While exact orangutan population counts are always a challenge – various estimates put current counts at between 50,000-65,000 orangutans left in the wild – we do know with certainty that 2,000 to 3,000 orangutans are killed every year.
At this rate of loss, many experts believe orangutans could be extinct in the wild in less than 50 years.
Never before has their very existence been threatened so severely. Economic crisis combined with natural disasters and human abuse of the forest are pushing one of humankind’s closest cousins to extinction.
The main threats in today to the survival of orangutans
- Loss of habitat through deforestation
- Palm oil plantations
- Illegal hunting
- Illegal pet trade
Orangutans have lost well over 80% of their habitat in the last 20 years, and an estimated one-third of the wild population died during the fires of 1997-98.
As shocking as the rapid loss of rainforests has been over these past few decades, nothing compares to the amount of land being bulldozed by palm oil plantations in the 21st century. Each palm plantation that destroys thousands of hectares in pursuit of massive profits also takes with it the lives of many orangutans. Recent headlines reported how one palm oil firm hunted down orangutans while expanding their cash crop production. Meanwhile, governmental mandates, meant to protect the land and the animals, disappear faster than do the trees.
In short, if things don’t change soon, if the main threats to orangutans – palm oil, deforestation, poaching and hunting – are not addressed in a serious, urgent and sustained manner, wild orangutans will be gone from this earth.
Once this species roamed over thousands of miles across the rainforests of Southeast Asia. Today they survive only on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra. Their home is in beautiful, lush rainforest, and shared by many other endangered species, such as tigers, elephants and rhinos. This forest is crossed with large rivers and has the greatest number of species of trees, birds and animals per acre of almost anyplace in the world. The treasures of this forest are hard to estimate since they are so precious and numerous. Many different species of plants and animals have yet to be discovered there.
Now even their habitat on the remaining two islands is threatened. This loss of habitat is the result of economic pressures, man’s greed and ignorance and natural disasters. The population of Indonesia has grown from 10 million people at the beginning of the 20th century to well over 240 million people in 2014. The needs of so many people with little landmass are pressingly urgent, allowing little time for planning or care about the environment. People and orangutans need the same alluvial habitat and in a human versus orangutan conflict, the orangutan does not win.
- Illegal logging
- Slash and burn methods to plant large-scale palm oil plantations
- Slash and burn methods used by the local farmers
- Transmigration program of the government to move more of the population of Java in to the rainforests of Borneo
- Fires caused by the above methods of clearing land were inflamed by the extra dry conditions caused by the drought.
- Slash and burn techniques also cause the peat and coal deposits deep in the ground to ignite and further escalate the fires
Illegal Pet Trade
The trade in baby orangutans — though illegal — continues to thrive. 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 four to five 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 butchered, 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.
Orangutans may be hunted for food either from ignorance of the law, or in disregard of the law because of hunger and/or poverty. As human settlement encroaches on the forest, often wild orangutans are tempted to eat the fruit in human gardens and farms – this creates conflict and often the orangutans are, somewhat understandably, thought of as pests. When adult females are killed, the babies can be sold, and the skulls of the dead may be used to create souvenirs that are sold illegally throughout Kalimantan.
Poor concession management in the past, slash and burn agriculture and illegal logging have all contributed to decreasing rainforest habitat. One area in South Kalimantan reported that 80% of logging that occurred in that area was done illegally. For many of the transmigrants (people relocated from Java to alleviate crowding on the country’s most populated island) agriculture is survival. The poor soils of Borneo cannot produce such crops as are produced on the rich volcanic soils of Java. Therefore to survive, transmigrants may log or use a slash and burn agriculture that the land cannot support because as the population grows, the interval allowed for the forest to recover decreases.
These conditions are further aggravated by periods of extreme weather such as the prolonged El Nino of 2015. Fires raged through East Kalimantan, Indonesia on the Island of Borneo for over 9 months. Smoke from the fires was a health hazard for countries as far away as Singapore and Malaysia. Hundreds of thousands of acres of forest in Kalimantan were destroyed leaving many wild orangutans homeless and desperately seeking refuge in village fruit trees and plantations. These orangutans are not welcome and many have been killed or mutilated or eaten by starving people whose rice crops failed two years consecutively. Once the fires started, the peat and coal deposits common to the island caused further ignition and escalated the fires.
Barely on the public radar a decade ago, today palm oil is indeed the biggest threat to the future of orangutans. For details about this rapidly growing threat, and to learn more about what you can do to help slow the onslaught of unchecked palm oil production, please read the items to avoid page.
Palm oil is a globally traded agricultural commodity that is used in 50 percent of all consumer goods, from lipstick and packaged food to body lotion and biofuels. Demand for palm oil in the U.S.has tripled in the last five years, pushing palm oil cultivation deep into the rainforests and making this crop one of the key causes of global rainforest destruction.
Approximately 85 percent of palm oil is grown in the tropical countries of Indonesia,Malaysia and Papua New Guinea (PNG) on industrial plantations that have severe impacts on the environment, forest peoples, orangutans and the climate.
The expansion of palm oil plantations in Indonesia and Malaysia palm oil expansion is a critical threat to orangutan habitat in Sumatra and Borneo. For more information about the issue, you can visit the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil website.
The good people at Fusion have created an informative, family-friendly animated video about palm oil. Have a look.
You can learn more about what it actually means for palm oil to be grown in a sustainable way on the Palm Oil Consumers Action page.
If poaching and the destruction of rain forests go on unchecked, orangutans in the wild could disappear from Sumatra and Borneo in the near future, to be found only in zoos, scientists have warned. The alarm has been sounded in a joint study by Dr. Carel van Schaik of the University of Zurich along with Kathryn Monk and Yarrow Robertson, who are in charge of the Leuser ecosystem management in the north of Sumatra.
Since 1998, the orangutan population in Sumatra has been declining by 1,000 a year, due mainly to the accelerated destruction of their habitat. Poaching has compounded the problem and the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) says there may be more orangutans per square-mile in Taipei than in the wild.
Fires started by major timber and palm oil companies as a cheap way of land-clearing vast tracts of land are the most visible threat to Indonesian rain forests. More than 80 percent of these forests have been exploited in the last two decades and the trend has only been speeded up, the WWF says. The Indonesian government, which has asserted awareness of the catastrophe, has however been impotent in the face of local level complicity in the destruction, environmental groups warn. Illegal logging fetches hefty profits with a minimum of investment and has devastated natural parks and protected zones in several areas. Even the scientists studying the ecosystems have received threats.
The orangutan population has shrunk more than 50% in Sumatra since 1993, a study by AFP shows. The situation in Borneo is not better, the study noted, referring to the only other place where the orangutans can be found in the wild. A third of the orangutan population perished in the great forest fires of 1997-98 and continuing illegal logging and poaching are taking a further heavy toll. “Unless the developments can be stopped soon, no orangutan population of undoubted viability will be left in the world within a decade,” the scientists said, adding, “if our estimates are in error, they err in the timescale of the change, but not in its direction.”
Learn more about how to help orangutans below!