July 7, 2008

Orangutan Populations Declining

Orangutans could soon become the first great ape species to go extinct if urgent action is not taken, according to a new study.

Their numbers have declined sharply in Indonesia and Malaysia since 2004. Serge Wich, a scientist at the Great Ape Trust in Iowa, said the change is due to illegal logging and the expansion of palm oil plantations.

Wich said the survey found the orangutan population on Indonesia's Sumatra Island dropped almost 14 percent since 2004.  It also found populations on Borneo Island, which is shared by Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia, have dropped by 10 percent.

Wich and his 15 colleagues said the declines in Borneo were occurring at an "alarming rate". Yet, they were most concerned about Sumatra, where the study found the population is in "rapid decline."

Researchers wrote, "Unless extraordinary efforts are made soon, it could become the first great ape species to go extinct."

The number of orangutans living on Sumatra has dropped from 7,500 to 6,600. The survey - published in this month's science journal Oryx - found the number on Borneo has fallen from 54,000 to around 49,600.

Wich said, "It's disappointing that there are still declines even though there have been quite a lot of conservation efforts over the past 30 years."

The world's top two palm oil producers, Indonesia and Malaysia, have aggressively pushed for growth amid a rising demand for bio fuels.  They're considered cleaner burning and cheaper than petrol.

Wich and his colleagues said there was hope for "cautious optimism" that the orangutan could be saved, depending on initiatives by Indonesian leaders. Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono recently announced a major plan to save the nation's orangutans at a U.N. climate conference last year. The Aceh governor also declared a moratorium on logging.

"There are promising signs that there is a lot of political will, especially in Aceh, to protect the forest," Wich said, adding however that much more needs to be done.

There are expectations Indonesia will also protect millions of acres of forest as part of a U.N. climate pact that goes into effect in 2012. The deal is expected to reward tropical countries like Indonesia that stop deforestation.

Founding director of Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation UK, Michelle Desilets, praised the study for offering the first in-depth look at the species population.

"What matters is that the rate of decline is increasing, and unless something is done, the wild orangutan is on a quick spiral towards extinction, whether in two years, five years or 10 years," Desilets said.

Researchers recommended that law enforcement be beefed up to curb illegal hunting of orangutans for food and trade. They suggested environmental awareness at the local level must also be increased.

"It is essential that funding for environmental services reaches the local level and that there is strong law enforcement," the study says. "Developing a mechanism to ensure these occur is the challenge for the conservation of the orangutans."

The study is just one of the latest in a long line of research that has predicted the extinction of the orangutans.

In May, the Center for Orangutan Protection said just 20,000 of the endangered primates remain in the tropical jungle of Central Kalimantan on Borneo Island. The number decreased from 31,300 orangutans in 2004. Based on that estimate, the center said orangutans there could be extinct by 2011.


On the Net:

Great Ape Trust


Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation UK

Center for Orangutan Protection