Orangutan & Rainforest Protection with Leif Cocks

Orangutans are highly intelligent creatures that share 97% of human DNA. But these beloved primates are also critically endangered and so are the habitats they live in. 

Today’s episode is a conversation with world-renowned orangutan expert Leif Cocks who is also the founder and president of The Orangutan Project and has 30 plus years experience working with orangutans and advocating for rainforest protection and building sustainable local communities. 

We take a deep look into what it takes to protect orangutans in the wild which is crucial to their saving. We also explore climate change initiatives which include avoiding deforestation, investing in improved agriculture practices in indigenous and local communities and why a sustainable economy is the way forward. 

This episode has a lot of heart and it will explore the collective opportunity that is present to protect people, animals and the planet and the urgency to do so. 

Following the episode, you can reach out to The Orangutan Project for more information, to donate or receive updates on their incredible work.

EPISODE TRANSCRIPT

Angela: Hi Leif, thank you for joining me on the PROTECT Podcast today.

Leif: It’s great to be here. Thank you Angela.

Angela: You’re very welcome. I feel quite privileged to speak to you today. So, could you begin with telling me a little bit about orangutans. I’d love to know any personality traits or intuitive traits they have that people might find interesting?

Leif: Orangutans are one of the great apes of course. We’re a great ape ourselves. And while we’re not their closest relative – the chimpanzee the borneo are, they’re the most intelligent person that shares our planet. Self aware persons and highly intelligent. One of the great things about orangutans that I love so much is I see them as a more noble form of person – more noble than humans. They don’t have the aggressive nature and disruptive nature although us and our close cousins, the chimpanzees are capable of so much compassion and empathy. The flip side of that is that we’re capable of such atrocities and cruelty. Orangutans don’t seem to have that capacity. And the example I give although we’ve killed over a million of them – at least – with machetes and burning them alive and they’re stronger than humans. There hasn’t been any case in zoos, or the wild where an orangutan has killed a human being. They are the wonderful persons who share our planet. 

Angela: Well, that’s heartbreaking that they’ve been subject to horrible circumstances. So how endangered are they?

Leif: They’re critically endangered according to the International Union For Conversation which means if we don’t take immediate, direct action they will go extinct. That’s the only other category that’s worse than critically endangered. So we have no time to waste to pull back these remaining populations from extinction. And one of the many reasons they are critically endangered is that their habitat has been taken away and they’re being killed. 

But they’re the most slowly reproducing in the world. And slow reproduction is a key factor with animal populations going extinct. And the reason, ironically, why they reproduce so slowly is like humans, they adapt to their environment primarily by culture not by natural selection and they have to have these long maternal periods by training and teaching their children just for them to survive in the wild. So it makes it doubly important that we now act immediately and incisively to pull back the orangutans species from extinction.

Angela: So could you provide a definition of why it’s so important to protect them in the wild vs. captivity?

Leif: Yes, the first aspect of that is that as persons they don’t do well in captivity and then have long term mental illness and long term stress. And the reason is that it’s not necessarily that the zoo may be treating them good and zookeepers can be absolutely wonderful people, dedicated to their charges. However, it’s the same as what we know with people at refugee camps. A refugee camp may actually be better than what they’re running to and why they’re there, and the people running refugee camps are saints, they’re there to help people. But despite that, because they can’t control their futures, they can’t control who and when and how often they associate with – we know that people in refugee camps for an extended period of time experience long-term stress and long-term damage. 

Orangutans don’t do well in captivity. Additionally to that is one of the great myths – I mean zoos can do a lot of things when it comes to collecting people and maybe even helping small species alike but all the mega fauna in zoos is unsustainable. Zoo orangutans and gorillas and elephant populations can’t save themselves – we need to have these animals in the wild. So the idea that there is an arch of orangutan in captivity and we’re populating in time is actually not true. The animal population in captivity unless they get animals in the wild… will contribute to the survival of the species. 

The third thing is it’s just so much cheaper to do it in the wild. It’s like 10 per cent of the cost to save and protect an orangutan in the wild than it is to save an orangutan in the zoo. And you get all these benefits like the environmental service with the local community – mitigating global warming. In fact the cheapest most effective way to stop climate change is to protect and restore the rainforest and orangutans live in the most biodiverse rainforest in the world so you save all the biodiversity. So there’s just so many good win win situations for everybody to say the most effective way for orangutans and everybody else is to save them in the wild where they belong.

