Orangutans in Peril
Referred to as the “Red Apes” because they are covered in thick reddish-brown hair, orangutans are said to be the most social of the four primate species belonging to the family Hominidae, or “The Great Apes”, along with gorillas, chimpanzees and bonobos. The Great Apes do not have a tail, are larger and heavier than monkeys and also have a larger brain. Once widespread in Southeast Asia, orangutans now are confined to the Indonesian islands of Borneo and Sumatra. They are the only Great Ape species living outside the continent of Africa. Regarded as an “umbrella species”, orangutans are essential in creating the necessary environment for the thousands of flora and fauna that make up the biodiversity of Southeast Asian rain forest.
Most scientists recognize only two species of orangutans - the “Pongo Pygmaeus” that live on Indonesia’s Borneo Island and the “Pongo Abelii” that live on the island of Sumatra. Both species are listed on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, a list of the world’s most endangered species that is kept and monitored by the World Conservation Union. The Bornean orangutan is classified as “Endangered” on the red list with an estimated population of 54,000 remaining while the Sumatran orangutan is listed as “Critically Endangered” with only around 6,600 left in the wild. The Sumatran orangutan is also listed as one of the world’s top 25 most endangered primates.
The orangutan is one of our closest relatives in the animal kingdom, sharing 96.4% of our DNA. Indigenous peoples of Indonesia and Malaysia call this ape "Orang Hutan" which literally translates as "Person of the Forest". They are the largest arboreal animals in the world, spending about 95% of their time high up in the trees. Living primarily in lowland rain forests, nearly their entire lives are spent up off the ground where they find shelter, food and a place to safely sleep away from predators. Almost every night they construct a new sleeping nest from branches, sometimes as high as 100 feet up in the tree branches.
These lanky apes have highly mobile and limber hip and shoulder joints which allow them to easily do yoga-like poses, such as putting their legs behind their heads. They have extremely long arms that stretch out longer than their bodies, up to around 8 feet from fingertip to fingertip in the case of large males. When on the ground they walk on all fours using their fists or palms. They are not, however, knuckle-walkers like the African apes. The orangutan’s long, narrow hands and feet are especially useful for grasping branches and swinging from tree to tree. Their thumbs and big toes are opposable, meaning they can grab branches and other items with a hook-like function and hang upside down for long periods of time while gathering fruit and leaves from the trees. Ripe fruit and wild figs make up their main diet, but they also enjoy insects, nectar, honey, small vertebrates and bird eggs. About 90% of their food is found high up in the canopy of the forest.
Orangutans are intelligent, friendly, gentle and have high cognitive abilities. Scientists have found evidence of many socially learned behaviors passed down within their families from generation to generation. They have been observed using leafy branches to shelter themselves from sun and rain, and sometimes drape large leaves over themselves like a poncho. They use branches as tools when foraging for food, collecting honey, protecting themselves against stinging insects and extracting seeds from hard shells. In parts of Borneo orangutans use handfuls of leaves as napkins to wipe their chins and the orangutans of Sumatra uses leaves as gloves, helping them to handle thorny branches and spiny fruits. Leaves are also used as seat cushions in spiny trees and for bedding inside their nests at night.
Wild females usually give birth for the first time at around age 15 and typically only have one child, but twins occur rarely. For the first few years of a young orangutan’s life, it clings tightly to its mother as she moves through the thick canopy of the forest, dependent on her for food and transportation. Youngsters will sometimes be carried by their mother until around age five and be breast-fed up to age eight. The mother will carefully protect them against predators such as pythons, clouded leopards and tigers. Orangutans maintain a semi-solitary and peaceful social system due to a lack of large arboreal predators. Adolescent females live and travel together, while adult males participate in social groups temporarily only during sexual “courtships” and then go back into isolation. Wild orangutan fathers play no direct role in the upbringing of the babies. When males fight they charge at one another and grapple, biting each other’s cheeks and heads, looking like Sumo wrestlers. The life expectancy of the these apes is 35-40 years in the wild and up to 50 years in captivity.
