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Why action is needed on World Orang-utan Day


It was long expected but is now official; the Bornean orang-utan is “Critically Endangered”. In other words, they are now facing a higher risk of extinction today than at any other point of time in their history on Earth. This is pretty sad and disheartening news.

Bornean orang-utan © William Joseph WWF-MalaysiaBornean orang-utan © William Joseph WWF-Malaysia

Scientists have proven that the number of orang-utans will decline by about 80% between 1950 and 2025 given current development plans by the governments of Indonesia and Malaysia.These numbers are hard to fathom. To put them in perspective, an 80% decline is equivalent to losing four out of five people we know; it is equivalent to the disappearance of a staggering six billion of the current global human population in 75 years with no new births.

Actually, many populations of orang-utans have already disappeared in Borneo. Some of them because of climate changes over the past millennia, most of them because of human activities; some of them because of forest destruction and conversion to agriculture, most of them because of hunting and killing. What is clear is that at this current rate, many more populations are going to follow this path of oblivion in a near future.

© WWF-Malaysia/David James© WWF-Malaysia/David James

But this doesn’t necessarily mean that the species is going to go extinct anytime soon. Indeed, drastic changes about the management of the orang-utan habitat could be made to save the species from extinction.

However, we need to first recognize what is orang-utan habitat…

Orang-utans are great apes and are our closest living relatives. This means that they are clever and highly adaptable. Despite early claims that orangutans could only survive in pristine habitats, in Borneo, orang-utans are learning how to survive in deeply modified landscapes where the original forests have been replaced with oil palm or acacia plantations. For example, they are learning how to feed or to build their nests in man-made forests planted with exotic species; they feed on new plant species introduced by humans. They are also changing their behaviour as a response to human disturbance: they engage in crop-raiding activities at night, when people are sleeping, although they are naturally active in the daytime.

Orangutans are the world’s largest tree-climbing mammal © WWF-Malaysia/David James

But there is something that the orang-utan species cannot adapt to and cannot sustain: hunting. These great apes are extremely low breeders with a young being produced once every six to eight years on average. Hunting for meat, to mitigate conflicts (e.g. to stop crops from being raided by orangutan) or for any other reason has always been and remains till today the major driving force of orang-utan decline in Borneo.

Are orang-utans doomed in Borneo?

This does not have to be the case. Orang-utans are now recognized to survive in man-made as well as natural degraded landscapes. We need first to identify ways for people and orang-utans to cohabit peacefully in non-protected forests. Conservation needs also to happen outside of the network of protected forests. Establishing and maintaining patches and corridors of forests across a landscape transformed by man would go a long way to support orang-utans and many other animal species. This downgrade in status is an urgent call to reconcile people and wildlife and to reinvent ways for people and orang-utans to share the same environment.

All of us need to adhere to a new vision of our world, where people and animals share rather than compete for the same ecosystems and natural resources. This is possible, this is our choice. If we fail, orang-utans may follow the ever-growing list of species “Extinct Species in the Wild”.

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