Endangered: Who Will Survive?

By Gaia Grant

"We are running an uncontrolled experiment with the only home we have… and mother nature does not do bail outs."
Thomas Freidman: Hot Flat and Crowded

Our family was in the jungles of Borneo a few years ago observing orangutans in their natural habitat. It didn’t take long for us all to became entranced by the gorgeous doe-eyed primates with incredibly human-like behavior. We still have a photo of our then young son hanging from the railing of a viewing platform with a tiny baby orangutan beside him as thought they were both (literally!) 'hanging out' together. Both are in identical relaxed postures and have exactly the same facial expression: casual, calm and carefree. But for the obvious bright orange furry body covering, the orangutan could easily have been mistaken as a younger sibling in tune with his older brother. Unfortunately, though both young child and young ape had an enviable air of innocent contentment, little did either know of what the future would hold for their species…

Kallen with OrangutanA rare species

The 'orangutan', from the Malay words for 'man of the forest', is indigenous only to Indonesia and Malaysia. One of the most intelligent primates, having the intelligence equivalent to a 5 or 6 year old human child, orangutans are able to fashion and use a wide range of tools. They are the largest living tree dwelling creatures in the world, and can be easily identified by their long loping arms and a distinctive reddish mop of fur. A rare species that now lives outside its natural habitat, they live and nest in trees, and although usually quite independent they tend to be sociable creatures.

But the orangutan is now critically endangered. Extinction in the wild is likely in the next 10 years or so for the only two surviving species in the world: the Sumatran Orangutans (Pongo abelii) and the Bornean Orangutans (Pongo pygmaeus). With their pleading eyes and gentle natures, the plight of the orangutan has captured the worldwide attention, but help may be coming too late. Protecting the orangutan also will also mean saving the surrounding ecosystems and the myriad of other endangered and exotic species that live in them.

96% the same

An interesting fact to consider is that orangutans are 96% genetically identical to humans. Biologists classify humans, along with only a few other species, as great apes (species in the family Hominidae), but orangutans may actually be more related to humans than chimpanzees, as was previously thought. As a 2009 article by James Owen in the National Geographic explains, humans share at least 28 unique physical characteristics with orangutans but only 2 with chimps and 7 with gorillas.

In case you were wondering just how you might be similar in looks to an orangutan, a study by Grehan and Schwarz have explained, "Tell-tale features shared by both orangutans and humans include thickly enameled molar teeth with flat surfaces, greater asymmetries between the left and right side of the brain, an increased cartilage-to-bone ratio in the forearm, and similarly shaped shoulder blades. A hole in the roof of the mouth that was supposedly unique to humans is also present in orangs," Schwartz said. "Humans and orangs have the widest-separated mammary glands, and they grow the longest hair," he added. "Humans and orangs actually have a hairline, in contrast to virtually all primates, where the hair comes down to the top of the eyes." Check it all out in the mirror!

But the similarities don't end with mere appearance. A study of two orangutans at the Leipzig Zoo in 2008 showed that orangutans are the first known non-human species to use 'calculated reciprocity', which involves weighing the costs and benefits of gift exchanges and keeping track of these over time. Research by Felix Warneken and colleagues from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology that focused on altruistic behavior has found that chimps are capable of acting on behalf of others, even toward genetically unrelated individuals, without personal gain and at a cost to themselves (Science Daily 2007).

The roots of human behavior

Humans are similar enough to chimpanzees that scientists consider their behavior as indicative of the roots of human bahavior, and as chimpanzees have been more widely studied than orangutans, we can learn a significant amount from them. Observations of chimpanzees by Frans B.M. De Waal of Emory University seem to indicate that, as he says, 'war is in our DNA'. A number of lethal encounters have shown that chimpanzees are prone to aggressive behavior, which indicates that aggressive behavior is also part of our genetic makeup. But the good news is that chimps are also able to make peace, readily making up after fights by hugging, mouth and hand kissing, mutual grooming and food sharing.

Humans, as close relatives of the primates, are capable of the same peacemaking tendencies whenever parties stand to lose if their relationship deteriorates. Although chimpanzees from different troops often compete for territory and become aggressive when territory is threatened, humans often rely on interdependence between apparently warring groups or nations. De Waal suggests promoting economic dependence between nations through such organizations as the European Union. The formation of the EU, he says, has greatly reduced the likelihood of war in Europe.

Just as an imbalance of power is a robust predictor of violence between two groups of chimpanzees, according to the research of anthropologist Richard Wrangham from Harvard University, humans tend to behave more aggressively toward rival grops when they are confident they can prevail. Wrngham believes that reducing imbalances of power will reduce the likelihood of aggression.

Like monkey like human

The 'human', from the Latin word related to 'humane', is rapidly populating planet earth. A rare species that has only recently arrived on the planet in the grand scale of things, humans live in villages, and although they are often portrayed by the media as being solitary animals, they actually depend on each other for existence and meaning. And the external world is dependent on them. According to the latest estimates, along with the earth they try to control and the creatures upon it, humans too may be in danger of extinction. As the imbalance of resources increases and the balance of power changes, humans may even be in danger of self-destruction.

We have developed a team building program which highlights the plight of the endangered orangutans and also uses this as a metaphor for reflection on the priorities that we need to make as humans. The 'Endangered' team building game provides the opportunity to the identify important leadership and team development issues. Through focusing on the plight of an endangered species, the program reveals the need to come up with specific approaches for protecting and nurturing strategic relationships. The future is not going to be about merely trying to maintaining things as they are – it will be about ensuring that we not only survive but thrive. As we consider the potential impact of climate change, and the willful destruction of so many of the ecosystems and species on our planet, we need to also think about how we as social animals will work together to make things better.

While running the Endangered program with a client group back in the jungles of Borneo recently, the parallels between what these animals have been going through and what we are in danger of doing to our own species was dramatically reinforced. In their enthusiasm for reaching the end goal, one team undermined the team processes and ended up losing the very resources they needed for survival. Consider how humans are now themselves destroying the ecosystems they depend on, and how they operate as independent beings with a strong social capacity but an often mutually exclusive drive.

Humans often make the mistake of speaking of other creatures and the environment as if it were a completely separate entity – forgetting that they themselves are a critical part of the natural habitat. They need to view themselves with the same curiosity and openness with which they study animals, because they too are closely linked to the earth and the creatures on it. And the future of the earth is dependent on their actions (Henri Matisse).

We are one

The need to protect and nurture supportive human groups (teams) for the future of the human race and the future of the planet soon becomes very apparent to the aware leader. Teams that are left to their own devices from infancy can quickly become disillusioned and disoriented. Good team performance rarely happens by chance, it needs to be encouraged, developed and monitored. Many teams will have formed and reformed over their life span, and may in the process lose the characteristics that make them special and unique. By supporting and nurturing team growth, all may have the chance of survival. Martin Luther King said all the rules in the world and all the legislation will never help a society that has no foundational principles. He firmly believed that principles are what keeps a group together.

What are the principles that are going to keep your group together?

Who or what is really endangered?!


"Endangered: Who Will Survive?" by Gaia Grant ©2010.This article may be republished as long as links are posted back to www.tirian.com and the author(s) acknowledged.

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