Fight for Survival - Last of the Orangutans

The Bornean orangutan (Pongo pygmaeus), is one of two species of Orangutans left in the wild, the other being the Sumatran Orangutan (Pongo abelii). Both, are endagered, the Sumatran species critically.

This large, gentle red ape is one of our closest relatives, sharing 97% of our DNA. Indigenous peoples of Indonesia and Malaysia call this ape “Orang Hutan” literally translating into English as “People of the Forest”. Orangutans aren’t only similar in DNA, but are also highly intelligent creatures.

According to recent research by the psychologist Robert Deaner and his colleagues, orangutans are the world’s most intelligent animal other than humans, with higher learning and problem solving ability than chimpanzees, which were previously considered to have greater abilities. A study of orangutans by Carel van Schaik, a Dutch primatologist at Duke University, found them capable of tasks well beyond chimpanzees’ abilities — such as using leaves to make rain hats and leakproof roofs over their sleeping nests. He also found that, in some food-rich areas, the creatures had developed a complex culture in which adults would teach youngsters how to make tools and find food.

The orangutan has the most remarkable ability to travel through the forest treetops. Each night they will build nests out of leaves and branches in the very tops of the trees. The upper tree canopy is where the orangutan will live and sleep – sometimes as much as 100 feet above the ground. The orangutan has little need to come down from this height as they are uniquely adapted for their arboreal lifestyle.

Almost all of the food they eat grows in the treetops and the frequent rains fill the leaves, supplying them with drinking water. When water is difficult to find, they chew leaves to make a sponge to soak up the droplets in tree cavities. However when it rains very hard, the orangutans often make an umbrella out of big leaves.

An orangutan’s lifespan is about 35-40 years in the wild, and sometimes into the 50’s in captivity. They reach puberty at about 8 years of age.

The orangutan has the longest childhood dependence on a mother of any animal in the world, because there is so much for a young orangutan to learn in order to survive. The babies nurse until they are about six years of age. The young males may stay close by their mothers for a few more years but the females stay until they are into their teens, allowing them to observe mothering skills as they watch their younger sibling being raised. Orangutan females only give birth about once every 8 years – the longest time between births of any mammal on earth. (This results in only 4 to 5 babies in her lifetime.) This is why orangutan populations are very slow to recover from any disturbances.

Their diet is made up of bark, leaves, flowers, a variety of insects, and most importantly, over 300 kinds of fruit. The mothers must teach the babies what food to eat, where to find that food, in which trees and during which seasons. It is thought that orangutans must have a very complex map of the forest in their mind, and detailed knowledge of the fruiting cycles of many species of trees.

When the males become sexually mature they develop many distinctive physical features that are very characteristic of orangutans. Fleshy cheek pads form on both sides of their face and a high, fatty crown on their head. Their hair grows long and a beard develops on their faces. They have an impressive call that they produce with the aid of their laryngeal sac (found under their chin). This is called the “Long Call” and is used to locate and advertise their presence to females or warn other males away. Males often weigh over 200 pounds, where females are 1/3 to 1/2 his size.

Over 90% of the species has been wiped out during the last century. In 2004 the total population of Borneo orangutans was estimated to stand at approximately 54,000, by 2008 this has most likely decreased to around 50,000. Representing a 10% decline in only 4 years, or the equivelent to the amount of forest habitat cleared. The Sumatran orangutans of the Pongo abelii species stood at 7,500 in 2004, and a recent survey now estimates that number to be approximately 6,600. Orangutans are found solely on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra. In 1993, there were about 25,000 of them in Indonesia. Today, authorities say, the orangutan population has dwindled to just 12,000.

The Orangutan is a remarkable creature as it is the world’s largest arboreal primate. Now faced with the possibility of extinction in the wild in the foreseeable future.


The following threats are not just limited to Orangutans, endagered animals around the globe face similar threats to their existance, many endagered species have been almost completely wiped out in the past century due to hunting, habitat loss, poaching, illegal trade and conflict with humans, some over 90% of populations completely gone. Orangutans are not alone in the fight for survival.


