If something isn't done soon, one of mankind's closest cousin may go the way of the dodo.
Orangutans, who live exclusively in the Asian jungles of Borneo and Sumatra, are dying at an alarming rate-5,000 every year. Only 62,000 are alive in the wild. At this rate, scientists say, they will be extinct in less than 20 years.
Conservationists from the around the world met at Brookfield Zoo last Thursday for the largest gathering ever dedicated to saving this great ape.
Discussing ways to save the animal in its own environment, they held the first-ever workshop to boost the animal's population in the United States.
The surprising culprit of their demise: a global diet craze.
"The single biggest threat to orangutan survival is palm oil," said Dr. Ian Singleton, director of the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Program in Indonesia.
The problem is that the dense jungle areas where orangutans make their home are being razed. They are being cleared to make room for palm oil plants, prized by manufacturers for having no trans-fatty acids. Palm oil is viewed by many as a healthier substitute for traditional oils, which have been linked to heart disease and obesity.
The soils of Borneo and Sumatra, home to the world's largest orangutan populations, are good spots for palm oil growth. After clearing the area, zoologists said palm oil trees are planted in huge numbers.
Palm trees "completely destroy the forest," Singleton said. "It takes every last stick away."
"The orangutan is tied to the ecosystem," said Singleton. The primates disperse seeds, remove troublesome plants and "keep the forest healthy."
American zoologists and conservationists are working in tandem to try to create awareness inside the Asian governments where the apes live.
The task is a daunting one.
"There is a shortage of competent conservation managers" in Sumatra where most orangutans live, said Dr. Serge Wich, internationally renowned orangutan researcher. The government and environmental officials lack computers, satellite images of their own territories or any current research.
Another risk comes from the animal's inherent cuteness. Companies worldwide clamor to get apes into commercials, greeting cards and films. The entertainment industry, Wich says, uses them as adorable babies and young children.
But the gig is short lived.
"Their working lives are done by the age of 8," said Barb Shaw, from the Orangutan Conservancy in Aptos, Calif. Shaw said that since the animals can live up to 60 years or more, studios frequently discard them when they get too large, selling them to side shows or illegally to private owners for $4,000 or less.
The scientists recommended a boycott of all media that portrays the animals in unnatural surroundings, such as dressed in human clothes or riding bicycles.
"The worst place to see [orangutans] is in the entertainment industry," said Lori Perkins, Orangutan Species Survival Plan chair. "The best place to see them is in southeastern Asia. The next one is in accredited zoos."
The conference, which ended Thursday, gave zoologists and scientists the best chance yet of bringing this animal back from the precipice; Meanwhile, the question remains: Will the appealing animals be around for generations to come?
Sustainable, orangutan-friendly products
The orangutan population is threatened by log-clearing for palm plantations on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo in Southeast Asia. Palm oil is widely used in many products. According to the Orangutan Species Survival Plan Husbandry Workshop, the following are sustainable, orangutan-friendly products widely available on the market:
ConAgra Trade Group, Inc.
Newman's Own Organics
Personal care brands
The Body Shop Intl.