Today, there are two species of orangutan - Bornean and Sumatran - inhabiting the Indonesian and Malaysian islands from which they get their name. Fossil evidence suggests that since the Pleistocene era orangutans have been distributed widely across much of South East Asia. However populations of the world's largest arboreal mammals, and Asia's only Great Ape, have recently been in decline as they continuously lose more and more of their natural habitat and are now confined to these two islands. Orangutans are highly intelligent animals. They are extremely similar to humans, given that they're able to use advanced cognitive skills, and in fact they share 96.4% of our genetic make-up. It is no surprise then that the word 'Orangutan' translates from the Malay language as 'Man of the forest'.
At the beginning of the last century, there were an estimated 315,000 orangutans in the wild. Today, the wild population of Borean orangutans is estimated to be less than 54,000, giving them the IUCN status of endangered, while Sumatran orangutans are critically endangered with an estimated population of just 6,600. While the decline of orangutans is tragic in itself, it also further affects the other endangered species in the region, as orangutans occupy a vital niche in their ecosystem and trophic chain, making them extremely important to the life of rainforests.
The biggest threat to orangutan populations is deforestation. Indonesia lost a fifth of its rainforests between 1990 and 2010, and reports suggest the country may lose 98% by 2022, with lowland forests, the preferred habitat of orangutans, disappearing even sooner. Indonesia and Malaysia are the world's largest palm oil producers, and this is the biggest cause of deforestation in these countries. As the demand for palm-oil increases, more and more forests are being destroyed and converted to palm oil plantations. In addition to the palm oil industry, illegal logging and mining have also increased deforestation. Because these are practiced in protected areas, orangutans now have very few, if any, safe places to live. The palm oil industry will often use fire as a means of clearing forest for plantation, while illegal loggers often dig canals for transporting, which results in draining and drying out the peat soil. These factors dramatically increase forest fires in the region, annually adding approximately 2,000 million tonnes of CO2 to the atmosphere, while mining causes mercury to be introduced to the forest environment, contaminating rivers and killing dependent wildlife. As an extension of deforestation, orangutans are also under threat by hunting and pet trade. Many orangutans displaced by deforestation are shot as pests, while orphaned infants are often sold into the pet trade.
How can you help to save the orangutan?
Cut down on your consumption of unsustainable palm oil
This means sourcing products which use sustainable palm oil. Many global manufacturers have committed to using sustainable palm oil in their products, so it's just a matter of doing some research on the products you use. If you find out that they use unethically sourced palm oil, then you can find an alternative brand. To maximise the impact of this, let the company know why you stopped using their products, as this will provide economic encouragement for them to change their way!
To find out more about the palm oil industry, how it's affecting wildlife in the region, and what you can do to cut down your palm oil use, check out A Palm Oil Plea.
As more and more people become aware of the negative and destructive effects of palm oil, pressure on producers to switch to sustainable sources will increase. The best way to do this is to share information on social media, sign some of the many online petitions on the issue, or write to the guilty companies asking them to end their support of an industry which abuses rainforests and some of the world's most vulnerable animals.
Donate or Volunteer
Orangutan conservation work is vital for the survival of the species. You can ensure this work continues by either donating to one of the many organisations which strive to save the species, such as WWF, or by volunteering to work with orangutan conservation or rehabilitation.
For more information on Frontier's conservation work with orangutans and how you can get involved, visit the links below: