Earth Talk: Orangutans' homes in the trees are threatened

Deforestation destroys the habitat of the largest animal to live primarily in trees.

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    Mariam, a Sumatran orangutan who was confiscated from an illegal owner, plays in a tree as her keeper watches at an orangutan rehabilitation center in North Sumatra, Indonesia.
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Q: Aren’t orangutans seriously threatened by the cutting down of forests?
Nick Chermayeff, Greenwich, Conn.

A: Deforestation is indeed the primary threat to the orangutan, a species of great ape known for its keen intelligence and the fact that it’s the largest animal to live primarily in trees. A 2007 assessment by the United Nations Environment Program predicts that orangutans will be virtually eliminated in the wild within two decades if current deforestation trends continue.

The great reddish-brown apes are native to the tropical rain forests of Indonesia and Malaysia, which are being cut down rapidly (and in many cases illegally) to make way for agriculture and other development.

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The International Union for the Conservation of Nature classifies the Bornean subspecies of orangutan as endangered and the Sumatran subspecies as critically endangered. The Orangutan Conservancy estimates that 54,000 Bornean orangutans and only 6,600 Sumatran orangutans remain in the wild. Since it’s rare for adult orangutans to ever touch the ground, forest degradation and clearing are the main drivers of the species’ population decline.

While small independent farmers are cutting down swaths of rain forest to plant their crops, an even larger problem is the spread of large oil-palm plantations that stretch for hundreds of thousands of acres. The Center for Science in the Public Interest reports that over the past four decades, the total land area planted with oil palm in Indonesia has grown some 30-fold to 7.4 million acres, while in Malaysia, oil-palm agriculture has increased 12-fold to 8.6 million acres.

Orangutans are also killed for the illegal wildlife trade. Poachers kill the mothers and then sell their babies as pets. Unfortunately, orangutans quickly grow out of being cuddly and can become unmanageable and unruly when confined.

Poachers also kill orangutans for food for the so-called bush-meat trade. According to the Orangutan Conservancy, the fact that many Indonesian logging companies do not provide food for their workers exacerbates this problem.

“Hundreds of loggers are employed to cut down a particular area of forest, and they have to find food for themselves,” says the Conservancy. “The loggers, along with settlers who establish communities in the forest, hunt orangs, birds, and small mammals the orangs eat.”

The Orangutan Conservancy has an adopt-an-orangutan program where donated funds go toward caring for specific orphaned orangutans.

Questions about living green? Send to: EarthTalk, c/o E - The Environmental Magazine, Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881 ; earthtalk@emagazine.com.

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