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Jakarta Post

Climate change and future of orangutans

  • Randal D. Glaholt


Jakarta   /   Thu, September 5, 2019   /   09:31 am
Climate change and future of orangutans Welcome home: Members of the IAR team open the cage doors and two orangutans begin their first steps back into their natural habitat. (-/Dasril Roszandi)

With the passing of International Orangutan Day on Aug. 19, our attentions have been, at least briefly, more focused on the survival one of Indonesia’s most charismatic and unfortunately threatened mammals.

While many dedicated conservationists and scientists struggle daily toward the preservation of our remarkable ginger-haired relative, it is hoped by drawing particular attention on one day that society will be encouraged to conserve orangutan and their habitat.

In considering our conservation priorities we often first look at the conspicuous threats such as forest clearing and poaching. While these are highly significant factors, we also need to understand and consider how Rapid Climate Change (RCC) affects the orangutan ecosystem and should inform our conservation efforts.

The climatic factors supporting Indonesia’s orangutan habitat results from the unique mix of Indonesia’s equatorial location, topographical features like mountains and volcanoes and the presence of two gigantic drivers of climate, the Pacific Ocean and the Indian Oceans.

Under “normal” conditions these two oceans deliver very predictable patterns of temperature and precipitation, however, three coupled, ocean-atmosphere events can occur that result in major shifts in Indonesia’s weather: “El Niño”; its cold opposite sister “La Niña”; and the “Indian Ocean Dipole” or “Indian El Niño”.

The effect of these climate Godzillas can be quite profound. A recent article in The Jakarta Post “El Niño: Drought spreads to seven provinces” (The Post, July 25, 2019) describes how EL Niño driven drought affecting over 100,000 hectares of farmland over 100 regencies.

This same drought will be affecting nearby rainforest areas. From 1900 to 2019, an estimated 30 El Niño events occurred in Indonesia, or one event per 3.9 years, but one event per 2.6 years in the last 16 years. El Niño effects in Indonesia’s bring unusually warm and dry conditions.

Indonesia’s rainforests help offset the impacts of climate change by cooling local climate and generating rainfall while rainforest deforestation exacerbates the problem. Orangutan researchers in Borneo with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature documented a warming trend across Indonesia of about 3.8 degrees Celsius over the last 46 years along with a reported net reduction in annual precipitation of about 1.36 millimeter per year, largely coincident with trends in greenhouse gases and deforestation.

So what of the future? The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts temperature increases in the range of 1 to 4 degrees in Southeast Asia by the end of the century and that El Niño-type conditions may become more prolonged and intense in the future. Embracing the future by adding more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere is akin to putting gasoline on your campfire. It rapidly adds energy, and while it might help your eggs fry a bit quicker it is as likely to set ones orange hair on fire or burn down the campground.

Indeed, fire in “rain” forests, is a new major risk to the orangutan ecosystem. Some climate-habitat modeling indicates large amounts of orangutan habitat will become unsuitable due to climate change, a three- to five-fold greater decline in habitat than that anticipated from deforestation alone.

Most humans, are unique in being able to collect their extended observations, imagine potential future outcomes, and on a good day, use knowledge to modify their behavior. We can quickly bring technology and management systems to bear on the vexing problem of responding to RCC, giving us the impression, possibly illusory, that misery-free climate change adaptation is possible.

Orangutan from what we can observe, lack this ability, and best flourish where preferred environmental conditions are predictable and exhibit little variance. Their knowledge system is focused on knowing the exact location and probable flowering, fruiting and nutritional state of the hundreds of species of food bearing trees they depend on. A remarkable ability, but only energetically achievable when their environment is relatively productive and stable.

For orangutan, climate change effects appears likely to: increase habitat loss as a result of fire; affect the productivity and predictability of flowering and fruiting in important food trees; alter the risk of diseases affecting trees, pollinators and orangutans; affect the distribution of invasive plants in orangutan habitat; and change patterns of human land use in and adjacent to their habitats.

Much uncertainty remains in many of these areas of inquiry, however, the acute vulnerability of orangutan and their confederates, begs us to work on their behalf. Encouragingly, recent research has begun to identify certain native species of preferred orangutan food tree that may be more resilient to climate change, knowledge that can help us optimize efforts to restore and reconnect orangutan habitats.

While applied research is largely the domain of scientists and professional resource managers there also remain a number of easy and common things each of us can do to fulfill our commitment to orangutan survival. These actions include: reducing our use of fossil fuels, conserving energy, using sustainably sourced wood products, supporting land and resource use processes that conserve and restore our climate stabilizing forests; and not buying wild animals for pets or products made from them.

Just as in the old days the death of a captive canary in a coal mine warned miners that life-threatening conditions were at hand, so too, the disappearance of orangutans from the wild. It is a fortunate synergy that our actions to reverse RCC help orangutan and their habitat, and that our actions to restore and protect orangutan habitat, also help us address climate change! Clearly it is time for meaningful actions (not words!) on both fronts!


Seasoned environmental consultant, currently focusing on sustainable development issues, biodiversity conservation and ecological restoration.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.