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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

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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