Angela: That’s really surprising about the cost to be honest. Do zoos know this? 

Leif: Oh yes, of course. Zoos portray themselves as conservation organisations. It would be a little bit like someone saying – I’ve given you a billion dollars to produce a car and they’d say, “What have you done?” And you’d say, “Well I’ve got great marketing, I’ve got a great design and all these things.” But you haven’t produced a car. That’s the point. Zoos can say they’re a conservation organisation but when we ask, “How many species have you saved? How many habitats have you saved?” These are the measures of conservation. It’s often zero in bad zoos and a small conservation in good zoos by giving some money to some conservation organisations. And of course, some do some critical work, to let’s say save an and bring back endangered species and reintroduce it, let’s say a small species but that could be easily done outside a zoo situation by another organisation.

So, I’m not saying zoos need to go they just need to reform themselves and as conservation organisations they’re extremely inefficient because of the nature of how they’re set up so they’re not going to do the conservation work (does that make sense) and the outcome is that we need to rely on on-the-ground efforts to make a meaningful impact. 

Angela: Which you and your team are doing so thank you Leif. Could you let me know the type of habitat they need in terms of how much space they need, what type of food they need, what’s the ideal habitat for them, what do we need to create for them? 

Leif: Well we need to preserve ecosystems of the right type, shape and size of the rainforest. For orangutans to survive in a standard population we need about 2,000 hectares of the right type, shape and size of the rainforest. Now that’s quite large. The reason being the way they slowly reproduce and the way there’s a few males that will mate with many females is that you need at least 2,000 orangutans for the population to be sustainable or they’ll inbreed and collapse. With species that have a more one-on-one male female contribution to this generation, you can reduce that quite considerably but for orangutans we need 2,000. 

So we need habitats of the right size but we also need habitats of the right kind because hilly, highland may be forests but they’re unsuitable for orangutans. They may be used temporarily but without the lowland and river running forests they can’t find enough food to sustain themselves. This is actually also true for the elephants and tigers. That’s why 80 per cent of the elephants, tigers and orangutans live outside of protected areas in degraded forest because it tends to be the hilly areas which are left now so the degraded areas and the areas which can be converted to unsustainable monoculture such as palm oil, pulp paper and rubber is where the orangutans need to survive.

So we estimate we have another 10 years to piece together enough of these ecosystems, the right type, shape and size of forests for orangutans to survive and that’s the primary objective of The Orangutan Project with eight key ecosystems and not only save them as far as arches of protection of the orangutans, elephants and tigers but we’re also developing the agriculture systems under the rainforest canopy with local communities to leave them as economically sustainable to pass onto future generations.

Angela: That’s amazing. I just wanted to talk about deforestation because I know it’s the largest cause of global warming so if we talk about sustainable practices such as sustainable palm oil, or sustainable building is that really acceptable or do we really need to rewind and return?

Leif: Sustainable palm oil – there’s no such thing. The reason being is no monoculture is sustainable. So it’s not about palm oil it’s about any monoculture in any farmland anywhere in the world is never going to be sustainable. Agriculture practices have to be developed where it’s mixed agriculture mixed in with wild areas and that is sustainable. 

So when someone talks about sustainable palm oil, you just have to ask them what they mean by that because it’s actually – science says I’m sorry, that just doesn’t make sense. 

So what what we’re doing in our ecosystems is developing sustainable agriculture under the rainforest canopy so it can go forever producing wealth and prosperity and food etc. to build a better world but what we’re also finding is intact trees in the rainforest store back in soil and in the vegetation six times the amount of carbon than a replanted area. So saving forest is six times better for global warming than replanting forest. And when we replant forest the more biodiversity we put together, the more carbon it stores. So, number one priority – protect existing forests. Number two priority, replant and rewild the planet. And number three is what we do have to use for agriculture is we make it polyculture and permaculture. 

These things can be extremely profitable. These practices of life-scale monocultures are just economically as well as environmentally stupid. All they’re doing is bringing the profit from long-term to short-term, the profits from many to the few. They’re really just exploitative ways of just a few just drawing the economy and the environment for the future, very short-term limited profit. And so it just doesn’t make sense and I tell people – and people say, “Oh my god, this hippy, greenie, pinko, he doesn’t worry about the real realities of having an economy and people,”  but it’s not true, it’s not wildlife vs. people vs. the economy. It’s about producing a successful economy which is based on producing a successful environment and is based on scientific knowledge not the pseudo science of the crazy neoconservatives. It’s sometimes portrayed as a real proposition or counterpoint to understanding the natural world and building resilient economies. 

