Orangutans (Pongo) are shaggy-haired great apes native to Indonesia and Borneo. Considerably smaller than some of their ape cousins—ranging in size from 100 to 220 pounds, as opposed to 400 pounds for fully-grown male gorillas—these primates are found in the tropical rainforests of their native lands. In fact, their name means "forest person" in Malay—orang for person, hutan for forest, according to Orangutan Foundation International (OFI).
But like animal species everywhere, including all species of tiger, orangutans are in trouble: susceptible to habitat loss, poaching, and the multiple vagaries of climate change. How many are left, and what steps are we taking to protect them? Let's have a look.
The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) estimates that there were 230,000 orangutans in the wild a century ago. Today, that number has shrunk by more than a half. Not a coincidence: as OFI reports, they've lost 97 percent of their habitat since 1903. "Human activities and development, such as logging, conversion of forest to palm oil plantations, mining, and urban expansion, are the major contributors to the loss of orangutan habitat," according to OFI.
Species at risk
Until recently, only two species of orangutan were known. There's the Bornean orangutan (Pongo pygmaeus), which, as its name suggests, is native to Borneo. With 104,700 individuals left in the wild, it's listed as endangered. And there's the Sumatran orangutan (Pongo abelii), its habitat now restricted to the northern part of that Indonesian island. With only 7,500 individuals left, it's listed as critically endangered.
In 2017, researchers made a startling discovery: There was actually a third species of orangutan living in North Sumatra, the Tapanuli orangutan (Pongo tapanuliensis). It "bears a close resemblance to its Bornean and Sumatran cousins, but close observers may notice that it has a smaller head, slightly frizzier cinnamon-colored fur, and a 'prominent mustache,'" USA Today reported. With only 800 individuals extant, it's not only critically endangered; it's also the rarest of the great apes.
A lot like us
Despite what researchers thought for generations, it could be orangutans, not chimpanzees, that are the closest living relatives to humans, reports National Geographic, sharing at least 28 unique physical characteristics with us, as opposed to only two with chimps and seven with gorillas—physical traits in our teeth, our brains, our mammary glands, and our hair. We also share genetics with orangutans—a 96.4 percent gene similarity, reports WWF.
The importance of forests
"Orangutans are the largest arboreal mammal, spending most of their time in trees," according to WWF. They nest in the trees where they sleep at night, and during the day lead somewhat solitary existences. They also rely on the fruits of a variety of trees for their sustenance—figs, mangosteens, and lychees. So, a loss to their forest habitats is also a loss of the core components of their diets. And, as major seed distributors themselves, the loss of orangutans also threatens the existence of the forests they inhabit.
It's not just habitat loss that's quickly spiraling orangutans toward extinction. Reports WWF, "Orangutans are an easy target for hunters because they're large and slow targets. They are killed for food or in retaliation when they move into agricultural areas and destroy crops. Females are hunted most often. When caught with offspring, the young are often kept as pets. For each orangutan reaching Taiwan, as many as three to five additional animals die in the process." In fact, poaching is a major factor in the endangerment of many of our world's animals.
Who's helping, and how
A Taiwanese law has reduced the importation of orangutans, although WWF maintains that the pet trade remains a threat in Indonesia. Wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC rescues captured orangutans and helps enforce trade restrictions, as does the Human Orangutan Conflict Response Unit in Sumatra. WWF works on the ground to "secure well-managed protected areas and wider forest landscapes to connect sub-populations of orangutans." And the Wildlife Conservation Society tries to ensure responsible logging in areas where orangutans live.
The fact is, orangutans are in serious trouble. Protecting them requires huge investments of time, money, research, and political will to change the conditions that have made them vulnerable. One small bit of bright news came in 2018 when a study published by Science Advances showed evidence that orangutans are more adaptable than we once thought. And in that adaptability, there may be some hope. According to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, "[O]rangutans living in heavily human-impacted habitat, such as oil palm and forestry plantations...can adjust their behavior to survive in such areas, at least in the short term." Is it enough? It will take the work of humans to make it so. Sadly, orangutans aren't the only animal that could disappear in our lifetime.