With its distinctive red/brown fur the Orangutan has become an icon for conservation, with images being used around the world to highlight the threats that many species face. Orangutans are known to be one of our closest relatives in the animal kingdom sharing almost 95% of our DNA.
In the wilds of Borneo and Sumatra orangutans have very few natural predators. This is because they spend much of their life living high in the trees, only rarely venturing to ground level. However if an orangutan does spend too much time on the ground they face threats from leopards and tigers.
Why then, is the Orangutan one of the most endangered animals on the planet?
It is not natural predation, which has led to them becoming one of the world’s most endangered species but encroachment from humans. We are responsible for the destruction of around 80% of the rainforest habitat in Borneo and Sumatra in the last 20 years alone. Conservationists predict, that by 2020 almost 98% of the Indonesian rainforest could have been destroyed.
There are several reasons behind the large-scale destruction; Borneo and Sumatra have become densely populated in recent years, with the growing population requiring ever more space in which to build their homes. The rainforest has provided that space at the cost of habitat for the animals.
Furthermore the pet trade in orangutans is huge with many people in Indonesia seeing them as status symbols. Adult females are often killed so their young can be sold on the booming black market.
Perhaps the biggest contributor to the large-scale habitat destruction has been the world’s insatiable appetite for palm oil. Palm oil is used in a huge variety of products consumed by humans and as the demand has increased so too has the space needed to harvest the palm oil. Currently around 6.5 million hectares of rainforest in Indonesia has been cleared to make way for these plantations.
As their habitat is destroyed the orangutans are being forced into smaller and smaller areas forcing them into greater conflict with other animals, including humans. When an orangutan comes into conflict with humans carrying weapons there is only going to be one outcome.
Unless swift action is taken to reverse the downward trend in orangutan numbers, we face losing one of our most loved animals in the very near future which would be a tragedy, not only for conservation worldwide but for the fragile Indonesian ecosystem in which they live.