Why orangutans are in danger of extinction

Orangutans are animals belonging to the genus Pongo, the order Primate, and the class Mammalia. They are a group of hominids made up of three species of great apes native to Southeast Asia: the Bornean orangutan (Pongo pygmaeus), the Sumatran orangutan (Pongo abelii) and the Tapanuli orangutan (Pongo tapanuliensis). They are characterized by having a long reddish coat, a herbivorous diet and very long arms. They can live for more than 60 years in captivity, they are arboreal and stand between 1.2 and 2 meters tall and weigh between 30 and more than 120 kg, making them the second largest primates in the world. They share more than 96% of their genes with humans and are so intelligent that they can make and use tools and learn to communicate using sign language and lexigrams.

Over the past two decades, orangutans have been heard more and more frequently. The reason, beyond being interesting, tender or hopeful, is as regrettable as it is worrying: the media are trying to raise awareness about the accelerated and incessant reduction of orangutan populations, animals that are increasingly close to extinction. Read this interesting GreenEcology article about why orangutans are in danger of extinction and discover interesting information such as how many orangutans are left in the world, what are the threats that lead them to be in this sad situation and how we can help them.

Are orangutans in danger of extinction or not?

In the last three or four decades the orangutan population has decreased by between 50 and 80%, which according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) includes the three species of orangutan in the group of species in critical danger of extinction . When a species is critically endangered it has a very high probability of going extinct in the wild or going completely extinct in the near future.

Many scientific associations agree that the situation of orangutans is truly critical. In 2016, the Spanish magazine Muy Interesante stated that each year between 2,000 and 3,000 orangutans are killed by poachers [1] . The official website of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology published an article in 2018 in which it claimed that between 1999 and 2015 the orangutan population in Borneo had decreased by more than 100,000 individuals [2] . Also in 2018, the National Geographic magazine in Spanish published an article in which it was stated that the population of wild orangutans could suffer a decline of around 45,000 individuals solely due to the loss of their habitat in the next 35 years [3] .

At present, it is known that the population of wild orangutans (added all the individuals of the three species) does not exceed 120,000 specimens. The official website of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) provides the following information:

  • Borneo’s orangutan population is estimated at 55,000 individuals for 2004 and decreases over the years (information last updated 2016) [4] .
  • The Sumatran orangutan population is estimated at nearly 13,600 individuals and decreases over the years (information last updated 2017) [5] .
  • The Tapanuli orangutan population is estimated at less than 800 individuals and decreases over the years (information last updated in 2017) [6] .

More recent and optimistic studies such as that of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF for its acronym in English) ensure that the population of Borneo orangutans exceeds 104,000 individuals and that of Sumatran orangutans exceeds 13,800 individuals [7] .

The current situation of orangutans is largely due to human activity; for this reason, mainly, they are on the verge of extinction. Next, we talk in detail about what the threats are to orangutans .

The main cause of the population decline of orangutans is their poaching and illegal trafficking. According to various sources, a year between 2,000 and 3,000 orangutans are killed and for every successful orangutan smuggled, another three die in the process of capture and transfer. Despite the fact that Indonesian and Malaysian laws prohibit capturing, injuring or killing orangutans and CITES limits the trade and export of orangutans, illegal hunting and trafficking remain a reality. Orangutans are killed to be kept as hunting trophies, to prevent them from damaging crops, to make amulets or to consume their meat and organs, since in several cultures they are believed to have magical, medicinal and / or aphrodisiac properties.

The vast majority of orangutans subjected to illegal trafficking are offspring separated from their mothers . They are caught and sold on the black market for several thousand dollars to circuses, exotic pet owners, etc.

Reduction of their habitat

Countless hectares of jungles and forests in Indonesia and Malaysia are deforested every year to enable spaces that allow the development of human activities, such as agriculture, livestock, mining and construction. Industries such as palm oil, logging, rice, natural rubber, and petroleum make habitat for orangutans and other critically endangered animals such as the Malayan tiger, Malayan pangolin, Sumatran tiger or Sumatran rhinoceros, shrink by leaps and bounds year after year.

The reduction of habitat causes orangutan populations to segregate and isolate , which makes it difficult for them to reproduce and forage, affects their genetic variability, and encourages competition and territorial disputes. A significant number of orangutans are killed each year by construction machinery and man-made forest fires .

Low reproduction rate

Orangutans have an extremely low reproductive rate . Females reach sexual maturity from the age of 11, usually have their first offspring around 14 years of age and have a maximum of 4 or 5 offspring throughout their entire lives.

The gestation period of orangutans ranges between 8 and 9 months and the young are dependent on their mothers during their first 5 or 11 years of life, which makes them the cubs with the longest period of maternal dependence on the animal kingdom.

If a breeding female has intercourse with a fertile male, she has a very low chance of becoming pregnant. If a calf is orphaned before its fifth birthday, it will most likely not survive. Although male orangutans are polygamous and usually force females to copulate with them by force, they are not used to infanticide, because when a calf dies, the mother cannot become pregnant immediately, something that does happen in other species.

Climate change

Rising temperatures, decreasing rainfall, soil degradation, forest fires and extreme droughts are just some of the consequences of current climate change. All of these factors greatly harm orangutans , reducing their habitats, limiting their sources of water and food, segmenting and isolating their populations, and causing their individuals to weaken, fall ill and, in the worst case, die.

We advise you to read about the Effects of climate change and How climate change affects biodiversity .

How to avoid the extinction of the orangutan

Immediate human intervention is essential to halt or slow the decline in orangutan populations. If no investment is made in breeding programs, the indiscriminate destruction of their habitats is halted, and their illegal hunting and trafficking is eradicated, orangutans could become extinct before the year 2050 . So the general question is: how to help endangered orangutans to prevent them from disappearing?

Many scientific and environmental associations and foundations around the world work for the conservation of orangutans . Through actions such as community awareness and the rehabilitation and relocation of vulnerable specimens, for example, these organizations have managed to save the lives of many endangered orangutans.

From home, we can contribute to your cause through donations, volunteering and the dissemination of truthful and objective information about its conservation. Another way to collaborate with the preservation of orangutans from home is to reduce the environmental impact through ecological consumption. This includes consuming environmentally friendly products, reducing the amount of waste and pollution produced during the year, and recycling. It is important to opt for products that contain palm oil from sustainable and ecological production or that do not contain this product, since the cultivation of this plant is one of the main causes of the destruction of the habitat of orangutans.

The most important measures to take are those corresponding to the States of Indonesia, Malaysia and the adjacent Asian countries. Some of the reforms your governments can implement to help orangutans include:

  • Intensive reforestation of forests and jungles damaged by human activity.
  • The creation of new and more extensive National Parks and flora and fauna refuges where the conditions for the development of orangutan populations are favorable.
  • Funding of orangutan breeding and conservation programs.
  • The implementation of strict norms and laws that regulate the agricultural, livestock, mining, construction, manufacturing and energy industries.
  • The implementation of severe penalties for those who hunt or traffic with orangutans.

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