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NMSU Student Works To Save Endangered Orangutans

A New Mexico State University student returned to the Southeast Asian island of Borneo, where he hopes to help orangutans and shed light on how commercialized farming, illegal logging and burns have destroyed large areas of the rainforest and continue to threaten diverse biosystems.

Zachary Brecheisen, who is working on bachelor’s degrees in conservation ecology, biology and anthropology, as well as a supplemental major in sustainable development, said orangutans are losing their feeding grounds as the rainforest disappears.

“Orangutans are very specific animals,” Brecheisen said in a news release. “They only eat ripe fruits and the trees that produce this fruit and the fruits themselves are often just a long ways apart.”

Brecheisen said that when people start chopping down and fragmenting all of these different areas, it makes it really hard for the orangutans to find enough food to support themselves or their offspring.

According to the World Wildlife Fund, it’s projected that the rainforests in Borneo will be almost gone by 2020 unless serious action is taken.

Brecheisen spent six weeks during the summer in Indonesian Borneo volunteering with the nonprofit Orangutan Foundation International, which aims to save Borneo’s dwindling orangutan population. A $5,000 NMSU Honors College Scholarship for International Research helped pay for Brecheisen’s second visit to the island.

The Los Lunas High School graduate was working to help the orangutans, but he also was observing the wider effects deforestation are having on the global economy. The main culprit in Borneo’s deforestation, he said, is the palm oil industry. Palm oil is used globally in a vast array of products such as chocolate, ice cream, potato chips and detergent.

“My area of interest for the Honors thesis is looking at the impacts of globalization and the (palm oil) commodity market and how it is affecting this area,” Brecheisen said. “They chop down all the rainforest so they can install these palm oil plantations. I was interested in seeing how the world’s demand for what seems like a harmless ingredient is really devastating orangutan ecology.”

As the WWF points out, the irony of palm oil is that while it is a clean biofuel, its manufacture is destroying critical ecosystems in Borneo and Sumatra.

Along with razing the orangutans, and native Borneans’, habitats, employees on palm oil plantations often kill orangutans that wander onto the plantations in search of food. Some adult orangutans are killed for bush meat, but baby orangutans are often captured and sold on the black market. In the process of capturing the babies, their mothers are killed.

“As the orangutans run out of normal forest to live in, they’re more and more often forced onto these plantations or into other areas that are frequented by humans,” Brecheisen said. “We are forcing ourselves into their areas.”

Besides battling the jungle, bugs, 80 percent humidity and cultural differences, Brecheisen also dealt with homesickness. The NMSU senior describes his Borneo experience as “very intense.” He planned his stay in Borneo so he would arrive with one group of volunteers and leave with a second group.

“Zachary is devoted to preserving endangered species and has dedicated his talents and education to this crucial work. To prepare himself for a career in the challenging field of environmental conservation, he has undertaken a rare quadruple major ? with additional minors in creative writing and renewable energy technology,” said Tracey Miller-Tomlinson, the former director of the Office of National Scholarships and International Education at the Honors College.

The Honors College has given out the scholarship since 2005. It is awarded to a Crimson Scholar in his or her sophomore or junior year who has a minimum cumulative GPA of 3.5.

Link:Get an inside look at an NMSU student’s journey to Borneo to help orangutans.

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