During the past two decades, an estimated two million acres of habitat has been cleared annually, first through deforestation and illegal logging, and more recently for the new boom in Palm Oil. This equals over one third of the rain forest on Borneo, disappeared in the last 20 years, most of it on the Indonesian owned areas throughout the 32 year presidency of Suharto. Indonesian forests were among the many resources treated as personal wealth by him, his family, and military officials who helped keep him in office.

Across the border in Malaysian Borneo, the state of Sarawak has been controlled for 27 years by Chief Minister Abdul Taib Mahmud, whose administration is widely regarded as dictatorial and corrupt. Uncontrolled logging has so greatly depleted Sarawak’s forests that most conservationists working to save Borneo’s biodiversity have, in a kind of environmental triage, essentially given up and focused their attentions elsewhere on the island. Having ravaged its forests, Sarawak has now turned its attention to its large areas of coastal peat swamp forest, rapidly converting tracts to oil palm despite environmentalists’ concerns over carbon emissions.

The natural world fares better in Sabah, the Malaysian state in north-eastern Borneo. Though oil palm plantations have burgeoned here, more than half of Sabah remains forested. Much of the forest has been heavily logged, and more and more acres converted to commercial tree plantations, but Sabah sustains some of the best surviving examples of high-quality rain forest: the Danum Valley and Maliau Basin Conservation Areas. (The nation of Brunei has so much money from petroleum that there’s been no need to exploit its forests. It retains some of the best rain forest on Borneo, but, since it occupies less than one percent of the island, it makes a negligible contribution to the overall conservation picture.)

In 2008, for the second straight year in a row, Indonesia captured the Guinness World Record for the highest rate of deforestation: 52 square kilometres a day, or 300 football fields of forest every hour. The toll on wildlife has been staggering, and on none worse than the orangutan. According to the most recent population estimate, published in July by Serge Wich of Great Ape Trust of Iowa, the steeply downward trend could definitively end in 2011 with the great ape’s extinction. Yet for years, Indonesia has ignored or disputed the facts.

Palm Oil

In the past 20 years vast, single-crop plantations of oil palm have spread across Borneo to meet the demand for the versatile (and vastly profitable) oil derived from its fruit. Palm oil is used for cooking, and in cosmetics, soap, desserts, and a seemingly endless list of other products, including biofuel.

Indonesia and Malaysia provide 86 percent of the world’s supply; growing conditions are perfect on Borneo for this green gold. Even as conservationists spread the news about palm oil’s contribution to global deforestation—some calling for boycotting of palm oil products—Indonesia has become the world’s number one producing country, with 15 million acres under cultivation, a figure that may double by 2020.

Indonesia is losing lowland forest faster than any other major forested country. At the rate its trees are being felled to plant oil palms, poach high-grade timber and clear land for farming, 98% of Indonesia’s forest may be lost by 2022, the United Nations Environment Program says.

“If the immediate crisis in securing the future survival of the orangutan and the protection of national parks is not resolved, very few wild orangutans will be left within two decades,” UNEP concluded in a report last year. “The rate and extent of illegal logging in national parks may, if unchallenged, endanger the entire concept of protected areas worldwide.”

In July, loggers finished buzz-sawing and bulldozing a 40,000-acre swath in a north-eastern corner of the park, where at least 561 orangutan lived, to clear ground for oil palm plants, Zaqie said.

Palm oil companies are determined to take as much as 5 million acres of orangutan forest habitat in Tanjung Puting and the larger Sebangau National Park, where Borneo’s largest population of orangutans lives.

Mounting pressures on the forest are easiest to see in the money made by palm oil plantations. In 1990, Indonesia earned $204 million from palm oil exports; the value exploded to more than $7.8 billion in 2007.

Palm oil exports started growing sharply five years ago after the European Union declared a mandatory quota to replace gasoline and diesel from crude with biofuels. Last year, it raised the biofuel target to 10% of transportation fuels by 2020, driving the price of palm oil higher and ratcheting up the threat to rain forests.

