December 21, 2009

Conservationists: Little Time Left To Save Orangutans

Conservationists have warned that the world has less than 20 years left to save the orangutan, AFP reported.

Experts say the charismatic red ape will become extinct if no action is taken to protect its jungle habitat, as deforestation and the expansion of palm oil plantations have taken a heavy toll in Malaysia and Indonesia, where there are thought to be 50-60,000 orangutans still living in the wild.

Tsubouchi Toshinori from the Borneo Conservation Trust said the orangutans' habitat is fragmented and isolated by plantations.

"They can't migrate, they can't find mates to produce babies," he said.

Environmentalists are now asking for wildlife "corridors" to be created in Malaysia in an effort to link the jungles where orangutans have become trapped by decades of encroachment by loggers and oil palm firms.

Although studies have predicted orangutans will disappear within 50 years if their habitat continues to vanish, action needs to be taken within the next two decades to stall that process, according to Tsubouchi.

He said governments must establish the corridors in 10 or 20 years, otherwise they won't be able to do anything later.

Marc Ancrenaz from the environmental group Hutan, which focuses on conserving the 11,000 orangutans in Malaysia's Sabah state in Borneo, said the number of apes they have left today is maybe only 10 percent of what they used to have before.

Borneo is home to around 80 percent of the world's orangutans, which are split between Malaysia and Indonesia, and the rest are found in Indonesia's Sumatra province.

Ancrenaz warned that if they are not able to establish connectivity in the next 10 or 20 years, there is a risk that the population will reach a stage that will make it impossible for them to enable their survival.

However, he said that if immediate action is taken, there is still a good chance of ensuring the long-term survival of the primate, as there is still enough genetic diversity for it to thrive.

Wildlife corridors would enable orangutans to move across the fragmented landscape and alongside rivers to seek food and mates. They could also be used by other endangered species such as the pygmy elephant and rhinoceros, but progress on the initiative has been slow.

The Malaysian palm oil industry pledged to fund the corridors at an October conference but nothing has yet been done.

Malaysian Palm Oil Council (MPOC) chief executive Yusof Basiron denied that lack of action was threatening the species' future, but said he was waiting for environmentalists to advise how much land would be needed.

The situation in Indonesia is even worse and deforestation was responsible for the loss of up to 3,000 orangutans a year in Borneo, according to Eric Meijaard, from the Indonesia-based People and Nature Consulting International.

"If we are losing them at the rate that we are losing now, they are going to be pretty much gone in 15 to 20 years," he said.

Ancrenaz said there are still ways to rectify the issues and to find solutions, but "we have to act very fast, we can't afford to wait too long."


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