Wild Orangutans: Extinct by 2023?

Hillary Mayell
for National Geographic News
Updated March 9, 2004

Orangutans' days in the wild may be numbered unless something drastic occurs to halt the pace of illegal logging—and soon, according to researchers.

"At the current rate of habitat destruction, orangutans could be extinct in the wild in ten to twenty years," said Cheryl Knott, an anthropologist at Harvard University.

By some estimates, more than 80 percent of all orangutan habitat has been destroyed. Although once found throughout southeast Asia, orangutans today live only on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra, and their numbers have dwindled from perhaps several hundred thousand to between 15,000 to 24,000.

The Indonesian State Ministry of Environment estimates that five to six million acres of forest every year are being lost to logging. Illegal logging, once more or less restricted to forests along riverbanks, has moved deeper into the core forest. In January of this year, loggers in Borneo moved into the once sacrosanct Gunung Palung National Park, home to 2,500 orangutans and a 20-year study site.

Orangutans are the world's largest arboreal mammal, eating, sleeping, nesting, and traveling in the trees of the rain forest. "They're in the trees 99 percent of the time," said Knott. Rarely coming to the ground, they live on the fruits, leaves, seeds, bark, and insects of the rain forests.

"The pace of the logging is increasing and escalating," said Knott. "Now they're moving much further, quite far, into the interior, and it's just really critical that we stop it because the interior part of the park is the last, really the only, long term research site in the world."

The Toll of Logging

It's not just a matter of taking down a few large trees, Knott said. As the loggers move further into the forest, they also take down smaller trees to build a kind of railroad called a kuda-kuda, that enables them to pull the logs on a sled out to the riverbanks, where they can be floated downstream. Once the most valuable trees have been taken down, the kuda-kuda trails are often sold to another group of loggers and the areas are repeatedly logged for less valuable trees.

In addition to destroying their food resources, logging increases the number and size of gaps in the tree canopy, creating forest islands that isolate populations. The gaps also lead to devastating fires.

"It opens it up to sunlight, and you get lots of dead wood on the ground," said Knott. "Normally a primary rain forest will not burn. Also, once you get big gaps, grasslands moves in, and once a forest is converted to grassland, it doesn't go back."

Indonesia has suffered several devastating fires in the last ten years, destroying hundreds of thousands of acres of peat swamp forest and rain forest.

Local Resistance

Continued on Next Page >>


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