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The plight of Bornean orangutans. We’ve lost more than 100,000 in 16 years

The Orangutan population in Borneo has more than halved between 1999 and 2015 due to habitat loss linked to deforestation, a new study shows.

Bornean orangutans (Pongo pygmaeus) are dying at unprecedented rate, inexorably approaching extinction. And even if we think we aren’t, we actually are and will always be involved in the disappearance of one of the Planet’s most charismatic and most loved species. A new study published in the journal Current Biology reveals that more than 100,000 orangutans died in Borneo just between 1999 and 2015, and that the island’s population has dramatically dropped.

orangutans
Currently only 7% of the 1990’s Sumatran orangutan population (Pongo abelii) and 14% of the Bornean organutans (Pongo pygmaeus) © Ingimage

Unsustainable management of forests

The main cause behind the decline of these big apes is the unsustainable exploitation of natural resources in tropical areas. The effects of the destruction of ecosystems rich in biodiversity on wildlife are still little known though. Researchers have analysed data from on-site investigations, models of nest distribution, and remote sensing figures in order to assess the impact resources and land exploitation has on orangutans’ distribution and density. According to the study, half the orangutan population, which in 2016 were declared “critically endangered” by the IUCN Red List, vanished between 1999 and 2015 due to deforestation and new plantations.

Hunt for orangutans

Along with the destruction of their habitat, orangutans often fall victims of hunters and farmers who kill them for their meat, for their babies to be sold on the black market, and to protect their plantations. According to estimates, between 70,000 and 100,000 orangutans now survive in Borneo but if substantial conservation measures aren’t taken, 45,000 more individuals are expected to vanish over the next 35 years. Researched have identified 64 different groups of orangutans but only 38 of them count more than 100 individuals, the minimum number to be considered a vital group.

In Indonesia 800,000 hectares of forest are cut every year, depriving orangutans and other species of habitat © Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images
In Indonesia 800,000 hectares of forest are cut every year, depriving orangutans and other species of habitat © Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images

Worse than expected

Local populations of orangutans have dropped up to 75 per cent according to study. “I expected to see a fairly steep decline, but I did not anticipate it would be this large,” said Serge Wich, a co-author on the report at Liverpool John Moores University. “When we did the analyses, we ran them again and again to figure out if we had made a mistake somewhere. You think the numbers can’t be that high, but unfortunately they are.”

5,000 orangutans are killed every year to create oil palm plantations. This endangered species is seeing its habitat being swept away © Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images
5,000 orangutans are killed every year to create oil palm plantations. This endangered species is seeing its habitat being swept away © Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images

How to save orangutans

In order to prevent these gentle primates from vanishing, we need to concretise social and political initiatives, including a better management of land use, resource exploitation and infrastructure development. Also, local population has to be taught how valuable orangutans are. “We need to work with people to help them understand that orangutans are not dangerous and that it’s illegal to kill them,” Wich said. “One approach that might work is to have Indonesian and Malaysian role models raise awareness of orangutans through social media”. Considering the huge impact oil palm plantations have on oraguntans, consumers too can make a difference by opting for brands that use only sustainable palm oil.

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