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Wednesday, April 11, 2007

NATURAL SELECTIONS

APOCALYPSE NOW

Bye-bye 'Borneo'


For how much longer will the name "Borneo" conjure up the same sense of magic as it does now, or as it did when I was a child?

News photo
Your columnist (left) enjoying an encounter with a young orangutan in Kalimantan, Malaysian Borneo, where the species may soon be wiped out. ROWAN HOOPER PHOTO

I doubt that in 15 years' time the word will be so excitingly evocative. Almost certainly, it will then stand for destruction and terrible loss. Say goodbye to the orangutan, the Asian elephant and the Sumatran tiger. All three are predicted to be extinct in the wild by 2022.

Twin culprits

There are two reasons for this, and they are connected.

First, illegal logging has denuded huge areas of the island. And second, "legal" loggers are ripping up the rest of the forest to make room for palm-oil trees. The irony is that much of the palm oil is supposed to be for biofuel -- a power sorce that is trumpeted as being environmentally friendly.

A few years ago, I visited Malaysian Borneo, and in the rain forest hugging the Kalimantan River I saw an adult male orangutan, living wild. Though that was a rare sight itself, I also saw gibbons and other monkeys in the trees. Quite a lot of wildlife here, I thought. Then I realized that what looked like thick rain forest from a boat on the river was a mere sliver. Behind that, stretching for as far as the eye could see, were palm-oil plantations.

The United Nations Environment Program has produced an apocalyptic report on the situation in Borneo. In that document, titled "The Last Stand of the Orangutan: State of Emergency," the U.N. scientists say that Borneo's remaining forests, governed by Indonesia and Malaysia, are being decimated. Along with the three "flagship" animals mentioned above, 98 percent of the rain forest is expected to disappear in the same time. Some estimates predict the extinction of the orangutan within five years of now.

Biologists estimate that there are between 50,000 and 60,000 orangutans left on Borneo. Magnificent animals these might be to some, but to plantation owners they are pests. Orangutans are one of our closest relatives, yet hunters are paid a bounty of 150,000 rupiah -- about 1,800 yen -- for the right hand of an orangutan. Between 5,000 and 10,000 are killed every year.

It might sound crazy, but in the future this carnage may be seen as more than "just" a terrible loss. It could be seen as genocide.

In my column here last month, I speculated that chimps, our closed relatives, might one day be admitted to the human club -- that they should be reclassified from Pan troglodytes to Homo troglodytes.

Even as I wrote that, in Austria an animal-rights activist was taking an extraordinary case to the district court in the town of Modling, near Vienna.

A British woman, Paula Stibbe, applied to become the legal guardian of a chimp called Hiasl, who was destined for life in a zoo, or worse, a vivisection lab. Most heartwarming on her part, indeed, but a person can only be granted legal guardianship of another human. So the court now has to decide, bizarrely, if Hiasl is a human.

Of course he's not a human, you might think. In Austria, however, it's not so clear cut. Austrian law says, implicitly, that anyone who can understand that other beings have intentions, shall be considered a person too. So Stibbe's lawyer acting on behalf of Hiasl told me that he would argue that since Hiasl can understand intentions -- chimps do have a "theory of mind" -- then Hiasl should be considered a human.

"Hiasl also passed a mirror self-recognition test. That means that he personally is self-aware," lawyer Martin Balluch told me. "A trial has been started for him to be recognized as a person before the law, so that he cannot be owned by anybody. He can then receive donated money himself and spend it -- through his legal guardian -- as he wants to."

I'm not sure how Hiasl can tell his guardian what he wants to spend his money on (a Porsche for his guardian to drive him around in?), but there you go. "Also, he can sue the vivisection lab and the government responsible for his plight, to fund his pension," says Balluch.

There is more than a whiff of weirdness about this case, but it's not unprecedented.

Legal rights for apes

In Spain's Balearic Islands in the Mediterranean, for example, the parliament announced in March that it has passed a resolution to grant legal rights to great apes.

Pedro Pozas, of the Great Ape Project, Spain, says: "The decision of the Balearic Government to approve this proposal makes it a worldwide leader in the protection of the great apes and their habitat, as well as in the support of their rights."

Some Spaniards opposed granting "human" rights to other great apes -- a category that includes chimps, bonobos, gorillas and orangutans. But the resolution does not grant those non-human animals full human rights. It gives basic legal protection to the animals, acknowledging that great apes experience emotions that are similar to those of human children.

It might sound bizarre, even crazy, but I think that in the future it will seem obvious that the great apes are conscious, sentient beings. It will seem incredible that they were treated as pests, their hands cut of for less than 2,000 yen. If only the governments of Malaysia and Indonesia would do something as "crazy" as that of the Balearic Islands.

The second volume of Natural Selections columns translated into Japanese is published by Shinchosha at 1,500 yen. The title is "Hito wa ima mo shinka shiteru (The Evolving Human: How new biology explains your journey through life)."


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