“We believe in shouting for those who can only whisper, in defending those who cannot defend themselves.”
~ Veronica Roth
Descending into the mist-shrouded, deep green expanse of Borneo, Indonesia is something akin to time traveling. Moving down muddy paths and black rivers to the heart of the rainforest, my friend Kate and I looked over our shoulders to see the curtains of the world close quietly behind us.
Swallowed up by the forest, we waited and watched.
After a time of perfect stillness, the sounds of crackling branches and the hissing of leaves against bodies began to rise on the air. I almost expected dinosaurs to come wandering out of the foliage. Instead, the silhouettes of small, human bodies wavered between the trees. Small, human and red.
Of course they weren’t humans. They were orangutans.
In the Indonesian language, “orang” means person, and “hutan” means forest. An orangutan is literally a person of the forest. I don’t know if any other animal has been so aptly named.
I am still haunted by the deep intelligence I saw in their eyes as they approached and studied us. The deft movement of their fingers peeling fruit, their casual gait as they walked, their sideways glances, clearly showing curiosity, annoyance, even humor.
This felt like entering a different age of the earth, something part real and part myth.
I felt the same thrill in my chest that I feel when a dolphin approaches my surfboard in the ocean, and I catch its glittering eye. The same thrill as hiking in the mountains and being brought up short by the even stare of a wolf. These animals understand. Their raw intelligence overwhelms and humbles me.
We proceeded, upon our return to the research camp, to flip through dusty books and photos detailing the endangerment and impending extinction of the orangutan species. The thrill in my chest dropped like a rock into my stomach.
I wanted to do something.
I had a little money, but not much. I had a little time, but not much. The same feeling trickled through my body that I experience every time I want to help something weak or dying. Frustration, panic, helplessness. And then sadness.
There is so much saving to be done, and we are so small and limited.
How can we save the world’s fading animal species while trying to survive our own messy lives?
Choose something specific with passion behind it.
There are far too many needs in the world for us to personally meet them all. As animal lovers, we can narrow things down a bit, and focus on the species that are disappearing from this earth. But we are still inundated with loads of information that breaks our hearts, and makes us wonder where to even begin helping.
There are only a few things we can do. We can help with nothing. That one is pretty straightforward. We can help with everything, which ultimately is going to be the same as helping with nothing, because it’s impossible. Or, we can help with a few things, even just one.
Here is where we become effective.
My time in Borneo rattled and woke me, and I have continued to relive my awe of the orangutans side by side with a fear of their disappearance. Whatever makes us feel deeply and whole-heartedly, that is the thing we should work to protect. It will likely be something different for each of us, and that’s where the job of covering everything starts to get done.
There is so much worth saving in the world, we have only to choose, and give our passion a direction.
Identify the root cause.
There are many wonderful organizations out there working to save endangered species, and usually the first thing we are asked to do if we want to help them is to pull out our debit cards. Yes, these organizations need funding to keep doing the work they are doing. But what if we aren’t in a place to make a financial contribution? Sometimes that’s just the reality.
We still care, we still feel frustrated and want to do something.
The thing is, under-funded organizations are not the root of the problem. When they are supported, they research and rehabilitate and spread awareness and help in endless ways. But the root of the problem was there before the organization. So even if we can’t contribute to the non-profits fighting the good fight, we can still help. More than help. We can go straight to the cause.
The root cause of orangutan endangerment, and many other species for that matter, is habitat destruction. Rain-forests are being cleared in Borneo and Sumatra, the only places in the world where orangutans live, in pursuit of the oil palm.
Oil from the oil palm is used to make a variety of products, consumers buy the products, demand is evident, supply is needed, and more forest is cleared. Root cause.
Let mindfulness guide the small choices in life.
We can use what we find about root causes to guide our small, everyday habits and decisions. This is where we don’t need to have a lot of money to donate or free time to volunteer. We can simply layer tiny changes into our lives that, over time, make meaningful impacts.
When we learned about GMO’s, we learned to buy organic. When natural flavors were called into question, we began scanning ingredient lists before buying. I learned to do the same thing with palm oil, once I understood its implications.
Palm oil sneaks into quite a few products, from milk to chips to toothpaste. But it’s not difficult to find alternatives if we take a moment to pay attention, just as we do with our nitrate-free lunch meat and gluten-free granola.
We choose to avoid certain foods because we believe in our own right to live and flourish. We can employ the same habits to stand up for our belief in animals’ rights to live and flourish.
We don’t have to dissect and avoid everything, but choosing a few things that we feel strongly about, and sticking to our guns on those points, is a powerful act.
Raise awareness gracefully.
There is a fear here of becoming the preachy, judging know-it-all who nobody likes. This is a legitimate fear. Making people feel berated or inadequate is not an effective way to stimulate involvement. We have to settle down and remember that not everyone feels the way we feel, nor are they under any obligation to.
Share knowledge to inspire, not scold. Share photos and poems and snippets of information that touch on the beauty of life and draw us toward celebrating and protecting it.
Make social media purposeful. We don’t have to turn our personal pages into high-minded lectures, but we can follow the organizations that we respect, and share the pieces of their knowledge that we find particularly revealing.
Raising awareness is simple and free. When done in a loving, compassionate manner, it can reach far, and plant its roots deep.
Accept that what we do matters.
This may be the most difficult part of the process, because we just can’t see the effects of what we do. Most days, the rainforest is still getting chopped down. The small successes on the way to the goal are subtle and few.
We are passionately, impatiently human, and we wanted to save the world yesterday.
Buying toothpaste sans palm oil does not feel as romantic as running off to Borneo wearing an Indiana Jones hat to lie down in front of bulldozers. But we have to have faith that it is just as purposeful and effective. Not to mention a bit more doable.
I long to return to the brilliant green forests of Borneo and Sumatra, and someday I will. But in the meantime, I don’t want to become immobilized by my smallness.
Once we accept and believe that the smallest actions matter, and that the smallest person has power, we can begin to gain the momentum that comes with purpose and conviction.
In other words, we can begin to save the world, and everyone in it.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Editor: Rachel Nussbaum
Photo: Courtesy of the author.