Illegal trade

The trade in baby orangutans, though illegal, continues to thrive today. Many hundreds of infant orangutans are taken from the wild for the pet trade every year. This is done by killing the mother and taking the baby. It is estimated that 4-5 orangutans die for every baby reaching the market. They can die as a result of injury from falling several hundred feet to the forest floor when their mother was shot, of the trauma of seeing their mother killed and possibly eaten, from contracting diseases from humans (they are susceptible to all human disease), or from succumbing to the poor conditions in which they are often kept following their capture.

Though infant orangutans are extremely cute, they make very bad pets. All wild animals quickly outgrow being dependent, cuddly infants and grow into dangerous and unmanageable, very strong adults, completely unsuitable as pets.

In one crackdown, up to 600 Orangutans were found in Indonesian bird markets, meaning up to 2,000 more were most likely killed to supply them. Yet fewer than 10% of people found in illegal possession of the apes are prosecuted.

Conflict with Humans

As the forest home of the Orangutan is slowly depleted, more and more Orangutan’s are finding themselves in conflict with humans. They will come out of the forest to feed in the palm oil fields, and are often shot on site by farmers. Recently, thanks to large amounts of awareness and lobbying, farmers are calling wildlife authorities to collect the Orangutan’s and move them safer areas.

This however, cannot go on forever, as there habitat shrinks under the greed of the large companies campaigning to strip more and more rain forest to line their pockets, the Orangutan’s will be limited to the National Parks, or at least those which are not due to be bulldozed in the immediate future. There is one problem with this, the fact that up to 75% of Orangutans are found outside of National Parks.

So inevitably, human contact will only increase, the Orangutan sure to be the loser in a losing battle against corruption and greed.


Some recent conservation successes – keyed on political and financial support, media attention and advocacy by conservationists – offer cause for cautious optimism that illegal logging in protected areas can be effectively reduced and improved management of protected areas can be attained, according to the experts.

The experts reported positive signs that forest conservation is gaining prominence as a political agenda. For example, habitat loss has stabilized in some parts of Sumatra with a temporary logging moratorium in the province of Nanggroe Aceh Darussalam, where most of the island’s orangutans occur, both in and out of national parks. Opportunities also exist to develop reduced-impact logging systems on the island of Borneo, where most orangutans live in forests already exploited for timber.

Although other threats to orangutan survival exist, such as hunting in agricultural areas where human-orangutan conflicts exist, the biggest by far is forest destruction associated with the burgeoning palm oil industry in Indonesia and Malaysia. Together, they are the world’s largest palm oil producers with a combined global market share of 80.5 percent. Rapid expansion of the palm oil industry coupled with poor land-use planning are further pressuring forests and the orangutans who depend on them for survival.

The experts’ report includes sweeping recommendations for:

  • Effective law enforcement and prosecution to stop hunting orangutans for food and trade;
  • Mechanisms to mitigate and reduce human-orangutan conflict in agricultural areas, including large-scale plantations;
  • The development of an auditing process to assess the compliance of forestry concessions to their legal obligation to ensure orangutans are not hunted in concession areas;
  • Increased environmental awareness at the local level, following examples set by the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Program and the Kinabatangan Orangutan Conservation Project that promote awareness of conservation of forests and the importance of biodiversity;
  • Development of mechanisms to monitor orangutan populations and forest cover, building on those in place on both Borneo and Sumatra;
  • Continuation of surveys in less explored regions; and
  • Continued improvement of survey methodology to include nest-decay rates.

Indonesian progress

Hosting the United Nations climate change conference in Bali last December, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY) recognized the value of the country’s forests beyond conventional commercial uses.

Forests, he said, were “indispensable carbon sinks” with “a strategic, global function.” He talked about jailing illegal loggers, a costly, persistent problem that Indonesia has never previously acknowledged. “Ten years ago, the government didn’t want to admit that illegal logging was going on,” says Jack Hurd, director of The Nature Conservancy’s Forest Trade program. Now it is “much more willing to talk about this.” As little as five years ago, prospects for the orangutan were dim and fading fast; now, the species may ride a new political and economic tide away from extinction.

