• Hugo Creeth

From Orange to Red - Orangutan's on the brink

Nothing is quite like seeing an Orangutan in the wild. The glimpse of their orange fur as they swing from one branch to another fills you with the a sense of awe that is only matched by the feeling you get if you are lucky enough to lock eyes with one for a fleeting moment, at which point you find yourself asking if you are really that much different to one of our closest living relatives (sharing 97% of our DNA).

That being said you will very often here an Orangutan long before you see them. The "long calls" of the adult male, as they are known, begins with soft low barks followed by large heavy roars petering into low bubbly groans that are accentuated by an enormous air sac that acts as a resonator on the males throat.

The name "Orangutan" literally translates in Malay dialect to mean "Forest Person". The Orangutan is a great ape (yes there is a difference between an ape and a monkey). They have an arm span that is longer in length than their body and have opposable thumbs and big toes!

Pongo Pygmaeus and Pongo abelii as they are technically known as are endemic to Borneo (Pongo pygmaeus) and Sumatra (Pongo abelii). In Borneo they are subdivided into three subspecies:

  • P. p. pygmaeus

  • P. p. wurmbii

  • P. p. morio

Whereas in Sumatra they remain as one distinct species. The average life span of an Orangutan in the wild is between 35-45 years old. The age at which females are likely to begin raising young is around 13 years, they then tend to their newborn for around 4 years before they are weaned. In practice however they are not fully independent until around age 7. Often still sharing their mothers leafy nest high in the canopy or building their own very near by.

These magnificent creatures and their throaty calls and flashes of orange fur may soon be a thing of the past in the rainforests of Borneo and Sumatra.

From Orange to Red

The Orangutan has been decreasing in numbers for many years, it reached endangered status on the IUCN red list in the year 2000 and has no made it to Critically Endangered. A claim that is not a promising accolade.

Bornean Orangutan numbers have more than halved in the past 16 years, from 300,000 to 150,000 according to a study by Serge Wich from Liverpool John Moores University, UK. The assumption up until recently has been that the major factor in the huge population decrease of these animals was due to habitat destruction from the ever expanding palm oil plantations and farming. It was a significant finding therefore when Serge Wich and his team found that according to their analysis this only accounted for 10 percent of the decline.

This left the remaining 90 % unaccounted for. Further research uncovered that the vast majority of the losses were a direct result of deliberate killing of these creatures by villagers, either out of fear, for food or for trade.

If this continues at this rate, it is projected that another 45,000 more will be lost in Borneo alone by 2050, an estimate that some are saying is conservative.

What is being done?

There are a number of rescue and rehabilitation centres in Borneo, all of which offer hope to injured or lost Orangutan's that need help to get them fit, healthy and ready to be released back into the wild.

This research however indicates that more needs to be done to educate the locals about there incredible neighbour. To reassure them that they are no threat and that simple less destructive steps can be taken to deter them from there homes and farms. The government also needs to tackle the issue of soaring prices for food and and living as a consequence of palm oil plantations, one of the main reasons why villagers are resorting to hunting Orangutan's for food.

Luckily with research like this and many more these steps will hopefully be taken and it won't be long until the calls of the Orangutan make a resurgence in the rainforests of Borneo and Sumatra.


Current Biology, DOI: 10.1016.j.cub.2018.01.053

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