Terry Pratchett, Discworld and his long-lasting legacy for orangutans

Sir Terry Pratchett, fantasy author and Trustee of the Orangutan Foundation, likened his own personal challenges of Alzheimer’s to the challenges facing the endangered orangutans of Indonesian Borneo.

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1. Young orangutan
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2. Mother and infant orangutan
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3. Adult male orangutan
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4. Terry Pratchett with Ashley Leiman, Orangutan Foundation director, filming in 1994 by Ralph Arbus
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5. Oil palm plantation as far as the eye can see

“We have lost a valued friend and a staunch advocate for the endangered orangutan and its vanishing habitat. I feel privileged that I had the opportunity to know him “ says Ashley Leiman OBE, Director and Trustee of the Orangutan Foundation.

Terry Pratchett is best known for his hugely popular Discworld novels, a fantasy series, which feature the Discworld character The Librarian, who was transformed into an orangutan. This prompted Terry’s curiosity about the great red ape, which he has described as “having a face like a surprised coconut”, and led to his long-term support of the Orangutan Foundation, a UK charity, of which he became a Trustee.

Sir Terry Pratchett encountered wild orangutans for the first time in 1994 whilst filming Terry Pratchett’s Jungle Quest.  One ape, Kusasi, who was the dominant male “king of the jungle” at the time, left a lasting impression that would, almost two decades later, entice Terry back to Borneo to make the filmTerry Pratchett Facing Extinction in which Terry explored not only the fate of the endangered orangutan but also his own fate as he battled with a rare form of Alzheimer’s.

Terry Pratchett’s last trip to Borneo in 2013 was a very personal journey, facing not only his own extinction, but the extinction of the orangutan’s habitat and ultimately of the orangutans themselves. He found comfort in the primeval environment of the tropical forest, which he likened to returning to one’s roots.

Whilst filming Terry Pratchett Facing Extinction, Ashley Leiman invited Terry and the film crew to accompany the charity’s vet and rescue team to a proposed oil-palm plantation, where an adult male orangutan was reported to be crop-raiding.  The devastating threat of oil-palm plantation expansion to the endangered orangutan’s habitat required little explanation.

Ashley, who accompanied Terry on both of his adventures to Borneo, recounts that on the first trip “the chainsaw was our enemy”.  On the second trip “we were confronted with an even greater threat: oil-palm plantations had replaced swathes of forest – the orangutans’ home. We drove for more than three hours through unrelenting monoculture. There was nothing but oil-palm”.

Ashley commented, “in spite of his illness, he still had a great enthusiasm about everything. The thing I remember most is Terry’s sense of humour and his way with words - not only the written word. In the first film we made, he described the orangutan long-call as ‘the whale song of the forest’, and the rainforest’s torrential rain as the ‘ocean cut into strips’. “

Terry was very supportive of the work of the Foundation which works in Indonesian Borneo to protect endangered orangutans by protecting their tropical forest habitat. The Orangutan Foundation has recently signed a new memorandum of understanding with the Indonesian government ensuring its projects and achievements can continue for 2015 and for years to come.  The Orangutan Foundation’s Director Ashley Leiman is positive about the future for orangutans and is grateful for Terry’s long-lasting legacy to the future of orangutans, forests and people.

Further details about the Orangutan Foundation its activities are available on the Foundation’s websitewww.orangutan.org.uk

Founded in 1990, the Orangutan Foundation is the foremost orangutan conservation organisation, working actively across the entire range of orangutan species. The Foundation works to protect endangered orangutans by protecting their tropical forest habitat, working with local communities and promoting research and education. It recognises that orangutan habitat is unique in its richness of biodiversity and is crucial for local communities, who are as dependant on the forest as is the orangutan.

The Orangutan Foundation work in areas of critical orangutan habitat in Central Kalimantan, in the Indonesia part of Borneo. Additionally, in collaboration with the Indonesian government’s local Nature Conservation department (PHKA), the Orangutan Foundation runs a reintroduction programme for translocated wild orangutans in the Lamandau Wildlife Reserve.

Sir Terry Pratchett, Trustee of the Orangutan Foundation, was one of the most popular authors writing today. He is best known for his hugely popular Discworld novels, a fantasy series, which feature the Discworld character The Librarian, who was transformed into an orangutan. This prompted Terry Pratchett’s curiosity about orangutans and his long-term support of the Orangutan Foundation. In 1995 Terry visited Indonesian Borneo with Orangutan Foundation to see orangutans in the wild and film Terry Pratchett’s Jungle Quest for a Channel 4 television documentary and he returned in 2012 to film Terry Pratchett Facing Extinction for BBC2. Terry has won numerous literary awards, has received four honorary doctorates, was appointed OBE for services to literature in 1998 and he was knighted in the 2009 New Year Honours.

Ms Ashley Leiman OBE is Director and Trustee of the Orangutan Foundation, which she founded in 1990. Ashley has been actively involved in Asian conservation for over 30 years. Her initial involvement was with the Natural History Society and Conservation Society in Hong Kong. In 1985 she was on the organising committee of the New York Rainforest Alliance. In 1986, after spending time in Tanjung Puting National Park, Indonesian Borneo, Ashley set about establishing the Orangutan Foundation in the UK. In 2006 Ashley was appointed OBE for her services to Orangutan Conservation. Ashley is also a member of the Executive Committee of the UNEP’s Great Apes Survival Partnership (GRASP).

Threats to orangutans

The biggest threat to orangutans is habitat loss. Orangutan habitat is being destroyed and degraded by oil-palm plantations, illegal logging, acacia plantations, fire, mining and small-scale shifting cultivation.

The destruction of tropical forests affects the global climate and is one of the world’s most pressing environmental concerns. For orangutans the situation is critical.

The principle cause of habitat loss is the conversion of forests to agriculture, especially vast monoculture oil-palm plantations.

Palm oil is produced from the kernel of the oil-palm plant and is the world’s most popular vegetable oil, primarily produced in Indonesia and Malaysia. Often labelled as just vegetable oil, palm oil  is a hidden ingredient found in up to half of packaged food products across Europe, it is also used in cosmetics and increasingly as a biofuel.  An EU regulation  requiring all vegetable oils to be labelled individually, came info effect in December 2014.

Oil palm plantations expansion is not the only threat. Deforestation for mining (both legal and illegal) has the potential to be just as devastating. Illegal mining has been found within the boundaries of the Lamandau Wildlife Reserve.  The Orangutan Foundation is protecting this area of critical orangutan habitat with guard posts and patrols.