Angela: So we’re just a bit inpatient. 

Leif: What we’re finding with the agriculture systems is that we’re developing because it’s so diverse – collecting jungle honey, planting vanilla, bamboo development etc. etc. What you find is the local community keeps most of that money and gets rich and prosperous. We can take a bit off the top for security and protecting a forest and that’s good you know – that’s a successful model. Everyone gets rich and prosperous and healthy. 

The trouble is that doesn’t work for somebody who wants to say, I want to keep these people poor and extract the maximum wealth as quickly as possible into the mega rich but the irony is the mega rich – yeah maybe they’re getting richer and richer especially even now – we’re in a depression they’re getting richer and richer as they’re exploiting wealth from the poor but their quality of life is also going to be affected. You can’t spend that amount of money if you’re exploiting the planet for your children and grandchildren and destroying the economic and political structures that support your wealth, it’s just foolish in itself so it doesn’t make sense for anybody, you know this capitalism – you know, the economics of mice out of control destroying their environment and future. 

Angela: Thank you for explaining that Leif. Now just going back to deforestation, I just want to ask how common is illegal logging particularly in areas which are supposed to be protected.

Leif: It’s extremely common illegal logging and legal logging because there’s different aspects. There’s totally legal logging where they give a concession to somebody and say knock it down and put a plantation on it then there’s a grey area where they say – you have to do an environmental assessment – and legally if you can’t cut down the forest you just pay some contractor to tell you there’s no forest there and there’s no orangutans. They do that all the time and say, “Here, you’ve got so and so consultancy told me there’s no forest or orangutans on it”. So then they just knock it down and kill the orangutans. Then you come to the poor person who obviously thinks the forest is going to go anyway, they’re powerless, I might as well get a few tress myself, make a few bucks, get in there quick. And so legality just depends on how much money you’ve got. If you’re really rich you can knock the forest down legally, if you’re a middle kind of guy you can knock it down semi-legal tactics, if it’s a poor guy, it’s illegal. So either way, it’s not valuing the forest and not allowing a better outcome for everybody. 

Angela: Yep. So I noticed on The Orangutan Project people can protect hectares and contribute to tree planting so what other initiatives have you got that people can help with.

Leif: Yes, you can sponsor a patch of forest and see it on Google Earth and watch it being protected year after year and watch it go being protected as you go back to the map. As you said, you can plant a tree and we’ve got some good reforestation projects going now with our partners. You can adopt an orangutan and get six monthly updates to watch it’s gone from rescue to being free back in the wild but there’s so many things. 

In some of the ecosystems we’re educating the local people and feeding the children as we work with the community to take them from unsustainable forms of living – not because they’re living unsustainable – it was only sustainable when all their area was theirs because their land rights weren’t recognised. Multi-nationals take their land and agricultural and hunting gathering practices are unsustainable because they’re typed in. So their children become malnourished they don’t have enough food, they’re not well educated, they’re exploited by other people from outside who take more land, more resources from them and so I’m empowering them, educating them, feeding the children, developing agriculture systems – we can take the communities from devastation to prosperity. So, again it’s not wildlife vs. people. 

So what we do when we’re working in these ecosystems for our partners is developing win-win situations for everybody. You can help children, you can help orangutans, you can adopt an elephant, we’re radio calling elephants as a herd and monitoring them and working with people to help so people don’t kill each other. There’s so many other cool things people can do to contribute to. 

It’s such a wonderful thing because with so little money it can be so effective, so cheap I guess to do things in a third world country. We can do so much good with our money. It’s a wonderful way of empowering us especially when I feel so many people feel disempowered and hopeless but we can do so much for the beautiful orangutans to the beautiful children that live in these ecosystems.

Angela: That’s lovely you’re supporting the locals as well. Everything is a full eco-system isn’t it. It’s all combined. 

Leif: This is an expression of love for all living things. It’s not like, “Oh, I hate people, I just want to care about orangutans,” or that’s just not how it is and that’s not how we can solve things. That’s a kind of tribalism, us and them mentality. That’s what got us into this place, we can’t use that to get ourselves out of it. We have to develop a way of looking at the world and action that supports everybody and leaving nobody behind – human or non-human. 

Angela: You definitely exude a lot of love there Leif, thank you. My final question – you said, we’ve got ten years. Where are we at?

