The last populations of orangutans are in dire straits and possibly face extinction within the next few decades. Over 80% of wild orangutan populations live in Indonesian Borneo and Sumatra, while 20% or less are found in Malaysian Borneo. The survival of orangutans is threatened by massive habitat destruction, forest degradation, and forest fragmentation. Orangutans are arboreal and totally dependent for long-term survival on forest. The establishment of large palm oil concessions carved out of remaining forests, as well as widespread illegal logging, especially in Indonesia’s reserves, protected forests, and national parks, may spell doom for the orangutan species in the wild. The future of wild orangutans is tied to the fate of Indonesia’s and Malaysia’s forests.
Past estimates for orangutan populations in the wild have ranged from 15,000 to 30,000 individuals, but recent surveys and better census methodologies have indicated that as many as 50,000 orangutans may still survive in the wild. The largest populations are found in Tanjung Puting National Park and the recently (2004) declared Sebangau National Park in the Indonesian province of Kalimantan Tengah (Central Borneo). Each of these two parks contains about 6,000 orangutans. The most recent estimates for Sumatra indicate that only 7,000 orangutans remain in the two Indonesian provinces of Aceh and North Sumatra. As in Borneo, massive deforestation and the killing of orangutans as agricultural pests and for food are responsible. Orangutan females are also killed for their infants, who are sold into the pet trade. However, this trade is very opportunistic and closely tied to the opening up of rain forests.
Indonesia’s tropical forests are the second largest in the world, after those of Brazil, and, as of 1995, covered at least 100 million hectares. Indonesia boasts about 10% of the world’s remaining tropical forests. But the recent decline in Indonesia’s forests is very dramatic. More than 1% of Indonesia’s and Malaysia’s forests have been lost each year over the past decade. The conservative figure for Indonesia’s loss of forest is a rate of 1.3 million hectares per year.
The establishment of palm oil plantations at the expense of native forests is probably the most important direct cause of orangutan population loss. Plantations are increasing at the rate of 3% per year, and a large proportion of this consists of plantations of the African oil palm. Malaysia and Indonesia together produce over 95% of the world’s palm oil. In Indonesia, most of the new plantations are being opened up in Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo) and Sumatra. Of the 1.3 million hectares of forest lost each year in Indonesia, at least 330,000 hectares are lost through the establishment of palm oil plantations.
The widespread presence of unregulated and unsustainable logging, both legal and illegal, throughout Borneo and Sumatra also threatens orangutans. In Indonesia, illegal logging, much of it from parks and protected areas, is the primary source of logs, accounting for at least 52% of the total. In Kalimantan Tengah, illegally logged timber may account for up to 70% of the total.
In addition to being killed as pests—particularly when they, as refugees from destroyed forests, raid plantations for food—orangutans traditionally have been eaten by Dayaks as a source of bush meat. Although this hunting is not commercial, the greater availability of firearms and the decrease in forest cover makes orangutans much more vulnerable than these animals were in the past.
Orangutans face another threat: fire. Massive forest fires during droughts exacerbated by the El Nino weather phenomenon have destroyed large areas of forest, as much 2.7 million hectares in 1982 and 10 million hectares of forest, woodlands, and grasslands in 1997. Historic accounts indicate that El Nino is a periodic weather phenomenon that was associated with droughts and small, naturally caused fires in the past. However, in the last few decades, massive forest clearing in Borneo and Sumatra to establish plantations and a rapid increase in illegal logging have left huge fuel loads of dead branches and other dry wood litter on forest floors. The presence of this dry timber has led to enormous fires, which proved to be disasters of epic proportions for orangutans and other wildlife.
In association with these fires, the Rice Bowl Project was disastrous for orangutans. This project was initiated in 1995 to convert one million hectares of peat swamp forest into a major rice-growing region of Indonesia—in an area that held, at the time, probably the largest wild orangutan population in the world. The 1997 El Nino drought, intentional burning of the one million hectares of forest, timber waste from reckless illegal logging, and intentional drainage combined to produce unmitigated disaster that left thousands of orangutans dead. Fortunately, the project was abandoned a few years later.
To ensure the survival of orangutans as biologically viable populations in Indonesia and Malaysia, it is essential that the enforcement of laws dealing with the protection of endangered species be implemented in a consistent and firm way. The killing and capture of orangutans should be punished with jail sentences and fines. Hopefully, local people will be educated to view conservation and wildlife protection as moral issues. The establishment of more protected areas where entire orangutan populations can be protected from human encroachment is also a very important measure needed to save orangutans from extinction.
- Galdikas, B. M. F. (2005). Great ape odyssey. New York: Harry N. Abrams.
- Galdikas, B. M. F., et al. (2000). Orangutan odyssey. New York: Harry N. Abrams.
- Galdikas, B. M. F. (1995). Reflections of Eden: My years with the orangutans of Borneo. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.