Orangutans in the Balance

Rainforest destruction, usually due to the demand for palm oil, is driving one of humankind’s closest relatives to extinction: the orangutan.

Orangutan means “person of the forest,” because when the Indonesian and Malaysian peoples first noticed them, they thought they were people hiding in the forest to escape becoming slaves or having to work for a living. They turned out to be one of the four kinds of great apes, and the only great ape to originate from Asia.

They’re amazing creatures that do a lot for the world around them. They’re considered gardeners of the forest, because their food waste spreads seeds and decomposition around the forest floor, which plants new trees and feeds the ones that already exist. Unfortunately, that world around them is slowly being razed away and it’s taking them with it. Their main threat is habitat loss, and palm oil is the #1 reason their homes are being destroyed.

Orangutans share 97% of their DNA with humans and are almost as smart as chimpanzees, which are humankind’s closest living relatives. Some groups are able to fashion tools that help them acquire food, and some groups of orangutans can even make themselves umbrellas out of giant leaves to avoid heavy rainstorms!

Orangutans are unique in several ways from other great apes. They are the only primarily arboreal apes. They rarely touch down on the forest floor, preferring to live in nests in the trees. They’re used to swinging in branches and their bodies aren’t used to being on the ground, so it’s dangerous for orangutans to leave the trees. The males are generally larger and therefore more likely to wander around on the forest floor than females.

Orangutans can live up to 50 years in the wild! They also have the longest gestation period of any other animal besides humans. Their young stay under their mothers’ care between 7 and 11 years of age, meaning it can take up to 10 or 11 years for them to have another child. At most, they have a baby once every 5 years. This is a big reason their populations are hurting so bad–they don’t have the ability to replenish it as fast as it’s being destroyed.

There are only two groups of orangutans left: the Bornean and the Sumatran orangutans. It’s hard to find a consensus on the number of orangutans left, but the estimated amount of Bornean orangutans left is at about 105,000 and the Sumatran orangutans are estimated at 7,500, making them critically endangered. Now, I’ve heard and read a lot of things that say that orangutans are expected to go extinct in 40 to 100 years. Several sources seem to think that they might go extinct within our lifetimes. And though this may be true if things get much worse, the book Orangutans: Geographic Variation in Behavioral Ecology and Conservation did thorough studies over many years and looked at several different outcomes and scenarios and estimated that the Sumatran orangutans have about 150 years left (now 140, as this was written almost a decade ago) and the Bornean orangutans can have about 1,000 years left if their conditions don’t continue to degrade.

So now you may be thinking, Phew, I’m not going to see the end of orangutans! Yeah, maybe not, but your children might see the end to at least one species. They still desperately need your attention. They need advocates to stand up against irresponsibly sourced palm oil and poaching and the illegal pet trade. Luckily for us, we have the time to make the change. There are organizations like the Rainforest Action Network (RAN) and World Wildlife Fund (WWF) that are making people aware of the threats orangutans are facing and fighting to make life safer for these wonderful creatures. If you want to help orangutans, I would start by donating to one of these organizations. The next step is to figure out what companies source their palm oil responsibly and support them and make it known to other companies that you care about palm oil. They don’t seem to think anyone cares enough, so most companies have no plans to change their behavior.

Besides habitat loss, mostly due to the need for palm oil, orangutans face a multitude of threats. Orangutans up to the age of seven are sought for the illegal pet trade. In the process of stealing the young, the hunters usually kill the mother, making the illegal pet trade a serious threat to wild orangutan populations. I want to emphasize to anyone out there who wants a primate as a pet that primates do not make good pets. They are not easily domesticated. They’ll probably ruin your house, bite you, throw poop at you, and be far too feral to control. And there’s a ton of animal abuse that goes into the illegal pet trade. For example, the pygmy slow loris, which is a tiny, round, teddy-bear-like creature that’s super cute, actually secretes a poisonous toxin in its arm pits. It helps the loris in its hunting, and to use it, the loris licks its arm pits with its tongue and the toxin gets all over its bottom teeth (their tooth comb). Because the toxin is also poisonous to humans (though I don’t think it’s fatal to us), and because they’re likely to bite you, their tooth combs are ripped out before they’re given to the buyer. There’s a reason certain animals are illegal to own, and taking part in the illegal pet trade just adds to animal cruelty and population decline.

Even protected areas aren’t secure enough to protect orangutans. The boundaries of Borneo are not clearly defined, making them difficult to patrol. Most parks are understaffed and underfunded, so palm oil companies and logging firms have intruded into all parks.

In some areas, orangutans are hunted for food. They’re also killed when they move into agricultural areas and destroy crops, including on plantations used for palm oil. Horrible pesticides are sprayed on the food and they die a terrible death for their crime of eating.

Orangutans are facing a lot of hardships and need help before their numbers get much lower. They need more protected land and the Bornean and Sumatran governments need more money for better patrols. More importantly, people need to start protesting the use of palm oil. It’s in practically every packaged product, so convincing companies to resource it responsibly will be quite the fight. It’s not impossible though! Teaching others about palm oil and the importance of fighting it is the first step to making a difference, and the fate of orangutans hangs in the balance.

Photo courtesy of Chem7.

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