Leif: Well, let’s say you cut down the rainforest, you create global warming. Global warming creates more fire in the rainforest that destroys more rainforest, creates more global warming. Less rainforest creates less rain, less rain, more fires, less food productivity, less higher local temperatures, crops being destroyed, palm oil replaces it and that causes floods and droughts rather than a constant water supply. And biodiversity reduces carbon stores. So you get this spiraling economic collapse, more exploitation and resources thanks to COVID-19 because people lost their jobs and go into the forest and cut the tree down or poach because they need to feed the family tomorrow. So our funding goes down because people don’t have money but the need in a few becomes exponentially increased. Then the rich and powerful use the opportunity to press more the same, reduce environmental protection under the guise of an economy, reduce labour protection under the guise of increasing the economy – again it’s just doubling down on the stupid behaviour which got us into this problem in the first place.

And COVID-19 is an exploitation of wildlife you know. The fact that we eat and exploit wildlife and domestic animals is contributing to most of this problem. So we need to pull ourselves out of it you know so this is a wake-up call for us you know.

Climate scientists say we’ve got 10 years to turn this around. It’s not surprising it’s all connected so I believe we’ve got 10 years to turn the orangutan conservation around because otherwise there might be rainforests left or orangutans left but they’ll be doomed and so this is our wake-up opportunity I think. And I think people are certainly waking up. Unfortunately we’ve been sold an idea to disempower ourselves as you as an individual can go vegan and that’s really good, I’m a vegan, or go palm-oil free, again that’s really good or put solar panels on my roof. Okay, I’ve got that. I do all that but is that going to save the world? No, because the rich and powerful who are intelligent have devised themselves on the companies and politicians and can achieve things. 

And if we want to create a better world in a timeframe, we have to collectivise. We have to join together and as individuals what we do is important for our integrity, it’s not going to save the planet – we have to collectivise. And The Orangutan Project with all our diverse partners and organisations we work with and all the wonderful people around the world, it’s our way of collectivising. Together. By myself, I can’t do anything. I can just sit here and say, “I’m trying to save the planet, look at the stuff I’m doing,” but luckily I need to connect with wonderful people all around the world and wonderful organisations and that way I can be part of something that’s going to make a meaningful difference so I always urge people, please, now the time is to collectivise and we can achieve something meaningful and in our small way in The Orangutan Project we offer that to people and as you mentioned at the beginning, saving the rainforest is the cheapest, low-hanging fruit to start turning back climate change.

Angela: So, monetary donations are the best way to help at the moment?

Leif: Yes unfortunately it sounds brutal. The other option is if you don’t have money and you may have time and we have wonderful volunteers all over the world doing stalls, doing markets and these sorts of things. We call all contribute but what we know from our business plans is effective change and the timeline we’re doing it – the lack of money is the main thing stopping us achieving what we need to achieve.

Angela: One thing I do love about The Orangutan Project is your news is always updated, your projects are very transparent so I feel people can be confident that if they do contribute either through volunteering or through a donation they can be confident that money is going to the right place.

Leif: Yes, we don’t have an office, we live on the internet and we don’t pay anything like that but most importantly for any charity you do, you must measure the outcome of what you want. If you go onto our website, you will see this year how many trees we’ve planted, how many forests we’ve protected, how many orangutans we’ve rescued and rehabilitated, how many wildlife rangers we’ve put in the field. So you are what you measure. We can raise twice as much money but if we’re not moving that money into real measurable outcomes into the ground, we’re not doing anything, we’re not being efficient or effective with our money so I always ask people – and you can come onto our website we publish this every year – the real results. I don’t care how much market reach we’ve got, how many awards we’ve got or how many followers on Facebook, they’re only means to an end. What I’m interested in is that we’ve used that resource of money and connections to make that meaningful impact on the ground if we measure and give back to our locals. 

Angela: And are you hopeful that we’ll get there?

Leif: Yes, I believe we can. The wonderful part of this journey is -every elephant we save, every orangutan we save is worthwhile. It’s a precious life that can live and survive and avoid suffering, so every little bit on the journey is just a wonderful expression of love because every individual is important and counts, but I really do believe if we had the opportunity, if people join us and we put in the effort the next 10 years, we will turn this around.

Angela: Brilliant. I know there are people here ready to get started so thank you so much Leif for your conservation efforts, thank you for your time and I hope myself and the listeners – well we look forward to supporting you so thank you. 

Leif: Thank you, you’re most welcome. 

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