The danger of orangutan extinction
The orangutan — or “man of the forest” in Malay — is Asia’s only great ape. It ranks among the world’s most endangered species, confined mostly to the forests of Sumatra and Borneo. For more than four decades, Orangutan have attracted scientists from all over the world, generating a wealth of information on the primate’s behavior, genetics and culture.
Unfortunately, such research has not been able to provide enough protection for orangutan from the many threats they are facing.
President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono launched a new national orangutan conservation plan in December 2007 on the sidelines of the United Nations Conference on Climate Change in Bali. The plan presents the first specific and enforceable agenda for protecting the nation’s disappearing orangutan and outlines a wide array of initiatives to bolster the wild population of orangutan.
The government has issued new regulations to help protect the orangutan from habitat destruction. But these measures have so far been insufficient. The success of the plan will depend on the ability to rally people from a wide range of institutions, including NGOs, local communities and government agencies, such as the Forestry Ministry, to have the same vision on orangutan conservation.
Orangutan have extremely slow reproductive cycles and need extensive home range to support their dietary needs. Hence, the slow reproductive cycle, coupled with a high mortality rate, can take a heavy toll on the orangutan population in the wild. Many experts believe that the orangutan population is already in decline and therefore maximal efforts should be channeled toward halting their demise.
There are several essential factors threatening the existence of orangutans: Habitat loss due to changes in land use, forest fires, illegal wildlife trade, and to some extent also because of human’s need for food.
How do these threats affect their population? Can orangutans survive under these circumstances? The fact that deforestation is rapidly accelerating, due in part to the increasing demand for palm oil, which has placed an even bigger threat on orangutan conservation.
Orangutan usually need about 900 to 4,500 hectares of forests in order to find food and to mate. Over the last several decades, reports from the field suggest that conflicts between humans and orangutan are increasing. When plantations encroach on orangutan habitats, the animals become confined and are forced to eat whatever is available. There have been records of orangutan eating oil palm and causing significant damage — hence the reason why orangutan are perceived as pests. Orangutan are expendable nuisances in the eyes of plantation holders.
Furthermore, there are hundreds of young orphaned animals held in captivity as result of confiscation from poachers. Reintroduction now becomes one way to solve the conservation problem, especially with species in imminent danger of extinction. But rehabilitation and relocation efforts cannot fix the orangutan-human conflict and/or the population decline.
Many of us do not realize that about 1,000 orangutans are still living in rehabilitation centers in Sumatra and Borneo, although more than 600 orangutans have released back to the forest. Rehabilitation centers are aimed at saving orangutan and releasing them back into the forest.
However, these efforts often are not enough for post-release monitoring necessary to gauge the animal’s long-term survival and subsequent reproduction. Relocation can also lead to problems because there are not many forests available and many already shelter wild populations of orangutans.
The human threat extends beyond palm oil operations. Recent surveys by The Nature Conservancy and 18 other NGOs in 2008-2009 on community’s perceptions toward forests and orangutan in Kalimantan showed that local villages accounted for 361 orangutan deaths in the last five years. The underlying reasons for these deaths vary: forest fires, the perception of orangutan as pests, the wildlife trade and, to some extent, the primate’s appeal as food.
These findings need further verification, but if they are true, much more should be done to mitigate conflict between humans and orangutans. This is especially important because the majority of orangutan live outside protected areas and conflicts between people and orangutan are bound to increase in the coming years.
Strong political commitment is required to stop habitat destruction and fragmentation and to save the orangutan from extinction. We have a lot of work to do to ensure that our children will be able to see the orangutan in the wild and not just in the zoo or through pictures.
We must unite people with diverse perspectives and knowledge to catalyze positive conservation change with no hidden agenda before this species goes the way of the Java and Bali tigers.
The writer is a consultant with The Nature Conservancy.