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  • MCZuman

Making islands

Updated: May 2, 2020


I met this young male orangutan in Malaysian Borneo. Orangutans used to be distributed through much of southern Asia, but they're now limited to just Borneo and Sumatra. They have long been regarded as the "great ape species most likely to go extinct."

Orangutans are now challenged especially by loss of habitat, but it's not just a simple matter of rampant deforestation. When orangutan habitat is encroached upon by palm oil plantations, for example, new roads and villages often divide the remaining forested areas into small fragments..."islands" of trees, surrounded by clearings, farms, and human settlements.

Unfortunately, this introduces two problems specific to orangutans. First, while they are incredibly athletic in the trees, they are very uncomfortable on the ground. This results in them being stranded in their "tree islands," unable to cross to other orangutans in other forest fragments for reproduction and food. Second, female orangutans have the longest inter-birth interval of any land mammal, at around 7-9 years between babies. During this time (while she is caring for a young one), a mother orangutan is unreceptive to any male who comes along. Therefore, if a male is trapped on a tree island with a female who already has an infant, their genes are "off the market" for the best part of a decade. Coupled with fires, poaching, and other pressures, this has caused orangutans to have a negative population curve.

The roads and villages humans create for our comfort and convenience in orangutan country work in exactly the opposite way for orangutans, locking them into little wooded "islands of isolation." I've been thinking about how some of the things I do for my comfort and convenience might also have the reverse effect on others. Sometimes things don't have to be done my way. Sometimes, with just a little flexibility, I can create a win/win situation in which everyone benefits.

Pastor Brock Graham of Redeemer Bible Church just south of Indianapolis reminds us that our impact on others results from the combination of what we say with what we do (Acts 5, 12-16). Being a Christian isn't just knowing the "rules" and quoting them to others; St. Francis put it beautifully: "Preach the Gospel. If necessary, use words."

Showing that we genuinely care by our thoughtfulness regarding others' needs is a good start.

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