As climate change alters the conditions of the market, economics may work in favour of the orangutans. Sustainably harvested timber fetches higher prices; it’s also becoming the only thing developed markets will buy. If companies want top dollar for Indonesian timber in North America, Western Europe, Japan, Australia or New Zealand, says Hurd, they need third-party certification of their forestry practices from the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC).

Soon, illegally harvested timber won’t even be allowed in the United States, when a new amendment to the Lacey Act, covering imports of plant material goes into effect in April. Developing countries, too, are becoming more conscious of where their wood comes from. “Not everybody is going to be demanding FSC-certified timber,” says Hurd, “but increasingly, countries are going to be demanding legally-verified timber. Without those legality standards it’s going to be increasingly hard to trade timber globally.”

Then there’s the value of untouched, standing forests—the carbon value—that in the growing industry of carbon trading, now has a price tag. The value of commodities like coconut and palm oil may have risen dramatically in the last decade, but the commodity of carbon may rise even more. Wich argues that, at the rate carbon is now being traded in the Chicago Climate Exchange and its European equivalents, an acre of intact forest is worth more than its timber yield or an acre of palm oil plantation. “It’s more economical to leave the forest there,” he says. “And if you compare it with other carbon ideas—biofuels, or hybrid cars—trying to stop logging is quite cheap.” As indicated in Bali, SBY has an eye on the expanding carbon market, which, if developed properly, could finally prove that what’s good for orangutans is good for governments too.


Recently on a Honeymoon to Borneo, I was encouraged by the amount of advertising and awareness that is currently going on. Asia has a horrific reputation for animal cruelty, illegal poaching especially in tigers, and China is known as a Vacuum sucking up the worlds most endagered species to extinction through cultural beliefs of killing animals for medicinal purposes, despite countless scientific proof showing this is untrue.

But it seems positive steps are being taken, the last decade has been a turning point for the worlds most endagered species, with the help of Government action, more awareness through community and educational support, the help of celebrities and advertising, the world is turning away from animal skinned clothing, illegal logging, and Asian countries are seeing the benefits of protecting some of their most valuable assets, their wildlife.

Tourism in many Asian countries thrives on the hope to see a wild Orangutan, leopard or many bird species found nowhere else on earth, and governments are finally seeing the benefit of protecting vital habitat to ensure there survival. However challenges do, and will always remain, poaching is still rife throughout Asia, even though many species have been driven to the brink of extinction, pillaging the forests of Orangutans for pets still goes on, and the new enemy of Palm Oil is a huge challenge that the Orangutans may not win.

Hope remains alive though, with many organisations dedicated to the survial of these great apes getting more support than ever from high places. Slowly, the culture may change, and total protection of these human like animals may be achieved, more money is being spent on wildlife rangers, protecting the forests from poachers, police crackdowns on illegal markets and trade in Orangutans, but perhaps the most important is government action and stict laws which are actually enforced being developed to put an end to the killing, and habitat destruction.

Recently China brought in new laws on the trade of Panda’s, anyone caught trafficing or selling Panda parts would recieve the death penatly, yet on the borders of Thailand and Laos hundreds of other animal parts are sold in the open without a care of prosecution. Mesely fines of $1000, or the prospect of a few months in gaol are hardly deterants for trafficers, making hundreds of thousands of dollars at a time. Developing tough laws is only part of the issue, enforcing them is vital in any progress and currently the statistics are appauling with fewer than 10% of trafficers actually prosecuted.

What is important however, is change is in the air, gone are the days were the King would send out search parties of hundreds of Elephants to bring tigers out of the forest to be shot, and a killing seasons skins displayed for photographs. Awareness of the threat of extinction is higher than ever, and its happening where it counts, in Asia. Slowly let us all hope the demand for endagered animals evaporates and the pillaging can stop, if there is no demand there is no market.

The future is very uncertain, but progress is positive, let’s act now, before its too late.

Steve Bullock


Fight for Survival - Last of the Orangutans

Steve Bullock

Spring Farm, Australia

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