International Orangutan Day is one of a few days designed to raise awareness and help offset the senseless deaths of global species. This particular annual “day”, which is held Aug. 19), means celebrating a mammal considered to be “the person of the forest” (which is what the word orangutun means in Malay.)
There are other annual days, such as for turtles (which was held May 22), and as this examiner recently reported, for elephants. But we wanted to find out more specifically about tomorrow’s event, so we tapped Nature Conservancy’s Asia Pacific Deputy Director, Jack Hurd, who agreed to answer some questions on e-mail. Following is a shortened, edited version of that conversation.
I read that orangutans have been observed walking on logging roads, which is new behavior. Would this be considered a method of adapting to losing some of their habitat, or is it more of a cry for help or both? Please explain.
It is encouraging that orangutans are spending more time walking on the ground than we thought since the landscape where they live in Borneo is increasingly fragmented by roads. It means they might be adapting and might be more likely to be able to travel between areas of healthy forest, using these forest roads. And, as we’ve learned in our surveys, most orangutans in Indonesian Borneo actually live outside of protected areas, so they need to be able to adapt to living in sustainably managed forests. The researcher who conducted this study, Brent Loken, was working in Wehea Protected Forest, which is a relatively large area of healthy rainforest habitat that is surrounded by a mix of other land uses – including some sustainable forestry and some palm oil plantations. This study also suggests that The Nature Conservancy’s approach of working with sustainable forest companies can be successful. We’re helping companies, like those around Wehea, to implement practices that will bring them profit but that will also protect habitat for orangutans.
Have environmental groups such as yours been able to slow the pace of rainforest deforestation? If so, can you quantify this somehow (e.g. over five to ten years?)
Deforestation rates vary widely by country. For example, Brazil has done an effective job over the years at reducing its rates, specifically in the Amazon. Indonesia, on the other hand, still struggles with high rates of deforestation. However, across much of the tropics, rates of illegal logging have generally been reduced. The challenge now is to reduce legal deforestation, specifically of primary forests. In short, deforestation of tropical rainforests around the world continues to be a huge challenge, and environmental groups cannot tackle this challenge alone. We must work with those that have the biggest say in how these forests are used. That means working with governments to change policies; working with companies, like those in the forestry and palm oil sectors, to change practices; and working with communities to help them to engage effectively with both government and corporations on forest use practices so that their own interests are adequately incorporated. Of course, communities must continue to use those forests under their control in a sustainable fashion as well.
Are the forest guardians (individuals who are working to protect the orangutans from poaching) at risk in the way that the rangers are in Africa who are trying to protect elephants from poachers?
Individuals who confront entrenched local and national interests are always at risk. The villager who speaks up against local government officials; local government officials who confront the operations of powerful corporations; corporate leaders seeking to challenge the status quo practices in the use of informal payment to senior government officials; and senior officials who seeks to develop and implement progressive polices and practices all confront reputational and often personal risks to themselves and their families. But it is these sorts of actions, and only these actions, that will eventually halt illegal activity and usher in a new approach to resource management and protection of irreplaceable species such as the orangutan… Human-orangutan conflict and hunting are thought to pose a serious threat to orangutan existence in Kalimantan, the Indonesian part of Borneo… We investigated the rates, spatial distribution and causes of conflict and hunting through an interview-based survey in the orangutan’s range in Kalimantan, Indonesia. Between April 2008 and September 2009, we interviewed 6,983 respondents in 687 villages to obtain socio-economic information, assessing knowledge of local wildlife in general and orangutan encounters specifically, and queried respondents about their knowledge on orangutan conflicts and killing, and relevant laws. This survey revealed estimated killing rates of between 750 and 1800 animals killed in the last year, and between 1950 and 3100 animals killed per year on average within the lifetime of the survey respondents. These killing rates are higher than previously thought and are high enough to pose a serious threat to the continued existence of orangutans in Kalimantan.
Is Borneo the only area you are concerned about, or are orangutans at risk somewhere else on the planet, e.g. Sumatra? I read that the Sumatran orangutans is critically endangered.
There are two species of orangutan. The Bornean orangutan lives on the island of Borneo (in Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei); the Sumatran orangutan lives on the island of Sumatra in Indonesia. We believe there are about 54,000 orangutans left in Borneo, where they are endangered, and 6,600 in Sumatra, where they are critically endangered according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The Nature Conservancy is concerned about Sumatran orangutans, and we also know that there are many organizations working to protect orangutans in Sumatra. To date, the Conservancy has focused our efforts in Indonesian Borneo. We have been working in Indonesian Borneo for 20 plus years, and we have developed the partnerships we need to help conserve the forests that these orangutans rely on. More recently, we have begun exploring programming opportunities in both the Malaysian state of Sabah, on the north east portion of Borneo and in South Sumatra but at this point we are not operational in either of those two locations.
Do you have an estimate as to how many orangutans exist in Borneo now? Is this number less/a lot less because of deforestation and poaching? Please quantify.
There are about 54,000 orangutans left in Borneo. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), over the last 60 years the Bornean orangutan has declined by more than 50 percent. The biggest reason for this is deforestation/loss of habitat. Orangutans are losing their habitat as more and more natural forests are converted to industrial timber and palm oil plantations. In 2012, Indonesia lost almost twice as much forest as Brazil — a greater loss than experienced by any other country. Poaching is also a problem, especially in areas where orangutan habitat is increasingly fragmented by settlements and plantations. In these places, orangutans are more likely to leave the forest to search for food in gardens and plantations, where they become “pests” to farmers.
Find out more about International Orangutan Day (formerly called World Orangutan Day); send an Orangutan e-card; and be sure to follow events tomorrow on social media including Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, using the hashtag: #OrangutanDay