Orangutan Habitat May Be Gone in 15 Years, UN Report Says

February 7, 2007

Orangutans may lose nearly all their tropical forest habitat within 15 years unless urgent action is taken now to end rampant illegal logging, the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) warned in a report yesterday.

About 60,000 orangutans—which are native to the Southeast Asian islands of Sumatra and Borneo—remain in the wild, conservationists believe (Indonesia map).

The great apes share their habitat with the Sumatran tiger, Sumatran rhinoceros, Asian elephant, and other threatened species. (Related photo: "Rare Rhinoceros Spotted in Borneo Jungle" [September 12, 2006].)

But 98 percent of natural rain forests on the islands could be gone by 2022, the UNEP report warns, and lowland areas and national parks may be destroyed much sooner.

"The rapid rate of removal of food trees, killing of orangutans displaced by logging and plantation development, and fragmentation of remaining intact forest constitutes a conservation emergency," the report reads.

If the immediate crisis goes unresolved, UNEP experts add, within decades very few of the great apes known for their long arms and reddish-brown hair will remain.

"This is a very important report that shows the alarming acceleration of habitat destruction in Indonesia," Cheryl Knott, an anthropologist at Harvard University, said by email.

"The international community needs to support the Indonesian government in their efforts to combat this problem," she added. "We can help through providing funding for orangutan conservation and habitat protection programs in Indonesia."

Knott directs an orangutan research and conservation project at Gunung Palung National Park on Borneo that receives funding from the National Geographic Society's Committee for Research and Exploration. (National Geographic News is part of the National Geographic Society.)

Organized Logging

The UNEP report, "The Last Stand of the Orangutan," said the destruction of the rain forests is driven mainly by well-organized but shadowy timber-supply networks that feed the ever growing international market.

To meet the demand for wood, pulp, and paper, timber companies force and bribe their way into national parks, which hold the only remaining commercially viable timber fields on Borneo and Sumatra.

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