Wild Orangutans: Extinct by 2023?

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A major problem facing conservationists is resistance to halting illegal logging at the local level.

"At the national level there really is a commitment to stop the logging," said Knott, but there's a lot of local resistance. For many village families, money earned from illegal logging is the primary source of income.

"The villagers are frequently funded by middle men, leading to a cycle of being constantly indebted. They're being exploited really," said Knott. "The local people really aren't getting much money for the dangerous work they're doing."

The national government recently sent in a team of 60 or so police officers to halt the logging in the national park, but once they left, the villagers returned to the forest.

The park has rangers who patrol the forest, but they're not very well funded, their training is minimal, and they're not particularly effective in stopping the logging, according to Knott. "A lot of the problems are with the local police and military."

Non-governmental organizations are trying to work with the local people to alleviate the economic stress that contributes to illegal logging, but no models have yet proved successful.

"Even if the local villagers are helped, then people come from farther away," said Knott.

Dwindling Habitat, Numbers

In the meantime, orangutans are suffering. They are not responding well to the logging and the scream of the chain saws, according to Knott, displaying erratic behavior and not eating well. Perhaps of most concern, they don't seem to be moving. The females in particular, seem to be trying to stay in the same area, despite the much reduced food supply and canopy cover.

Even a move to new territory would be problematic if the forest was already at carrying capacity, said Knott.

Unfortunately, in addition to logging, the orangutans face multiple other threats. The number of babies being stolen for the pet trade is increasing, and "the only way to get a baby is to kill the mother," said Knott. Her team has confiscated more than 20 orangutans being kept as pets. Half of the owners were police or military officials.

Villagers frequently kill orangutans venturing out of the forests in search of food. Although many of the local people are Muslim and won't eat orangutans, more and more of the animals are being killed to supply meat to the legal logging concessions.

The orangutan's own biology could impede a population recovery if their numbers get too low: Female orangutans give birth only once every eight years.

People know that the great apes—chimpanzees and gorillas—in Africa are threatened, said Knott; what they might not know is that orangutans are farther along the trajectory of extinction.

"Orangutans may the first of the great apes to go extinct in the wild if we don't do something," said Knott.

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