FOREST INK: Forest biodiversity is good for wild animals, humans

Jim Hilton discusses the impacts of monocultures and other human behaviours
Forestry Ink columnist Jim Hilton. (Photo submitted)

There is a growing amount of evidence of the downside of converting a diverse species forest into a mono-culture of any sort. Greater susceptibility to pests and other diseases, as well as a loss of habitat for many other organisms, are among the most detrimental consequences.

In tropical areas, the conversion of tropical forests into palm oil plantations is considered one of the most serious issues of our modern food systems. Some of my recent research of healthy eating has shown that while palm oil is a good source of antioxidants and considered a good oil for frying foods there are better overall choices such as olive oil for a healthy alternative.

Most health sources I have been reading lately encourage North Americans to reduce our fast and fried food consumption and eat more whole foods ( fruits and vegetables, nuts and whole grains).

In the case of palm oil production, the major problem is the loss of many native plants and animals because palm oil plantations are replacing thousands of hectares of tropical rainforests. Fortunately, there are some rescue organizations trying to relocate displaced animals such as orangutans to their native habitats.

Because of their decreasing numbers, there has been more behavioural research on how to help them reestablish in a new environment. As we are finding with many animals (including the great apes) they have the ability to use tools and are able to solve complex tasks we previously thought was only possible by the human species.

A recent example was described by a cognitive biologist Isabelle Laumer. She described how an orangutan named Rakus was observed using a plant for a medicinal application. The incident is documented in a YouTube video which shows the facial scar on Rakus and how it changed over time after his self treatment.

He started by rubbing a specific plant leaf on the injured area close to his eye and followed this by chewing the same leaves to make a paste which he applied to the wound. According to Laumer the plant Rakus was using was quite rare in his environment and she believes this is the first time an orangutan has demonstrated this type of behaviour.

According to some other research, chimpanzees have been observed chewing some insects and applied them to a specific area of irritation, but the species of insect could not be determined.

I also took some time to review other studies on orangutans to test their cognitive abilities and was impressed at what they could accomplish with some positive reinforcement. There is still some controversy as to how Rakus decided to use this plant but I like the theory that he learned it from his mother.

According to one source, young orangutans remain with their mothers for up to nine years to learn about the diverse foods that are good to eat and also how to build sleeping nests and shelters. My take away from this information is that we humans need to modify our wasteful lifestyles so other species have a chance to survive and thrive.

READ MORE: Nourish your noggin

READ MORE: Canada looks to phase elephants and apes out from captivity

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