Fifty years ago more than three-quarters of Indonesia was blanketed in a plush tropical rain forest, but the country has now become the world’s fastest forest destroyer. Economic and political instability in the region has been a contributing factor to habitat loss in recent years and the Asian financial crisis had serious effects on Indonesia's economy, leading to violent demon-strations causing the resignation of long-term president Suharto. Of all the species that reside in Indonesia, 772 species are threatened or endangered, giving Indonesia the third highest number of threatened species of any country in the world. Over half of the country’s trees have now been cleared in a greedy rush to supply the world with palm oil and other marketable items.
The palm oil industry has made Indonesia the world’s top producer and exporter of the oil, which is used globally as a key ingredient in items ranging from cooking oil, to peanut butter, lipstick, soap, biodiesel fuel, and animal food. Of the 44 countries which collectively make up around 90% of the world’s forests, the country with the highest annual rate of deforestation is Indonesia, with 4.4 million acres of forest destroyed each year between 2000-2005, according to the World Record Academy. This area has lost more than 70% of its ancient forests at an alarming rate and half of what remains is critically threatened by commercial logging, forest fires, and clearance by palm oil plantations. The rapid destruction of these tropical forests is causing in calculable losses and is pushing the orangutans even closer to extinction.
Orangutans are one of the most critically endangered of all the apes in the world and now is a crucial time for them. In 2011, the United States forgave more than $30 million in Indonesian debt in return for stepped up conservation of Borneo Island. This agreement is monitored by the World Wildlife Fund, which claims that India ranks fourth in the world in terms of total carbon emissions. A coalition of conservation groups have been establishing rehabilitation centers for injured and orphaned apes with the aim to treat them and eventually return them back to their natural environments, if any still exists.
The Tripa forest in Aceh province is home to the world’s densest population orangutans. The forest has been divided up as palm oil companies drain all the swamp lands and set fires to drive out the wildlife, forcing these powerful apes to the edges of the remaining forests. The Coalition to Save Tripa says that several hundred critically endangered and rare orangutans that reside in this protected area of western Indonesia may be killed off by the end of the year if land clearing is not ceased immediately. A third of the population of around 200 might already be dead, with the rest in severe danger, say conservationists. In the early 1990s Tripa was home to over 3,000 individuals according to the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme. The program’s director, Ian Singleton, said “it is no longer several years away, but just a few months or even weeks before this iconic creature disappears. We are currently watching a global tragedy.” Environmentalist Graham Usher says that a single prolonged dry spell in Indonesia - a normal occurrence in the region - will quite likely destroy the remaining forests and everything in it, including orangutans, sun bears, tigers and other protected species within only months. Deforestation has previously threatened animals like the Sumatran Tiger and Javan Rhino and also caused the disappearance of the Bali and Java tiger species in the past 70 years.
Despite the fact that it is illegal to capture, kill, keep or trade orangutans in Indonesia, many still find their way into the black market animal trade or into people’s homes as pets. Land clearing fires send the panicked orangutans fleeing, putting them at risk of being captured or killed by local residents and farmers, who see them as irritating pests. Others died directly in the fires or as a result of gradual starvation and malnutrition as their food sources disappear. Many people locally and also overseas are willing to pay high prices to purchase young orangutans, which causes a depletion of the wild populations. When young orangutans are captured for trade it is not only the infant that suffers, but the entire family. There are many reports of adult orangutans being beaten, doused in petroleum, set on fire and burned to death so the infants can be more easily taken. Sometimes they will die in the process or die later from the stress and trauma of being taken from their family and placed into captivity. A conservative estimate from the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme suggests that only about one in every three infants that gets captured survives the experience.
Habitat loss, destruction and the pet trade are at the root of the orangutan conservation crisis. There needs to be a worldwide outcry and conservation effort in order to save the mighty Red Apes. Changing the ecological environment and halting habitat destruction would mitigate the effects that make the orangutan populations in Borneo and Sumatra so unstable. There needs to be community engagement to reduce the level of conflicts between orangutans and humans along with assessment and monitoring of the health and welfare of the local species. Education about the illegal black market and poaching is also essential in raising awareness about the plight of the orangutans if there is to be a vision for a brighter future.