Far from simple: Orangutan conservation poses ethical dilemmas | University of Oxford
Orangutans are iconic, frequently used by advertisers and film-makers as representatives of thoughtfulness and wisdom. But the fate of former captive apes is throwing up a multiplicity of dilemmas
Orangutans are iconic, frequently used by advertisers and film-makers as representatives of thoughtfulness and wisdom. But the fate of former captive apes is throwing up a multiplicity of dilemmas

Far from simple: Orangutan conservation poses ethical dilemmas

Could it ever be better to keep a wild-born, formerly captive orangutan in a cage? Should they be released into the ‘wild’? If so, which wild, and how should they be prepared for life in the forest? Should conservationists turn down much-needed donations, because they do not like or approve of the donor? Hardest of all: are efforts to rescue apes facilitating the destruction of habitats, with rescuers acting as a clean-up service for companies involved in deforestation?

Could it ever be better to keep a wild-born, formerly captive orangutan in a cage? Should they be released into the ‘wild’?

Conservation is anything but simple and, according to Dr Alexandra Palmer, a researcher with Oxford’s School of Geography and the Environment, in her recent work, Ethical Debates in Orangutan Conservation, there are important ethical questions raised by conservation activities, which may not be immediately apparent but which cannot be ignored.

Focusing on her qualitative research into orangutan conservation, Dr Palmer's book looks into conservation efforts and ‘rehab’ programmes all over Sumatra and Borneo, where orangutans who have been kept in captivity, often as pets, in the region and beyond are prepared for release into the wild. After visiting most of the centres, Dr Palmer says she found a far more complex debate than the public often hears.

She insists that there is good reason for conservation of ‘our critically endangered great ape relatives’, but Dr Palmer discovered a diverse and, in some ways, a conflicting world of conservation groups. All may be engaged in trying to help great apes, but the conservation community’s methods and ideas are diverse.

For example, some groups refuse money or collaboration with certain donors such as palm oil companies, while others see this as ethically acceptable or even desirable, at least in some circumstances. And there are debates about whether rehabilitation is even a good use of scarce resources. On the other hand, if formerly captive orangutans aren’t sent back to the forest, what should be done with them? Is it ethically acceptable to kill them, or keep them in a cage? What constitutes good conservation practice is up for debate in the depths of the Indonesian and Malaysian forests.

According to Dr Palmer, conservationists across the two islands are caring for perhaps 1,200 formerly captive orangutans. They are doing this against a background of limited funding, competing charities, government involvement, and big business. And they are coming up with a lot of different answers to ethical questions.

Most orangutan rehabilitators working in the region concur that captive orangutans can learn to prepare for life in the wild through ‘forest schools’, where they get a taste for forest life under supervision from their human babysitters

Orangutans are iconic, frequently used by advertisers and film-makers as representatives of thoughtfulness and wisdom. But the fate of former captive apes is throwing up a multiplicity of dilemmas – starting with whether, why, and when it is in the interests of conservation efforts or former pets to devote large sums to sending individuals into the wild. What if they are unlikely to cope? Would the money have been better spent trying to stop apes being evicted from the forest in the first place? Is rehabilitation really necessary, given that perhaps 70,000 wild apes remain on Borneo?

Although orangutans have often been described as ‘semi-solitary’, they do have social links with others. Females, for example, tend to settle near their mothers and sisters. Given the problems posed by releasing strangers into their midst, modern-day rehabilitation projects usually aim to release orangutans into empty (or near-empty) forest. But, if the forest is empty, perhaps there is a reason for that, which means it is not a great home for orangutans? Maybe there are poachers there or other dangers? And what do you do if you can’t find any ‘empty’ forest, given the rapid conversion of orangutan habitat into palm oil and other plantations?

One thing most orangutan rehabilitators working in the region concur about is that captive orangutans can learn to prepare for life in the wild through ‘forest schools’, where they get a taste for forest life under supervision from their human babysitters. Differences in approach creep in at other stages, however. One bone of contention is whether hands-on, affectionate care for infants harms or helps them. Some argue hands-on care contributes to ‘humanisation’ (dependence on and attraction to humans), creating problems after release. Others say affection gives infants the confidence they need to explore the forest and learn from peers, and that their bonds with human caregivers ultimately do not stop their progress.

Other questions emerge around the sort of monitoring needed, after release. Is it necessary to monitor orangutans closely, to make sure they are all right? Or is it enough just to check radio antennas occasionally to make sure they are still moving? And how much scarce time and money needs to be devoted to monitoring?

Heartbreakingly, there is a serious dilemma over the fate of older apes, especially males, who are potentially too dangerous for forest schools. While younger animals can be cared for in forest schools, larger males pose a significant physical threat to conservation staff. If a male orangutan reaches an age where he’s too dangerous to handle, he may become one of the ‘unreleasables’, says Dr Palmer.

But how exactly should ‘unreleasability’ be defined? Rehabilitators give different answers, according to Dr Palmer. While some rehabilitators are mostly interested in physical health, for others psychology is hugely important. This is a difficult issue because unreleasables will probably stay in cages for the rest of their lives. Because of the need to target funding, to where it can do the most good, they are usually not very big cages. Would life in a small cage be better than an uncertain life in the forest? Some conservationists are starting to come up with comfortable long-term homes for their unreleasables, but these are expensive and not an option for all groups.

Rehabilitation, says Dr Palmer, is often presented as sending former captives ‘home’. But, she asks, ‘Where is home? What does home mean?’

If a captive ape has been kept in a cage for 10 to 15 years, they might see that as home. Is the forest home? In which case, which forest?

There are other ethical dilemmas too. Occasionally, large groups of orangutans have been ‘translocated’ from a conflict situation, in a village or a palm oil plantation, to a safe area of forest. Sometimes, this can also happen because of forest fires.

If formerly captive orangutans aren’t sent back to the forest, what should be done with them? Is it ethically acceptable to kill them, or keep them in a cage? What constitutes good conservation practice is up for debate in the depths of the Indonesian and Malaysian forests

But, if conservationists agree to move the apes, or even accept funding from palm oil companies to help with translocation, are they facilitating the industry’s deforestation?

If they refuse to help, will they be condemning the apes to a certain death? What would happen to the apes if they refused? More fundamentally still, is moving apes to somewhere they do not know a good solution for them? It could lead to overcrowding, conflict, and social dislocation. And is one bit of forest the same as any other, from the orangutan’s perspective?

Most conservationists agree that rehabilitation should not mix with tourism, and most of the projects will not engage in any activity which involves tourists ‘hugging’ young apes. But, in some parts of the region, the authorities allow precisely this, using tourist funding to underwrite their programmes and to boost the local economies. It may seem to be the antithesis of everything the rehabilitators are working towards, since tourism tends to ‘humanise’ orangutans and means they never become fully ‘wild’. But how can conservationists deny impoverished local populations, who may benefit from tourism income? Maybe it is ethically justified to compromise the well-being of a few ex-captive orangutans to keep forests standing and help local people make a living?

By setting out these and other tough dilemmas, and the diverse approaches conservationists take to dealing with them, Dr Palmer illustrates the importance of thinking through the ethical puzzles presented by the important, urgent, and complex task of saving the charismatic red ape.