Due to deliberate deforestation and poaching, there are likely fewer than 50,000 orangutans left on these two islands combined. That number is dropping fast. Saving them from the threats of industry will be tough enough, but climate change adds a wild card to the equation.
According to one study, some 74 percent of current orangutan habitat on Borneo – which covers Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei – could become unsuitable for them due to climate and deforestation caused by agriculture, mining and logging. Sumatra and its endangered species are experiencing a similar fate.
Large parts of the original forests have been taken away and replaced by palm oil plantations, or cities and villages. They also face danger from poachers, with the adults being killed for their meat and the babies being sold to keep as pets.
Research conducted by Dr Matthew Struebig, at the University of Kent’s Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology, has identified some 42,000 km2 of land that could serve as potential orangutan refuges, providing relatively safe new habitats where the great apes could reside safely. This means that if necessary the apes could be moved there from their current location.
“The findings on first glance are quite pessimistic,” Dr Struebig explained. “What they show is the effects of climate change will exacerbate the ongoing effects of deforestation. The good news is that we found areas that wouldn’t be impacted upon by deforestation or climate change over the next 60 to 80 years.”
Dr. Struebig was joined by colleagues from Liverpool John Moores University and the Leibinz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research and contributions were made by conservation scientists from Australia and Indonesia, in consultation with leading orangutan experts based in the Malaysian and Indonesian parts of Borneo. The researchers are hoping the findings will make a difference to conservation efforts on the ground.
“Orangutans need large areas of forests,” Dr Struebig explaines, “they need fruiting trees and they need areas that are relatively well protected because they are hunted.”
Part of the work was conducted by the Centre for International Forestry in Indonesia. Researchers used satellite images to map the deforestation and estimate the areas of forest change that are expected in the future. They mapped land that was unsuitable for oil palm agriculture, which is one of the major threats to the orangutans.
Using this alongside the information they had on orangutan ecology and climate, they could identify the environmentally stable habitats for the species. As habitat loss and climate change depletes their food resources, the problem is compounded.
With their living space shrinking and food getting more scarce, some orangutans are wandering into palm oil plantations to find food, including palm seedlings. They are seen as pests on these large plantations and they are shot, tortured and killed.
“I think the first step is awareness, so people know what’s actually happening,” MidKent College conservationist Ant Finch explains. “Then they can choose to get involved in a project that speaks to them. The situation isn’t getting any better. On a worldwide scale when you look at all species, to lose one would be terrible in our lifetime. If the orangutan goes extinct in our generation, it would be really, really catastrophic.”