Baby Asoka clasps the mask of a rescue worker, desperate for a mother’s love. Like all orang-utans, he should have been cared for by his mum until the age of seven.
Instead, he was found alone in the rainforest, crying, when he was just four months old. His mother is believed to have been a casualty of deforestation – the result of the rainforest being cut down to produce palm oil, a substance used in many everyday products.
Nearly 150,000 orangutans have been slaughtered in their native Borneo in the past 15 years, leaving just 70,000 and making them critically endangered.
And while International Animal Rescue has saved more than 400 of the apes, it’s not enough.
The charity says that 20 of these incredible creatures are killed each day. If that continues, a third of their population will be slaughtered by 2020 and they will be extinct by 2048.
IAR’s British chief executive, Alan Knight, says time is nearly up for the apes. “To say orang-utans are critically endangered is an understatement. They are on the path to extinction.”
He continues: “If you look into an orang-utan’s eyes, it is like making eye contact with another human. There is a profound sense of intelligence and understanding there. They think, they assess, they feel. It makes me wonder how we can be so cruel to these animals.”
Asoka is one of the lucky ones. He is now being raised by a human, along with 100 other orphans, at IAR’s sanctuary in Borneo.
The young apes will be taught to survive and eventually re-released into the wild, where they’ll be free but always at risk.
Astounding footage of the charity’s many rescues will be shown in the BBC documentary Red Ape: Saving the Orang-utan next month.
Our exclusive pictures show some of the most heartbreaking moments – from Asoka’s small hand reaching out for affection, to the treatment of Jambu, an adult brought in for emergency surgery after being shot 13 times by a pellet gun.
One of the main reasons orang-utans are being wiped out is the surging global demand for palm oil, popular because it is versatile and cheap.
Despite numerous high-profile campaigns to ban its use, it can still be found in many staples from shampoo and soap, to bread and biscuits.
The oil comes from the fruits of oil palm trees, and rainforests are being razed to make room for oil plam plantations.
An area of Borneo forest the size of a football pitch is cleared every 47 seconds, destroying the habitat many species depend on.
IAR has set up an emergency rescue team to save orang-utans trapped without food and water after their patch of forest has been levelled.
In one harrowing scene in the documentary, a frightened and confused orang-utan has lost her baby and is cowering at the top of the last tree amid the destruction.
When she eventually climbs down to find water, the team manage to sedate her and release her in a safe area of rainforest but they cannot find her baby. Without its mother, it has no chance of survival.
Alan says: “There is nothing more upsetting than being called to rescue an orang-utan from a desolate area of rainforest that has been cleared – smoke rising from the trenches they have dug to drain the peat so they can grow palm oil [trees].
“It is horrifying to see a poor orangutan trying to escape our rescue team because they think we are going to hurt them. It is traumatic.”
Demand for palm oil is expected to double by 2050. And while many British suppliers get it from sustainable sources – which don’t affect wildlife – campaigners are calling for that to be the norm across the board, or for a substitute to be used.
This month, Iceland became the first British supermarket to promise to scrap all palm oil from its products by the end of the year, until its suppliers can guarantee their palm oil is 100% sustainable.
Alan supports Iceland’s move and has agreed to accept a donation from the retailer every time someone shares its Alarm Call campaign.
Other supermarkets, including Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Morrisons and Waitrose, have also taken big steps by pledging to only use sustainable palm oil certified by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil.
But charity chiefs have told the Mirror that there are still many non-sustainable palm oil products available in the UK through other shops.
And while palm oil may be the biggest threat to orang-utans, it is not the only one. A new study by scientists, including vet Karmele Llano Sanchez, found they had previously underestimated the number of apes poached for bushmeat.
As many as 100,000 orang-utans may have been killed for food.
Their orphaned babies are often sold illegally as pets for less than £80, or cruelly trained to entertain tourists in Thailand and China, as the Mirror revealed this month.
And, because the forests are shrinking so fast, more orang-utans are being forced into a smaller area, so many locals do not realise they are critically endangered, and continue to hunt them.
Other apes, like Jambu, are shot by fruit farmers trying to protect their crops. One of the bullets lodged in his spine, partially paralysing his legs. But after a short stay in quarantine at the sanctuary, Jambu was released back into the wild.
The charity is now working to stop locals killing orang-utans. In particular, they are targeting children, who they hope will help to educate their parents.
It is also supplying fertiliser made from local animal dung to farmers to keep their current plots viable, and stop them destroying more of the forest.
Alan says: “We’ve had our first 10 years in Borneo and have been successful at rescuing individual orang-utans, but are we really saving the species? No.
“So, in the next 10 years we would like to start buying vast tracts of land where these orang-utans will be properly protected. If we don’t, I fear orang-utans will soon be extinct in the wild.
“But I have to believe there is hope. I believe it is possible for orang-utans to make a comeback. I dream of a day when locals take tourists out to watch the orang-utans living wild in their forests. That way, everyone wins.”
- Red Ape: Saving the Orang-utan is on BBC Two on May 10 at 9pm. To help, visit internationalanimalrescue.org .
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