As local leaders in Indonesia strive to save the Sumatran orangutan, they’re also helping to save us from the next pandemic.
In 2017, the Cinta Raja site was bare. The only signs of life in the forest’s depleted soil were stumps of macheted oil palm trees and some hardy grasses. The restoration site in Sumatra, Indonesia is part of the Leuser Ecosystem—2.6 million hectares of tropical rainforest and one of the last places on Earth that the endangered Sumatran elephant, rhino, tiger, and orangutan call home.
The ecosystem itself is in danger after companies extracted everything from palm oil to rubber. As the forest disappears, animals die or are forced to search for food on new frontiers. The more than 4 million people who live in the area get closer.
And that poses another threat: the next pandemic.
Deforestation and COVID-19
A growing body of scientific evidence links deforestation to the increased spread of infectious diseases like COVID-19.
And people are felling forests at an alarming rate.
“The spread of oil palm plantations into critical orangutan habitat is the single greatest threat to the species,” Panut Hadisiswoyo of the nonprofit Sumatran Orangutan Society wrote in a report in 2012. The nonprofit works to protect forests and the orangutans that live in them at the Cinta Raja site and across Sumatra’s Gunung Leuser National Park.
While the Sumatran orangutan nears extinction, animals like rats and bats can survive deforestation. But they’re more likely to carry infectious diseases, and as the barriers between humans and wildlife erode, those viruses are more likely to jump into people.
The World Health Organization’s report about the origin of the coronavirus that has killed millions across the globe over the past year says the most likely chain of transmission was from bats to another animal and then to humans. COVID-19 is among the 61% of known infectious diseases in humans that can be transmitted by animals (called zoonotic diseases).
We know the symptoms of the virus: cough, shortness of breath, fatigue, runny nose.
We should also know that COVID-19 is a symptom of the climate crisis.
Addressing the drivers of rising global temperatures, changing weather patterns, and dwindling biodiversity can also address the threat of future pandemics.
Solutions to the climate crisis—including reforestation and conservation—are already firmly rooted in Indigenous approaches to the environment. The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization recently highlighted Indigenous people as the guardians of the world’s forests.
People like the local leaders of the Sumatran Orangutan Society’s reforestation projects.
They’re working to repair damaged forests with hundreds of thousands of tree seedlings, restore habitats that have been stolen from the orangutans and other native species, and protect these environments into the future.
“Restoring degraded land so that it can become a thriving habitat for orangutans and other wildlife takes a lot of hard work, and planting seeds is just the beginning,” Lucy Radford, Sumatran Orangutan Society’s Engagement Manager, shared.
Tree planting is exactly how the team started in June 2017 with 75 hectares of land that used to be devoted to illegal oil palms. They replanted 16,500 seedlings from 22 different species to cover 15 hectares. That quickly became 30 hectares, and they’ll continue until all 75 hectares are recovered.
Across their restoration sites in Sumatra, the nonprofit has helped plant 2 million trees.
“At SOS, we’re thinking big picture, trying to bring about fundamental changes to the way that the rainforest ecosystem is valued, managed, and protected,” Sumatran Orangutan Society Director Helen Buckland said in 2019. “But we’re also celebrating small steps—the trees planted, communities engaged, and orangutans’ lives saved.”
In February, three years after their replanting began at the barren Cinta Raja site, Restoration Manager Rio Ardi was walking through the forest. He looked up. And he saw, with fruit in her hand and a baby at her side, an orangutan.
You can support people who are protecting endangered species and restoring forests by donating to the Sumatran Orangutan Society.
Featured Photo: Replanting Rainforest in Sumatra, Indonesia by Sumatran Orangutan Society
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