Study: Orangutans heading for extinction

Unless urgent action is taken, they could be the first great ape species in recorded history to become extinct, according to a new study.

A Borneo orangutan.

Unless urgent action is taken, orangutans could be the first great ape species in recorded history to become extinct, according to a new study.

According to the Associated Press, Serge Wich, a primatologist with the Great Ape Trust of Iowa, found that populations of orangutans in Indonesia's Sumatra have declined by 14 percent since 2004. Populations on Borneo, the only other island where orangutans still exist, have fallen by 10 percent.

The expansion of palm plantation is the primary cause of the dramatic decline, according to the study, although hunting and illegal logging are also to blame.

The report, published in the science journal Oryx, is not yet available online (as far as I can tell), but a press release from the Great Ape Trust says that the new population estimates of the two orangutan species reflect an improved methodology:

The experts’ revised estimates put the number of Sumatran orangutans (P. abelii) around 6,600 in 2004. This is lower than previous estimates of 7,501 as a result of new findings that indicate that a large area in Aceh that was previously thought to contain orangutans actually does not. Since forest loss in Aceh has been relatively low from 2004 to 2008, the 2004 estimate is probably not much higher than the actual number in 2008. The 2004 estimate of about 54,000 Bornean orangutans (P. pygmaeus) is probably also higher than the actual number today as there has been a 10 percent orangutan habitat loss in the Indonesian part of Borneo during that period.

“It is clear that the Sumatran orangutan is in rapid decline and unless extraordinary efforts are made soon, it could become the first great ape species to go extinct,” Wich et al. wrote. “Although these revised estimates for Borneo are encouraging, forest loss and associated loss of orangutans are occurring at an alarming rate, and suggest that recent reductions of Bornean orangutan populations have been far more severe than previously supposed.”

Mr. Wich said that, despite the dramatic decline, there is reason for "cautious optimism." Forest conservation is beginning to gain some political traction, with a temporary logging moratorium taking hold in areas where most of Sumatra's orangutans live.

But saving the ape's habitat is an uphill battle, as Indonesia and Malaysia continues to expand palm plantations. Currently, the two countries share 80.5 percent of the global palm oil trade.

In April, activists from Greenpeace targeted Unilever, the world's biggest purchaser of palm oil, by staging protests outside their offices across Europe while dressed in orangutan costumes.
Wich's study includes a number of recommendations for halting the orangutan's decline, including increased law enforcement against poachers and the development of a forestry auditing process.

[via KSJ Tracker]

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