationship with the people on the ground, they are really able to work with the government and work with local communities, who are really the biggest stakeholders in all of this because many communities are affected by natural disasters like flooding and landslides when forests are bulldozed. It really does benefit local communities for us to be protecting these forests. One of the strengths is this local approach - it is not Westerns going in there saying 'you need to protect your forests, even though we have destroyed ours,' it is really making it relevant and important to these people to keep their forests standing as it benefits them, their livelihoods, their families, and their future generations.

We all want to see these orangutans survive and we want to see these rainforests left standing because of the role that they play in climate change. However, we also have to think about what the local people need and they want mobile phones, cars, and the latest fashion and gadget like us and why shouldn't they have them? And they can, but it doesn't have to come at the expense of the rainforest.

- Sumatra does seem a long way away when you are living in the UK, so how can people help? And how important is it educating our children?

It is really important. Back in the early days, a lot of the work came through education with local people Sumatra as well as here in the UK. Education is always the first step to people becoming engaged with an issue; you have to know about it in order to care about it. We recently launched a school pack that is specifically designed for kids between the age of five and eleven, which had loads of resources to teach them about rainforests, orangutan conservation and our link to what is happening on the other side of the world. Palm oil is something that effect us all - in the morning, if we have a slice of toast with margarine on it and then go and brush out teeth, we have already used three different products with palm oil in them.

We are not saying that use shouldn't use products containing palm oil, but you need to appreciate all of these things that we take for granted everyday come from somewhere and products that we use have a footprint. We want people to understand and appreciate that as well as put pressure on companies to make sure they are taking deforestation out of their supply chain. When it comes to young people, families, school classes, and individuals who have become so passionate about the cause and want to undertake fundraising or awareness projects have blown us away.

These are the leaders of tomorrow, they are the next generation of politicians and business leaders and if they can understand and appreciate the value of the natural world, and the fact that we don't need to destroy it for our own short-tern gain, then that has got to be a part of our long-term plan to keep orangutans and other species alive in the future.

- Finally, what is on the horizon for you and SOS as we go through 2015?

Once we have completed the Ape-Ril campaign, we will fighting against the spatial plan that is threatening to destroy the Leuser Ecosystem. This is the biggest thing that we need to keep an eye on this year. We are also working on some other campaigns to keep forests safe in Sumatra and to support law enforcement, which is such an important issue.

As I mentioned, there are some laws to protect orangutans - such as it is illegal to keep an orangutan as a pet. However, we often see the police officers and the government are the ones that have them as pets and they like to be seen to be above the law that they are supposed to be enforcing.

We want to focus on trying to stamp out the practice of keeping orangutans as pets as t hey really do need to be wild and free in the forest. If we can stop people wanting to keep them as pets, then we can reduce poaching and reduce that threat as we are fighting to keep the forest safe. It really has to be a holistic approach to the all the threats facing the species and we really will be looking at that this year.

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