Apes on the Balance Sheet: a Personal Perspective

Andrew W. Mitchell with Doyok, a rehabilitated orphan in 1992. Doyok has since grown to become the dominant alpha male at Tanjung Puting in Southern Borneo.

Andrew W. Mitchell, Founder of Global Canopy and Trustee of the Orangutan Foundation.

Last night I watched BBC Two’s ‘Red Ape’, a documentary charting humanity’s heart aching efforts to save Borneo’s last wild orangutans, in the face of the mighty expansion of the world’s timber and palm oil industries. Over 100,000 may have been exterminated in just the last 16 years. Orangutans are 97% genetically human, so is this not an example of ecocide?

My interest in rainforests started as a child reaching out to touch the fingertips of baby orangutans at Jersey Zoo. Gerald Durrell had dedicated his wildlife sanctuary there to breeding endangered species, a revolution at the time.

The jaw dropping pace of nature’s destruction on our planet is immunised by our collective sense of impotence. The BBC film, Red Ape, produced by Offspring, illustrates the urgent need for commerce to stop discounting conservation and to value services that nature provides to mankind, on the business balance sheet. Consumers can also exercise their choice over what products they buy, including pension funds. So should investors get out of food that’s bad for us, just like fossil fuels?

I first visited Borneo in 1978, when 75% of it was covered in forest. Since then, the palm oil industry, fuelled by logging interests, and by investors hungry for profit, has rendered much of Borneo’s rainforests to ash and orangutans, one of our closest relatives, to impending extinction. Undoubtedly, forest conversion has helped poor countries gain economically but is the true price really clear? 2015’s peatland fires across Borneo were estimated to cost Indonesia US16 billion, or 1.8% of its GDP. What the Red Ape film illustrates, is the short sightedness of unsustainable investment in a commercially valuable product that we rub into our hair, stuff into our mouths, or pump into our cars in Europe, bought at the expense of the wholesale destruction of the ecosystems and biodiversity that keep our planet safe.

Those with a long-term investment view, such as pension fund owners and family office principals, have a duty of care not only for today’s generation but also the interests of future generations. Yet few asset managers predict the systemic risk to their clients, of a world without orangutans because such information does not exist inside a Bloomberg terminal or most other investor trading platforms. The financial sector lacks tools through which to measure it’s natural capital impacts. Global Canopy, the organisation I founded 17 years ago, is working to provide specific tools to the financial community, to help it recognise and quantify these risks and take action to avoid what some have termed a global ecocide.

For what is at risk is not simply a few orangutans, but the very fabric of our life support system, of which they are key representatives. Over 4.5 billion years, evolution has dumped 90% of the species it has invented. We are now in the period of the sixth mass extinction, but what makes this one unique, is that it’s the first to be caused by a fellow species: mankind.

Like Durrell before, a new revolution is needed now, this time among supermarkets, consumer brands, governments, investors and consumers to say — enough is enough.

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