Photo: Bjørn Christian Tørrissen
Orangutan populations have dropped by nearly two-thirds since the 1970s, and they’re set to decline even further by 2025. According to an assessment published this week by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), less than 7,500 individuals exist in Sumatra today.
“This is full acknowledgement of what has been clear for a long time,” says Andrew Marshall, one of the authors of the report. “Orangutan conservation is failing.”
One of the primary reasons is the destruction of the apes’ habitat. Every year, hundreds of acres are mowed down to make room for palm oil plantations, which have decimated about 75 percent of Borneo’s rainforests. Remaining lands will likely disappear within 20 years if barriers are not set in place.
“Orangutans are specialists at living the forest,” explains Robert Shumaker of the Indianapolis Zoo. “Without a healthy forest, they simply can’t survive. Generally, orangutans that are displaced and driven out of their home range during the deforestation process have no future and will likely die as a result of their habitat being destroyed.”
“If hunting does not stop, all populations that are hunted will decline, irrespective of what happens to their habitat,” the IUCN states. “These findings confirm that habitat protection alone will not ensure the survival of orangutans.”
“Orangutan” translates to “person of the forest.” Found on the islands of Indonesia and Malaysia, these apes are humans’ closet living relatives, sharing about 97 percent of our DNA. They are considered to be one of the world’s most intelligent creatures; born with an ability to reason and think, and holding detailed maps in their minds.
According to legend, orangutans were indigenous people that fled to the wildlands to avoid the toils of work and slavery. The animals come in two distinct forms: the Bornean and Sumatran breeds, which split from a common ancestor nearly half a million years ago. Both orangutans have been under threat since 2008, as rises in poaching and deforestation have taken serious tolls on their numbers. Orangutans also have the longest inter-birth ratio among mammals, which heightens their risk of endangerment. As conservationist Richard Zimmerman explains, “Females only breed once every seven-to-eight years, so losing an individual, let alone several, can be catastrophic for a population,” he says.
IUCN now classifies both species as “critically endangered.”
But the future is not set in stone. The government claims it is making efforts to halt deforestation and poaching, while activists with the Orangutan Information Center (OIC) have worked hard to rescue apes trapped on palm oil reservations. Other groups, such as the Nyaru Menteng Orangutan Rescue Center, serve as temporary homes for orphaned and displaced individuals before they are safely escorted back into the wild.
“Although I think things will likely get worse before they get better, it’s not too late for orangutans,” says Andrew Marshall.