Animals In Print
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From 7 September 2007 Issue
Orangutans in Crisis
The Conservation Status of the Sumatran Orangutan
The Sumatran orangutan has been classified as "Critically Endangered" by the IUCN, the World Conservation Union. The population of wild Sumatran orangutans has declined drastically from over 12,000 in 1994 to 7,300 in 2003. Orangutans were historically found in forests across Sumatra but are now restricted to North Sumatra and Aceh provinces. There are less than 900,000 hectares of suitable orangutan habitat remaining on Sumatra.
The Sumatran orangutan population is declining by as many as 1000 per year. Current estimates suggest that they could become extinct in the wild in less than 10 years. The major threats to the survival of orangutans are habitat loss and the illegal pet trade. This map of Sumatra shows how fast the forest has been destroyed (the dark green represents the rainforest).
The decline of the orangutan on Borneo and Sumatra in recent years symbolises the devastation of one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots – the lowland rainforests of Southeast Asia.
Across the orangutans’ entire range, conversion of forests to oil palm plantations is occurring on a massive scale, logging continues even within protected areas, and planned road networks threaten to fragment the habitat of the last viable populations. These factors are responsible for the loss of over 80% of orangutan habitat over the last 20 years.
In order to be considered genetically viable in the long term, populations must number 500 or more individuals. On Sumatra, only 3 such populations exist, all located within the Leuser Ecosystem, a 2.6 million hectare expanse of forest spanning the provinces of Aceh and North Sumatra. Leuser has been acknowledged as one of the world’s most important biodiversity hotspots, and was designated an UNESCO Tropical Rainforest Heritage Site in 2004. The ecosystem incorporates the Gunung Leuser National Park, but the majority of orangutans are resident outside the boundaries of the protected area, where the forests are being reduced by 10-15% each year due to logging and clearance for agricultural plantations.
Indonesia has one of the highest tropical forest loss rates in the world. The rate of deforestation is showing no sign of slowing down: around 15 years ago an average 1.7 million hectares was cleared annually in Indonesia, increasing to 2 million hectares by 2000.
Both legal and illegal logging activity has led to the degradation of forests across Sumatra. Although logged forests are not able to support high population densities, orangutans CAN survive in these disturbed habitats. However, it is now common practise for expired logging concessions to be clear-cut and converted to plantations. The rapid expansion of oil palm plantations across Sumatra and Borneo has already involved the clear-felling of millions of hectares of forests, and all unprotected lowland forests are vulnerable to conversion in the future.
Lethal conflict is now a frequent occurrence in plantations, as orangutans are forced out of degraded forest fragments in search of enough food for survival. Perceived as a threat to the plantations’ profits, these endangered and protected species, a flagship for the conservation of South-east Asian rainforests, are considered to be agricultural pests and killed.
The construction of new roads leads to inevitable increases in habitat fragmentation and degradation and opens up the forest, creating access to previously undisturbed areas for hunters and poachers.
Hunting and Poaching
Orangutans are listed on Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), prohibiting unlicensed trade due to the conservation status of the species in the wild. However, there is a huge local, national, and international demand for infant orangutans to be kept as pets. Young orangutans are highly dependent on their mothers for survival and development, and in order to obtain an infant for the pet trade it is necessary to kill the mother. It has been estimated that for every infant that survives the process of capture and transport, at least 3 others will have been lost, and each of these infants also represents the death of an adult female orangutan.
Orangutans are a "keystone" species for conservation. They play an important part in forest regeneration through the fruits and seeds they eat. Their disappearance may represent the loss of thousands of species of plants and animals within that ecosystem.
The world's remaining primary forests are essential to human wellbeing, and the key to a healthy planet is biodiversity - saving orangutans helps to conserve the countless other mammal, bird, reptile, amphibian, insect, plant and other species that live in the Indonesian rainforest.
Please support the Sumatran Orangutan Society's efforts to help Sumatran orangutans.
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