Orangutan Numbers Swing Upward, But Don’t Celebrate Too Soon

New population counts show a higher number of orangutans in Sumatra than we previously thought. Despite the good news, conservationists emphasize that the struggle to save the orangutan is not yet over.

Scientists approximate that over 80 percent of orangutan habitat in the Sumatra has been destroyed in the past 20 years. Forest fires, habitat encroachment and forest clearing for crops– including palm oil production — are all contributing factors.

Orangutans are a slow-breeding species, and with additional threats from poachers, it’s no surprise that the species has been officially placed on the “Critically Endangered” list. Estimates suggest that there are 7,300 Sumatran orangutans left in the wild — possibly fewer. One study from 2008 indicates that there may be only 6,600 remaining.

But scientists have recently called those numbers into question. New information suggests there could be groups of orangutans not accounted for in the 2008 survey.

Now, a conservation team led by researchers from Liverpool John Moores University in the UK have published findings from their own expedition to document Sumatran orangutan populations.

They decided to look at habitats extending to 1,500 meters above sea level. Previous studies had assumed that orangutans, a reclusive tree-dwelling species, would not live at an elevation exceeding 900 meters.

The expedition also investigated areas that had been cleared by logging and went further west into territories where an orangutan population was recently discovered.

Researchers hoped these extensive efforts would, perhaps, uncover greater numbers than previously registered — and they succeeded.

In total, the survey team found evidence of 14,600 orangutans — that’s double a 2008 estimate.

The findings are certainly encouraging for conservationists who expressed concern that orangutan genetic diversity would diminish, leading to an inevitable population collapse. However, researchers caution against equating these revised figures to a remarkable comeback.

Based on the percentage of orangutans lost in the past couple of decades, the discovery of a larger population doesn’t actually change their endangered status. The orangutan population remains dangerously small.

There were some tidbits of good news in the research, though. For one thing, the appearance of orangutans in recently logged areas suggests that these animals are much more adaptable than we’d assumed.

But lead researcher Serge Wich explained that Indonesia cannot afford to relax its protection measures. In fact, that the country needs to commit to enforcement if there is to be any hope of securing the orangutans’ future:

“There are regulations that there shouldn’t be any forest clearance when peatland areas are deeper than 3m, but it still happens. And there shouldn’t be deforestation on slopes more than a certain steepness but it still happens. And deforestation happens in protected areas too.”

In terms of key areas for orangutans, Aceh province houses about 80 percent of the Sumatran population. Despite this fact, Aceh’s government is planning a wide-scale oil-palm plantation, as well as infrastructure changes like new roads and mining operations. All of these projects will cut deeply into orangutan territory.

Based on current figures, Wich projects a loss of almost one third of the Sumatran orangutan population by 2030.

“The Acehnese plan is by far the largest single threat to the orangutans,” Wich told New Scientist. “We’re not asking for something unreasonable,” he said. “There are ways to develop in much more environmentally friendly ways than what the government is proposing.”

Big food and cosmetics companies have come under fire for their continued use of palm oil. The product is responsible for a significant proportion– if not a majority — of orangutan habitat loss. Some businesses have made the switch to so-called “friendlier” palm oil sources, but many continue to disregard the fate of orangutans and other species that depend on the world’s forests for survival.

If you would like to support orangutans and avoid products containing palm oil, take a look at these tips.

Photo credit: Thinkstock.

62 comments

Siyus Copetallus
Siyus Copetallus3 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

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Mark Donner
Mark D3 years ago

80% of the last jungles in Asia being wiped out is a disaster not only for the orangutan, but for other tropical species and for the planet. Indonesia's government is corrupt and criminal right to the top. Their government needs to be taken down immediately if this planet is to survive.

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Patricia Harris
John Taylor3 years ago

Marie W. we CAN save them, and save them we shall!!

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Marie W.
Marie W3 years ago

If we can't save their home, what is the point?

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Gilly Margrave
Gilly M3 years ago

Ook!

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Christine Stewart

Their habitat is being destroyed for palm oil and rubber plantations- with less forest to live in and less food to eat, disease and starvation will weaken and kill the orangutans.

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Patricia Harris
John Taylor3 years ago

Fred L., that would be very helpful, indeed. Boycotting products that contain palm oil would be quite an improvement!

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Peggy B.
Peggy B3 years ago

Good news, but too soon to rest on our laurels. Petition signed.

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Fred L.
Fred L3 years ago

An important thing we can do to help orangutans is to stop buying any products with palm oil. Read product labels, or use a smartphone app that will scan the UPC and tell you if the product has palm oil. Palm oil has many guises; here's a list of pseudonyms they use:

http://www.forestjustice.org/ppp/

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Sharon S.
Sharon S3 years ago

Petition signed gladly.

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