Yes. Orangutans are highly endangered species according to most wildlife monitoring organizations and conservation groups. IUCN lists Sumatran orangutans (Pongo abelii) as Critically Endangered and Bornean orangutans (Pongo pygmaeus) as Endangered. At the end of the Pleistocene orangutans were found throughout Southeast Asia, ranging all the way into southern China. Their populations probably numbered in the hundreds of thousands. Unfortunately, the species today is found only in limited populations on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra. Due to the destructive activities of humans, the wild population probably has decreased in the past decade more than 50%. Estimates of the current population are less than 60,000 with approximately 7,300 in Sumatra and the rest in Borneo.
Why are Orangutans threatened?
The destruction and fragmentation of tropical rain forests, particularly lowland forests, in Borneo and northern Sumatra, is the main reason orangutans are threatened. The main cause of this destruction is human activity: intensive legal and illegal logging, conversion to agricultural lands, mining, settlements, and road construction. However, the main threat to wild orangutans is the clearing of forest for the establishment of timber estates and palm oil plantations, usually by fire. Additionally, the illegal animal trade has been one factor in the decline of wild orangutan populations. Orangutans are still occasionally hunted and eaten by aboriginal peoples in Borneo and also by some migrants.
Why Save Orangutans?
Orangutans are the largest arboreal (tree-dwelling) animals; their fruit-eating and seed-dispersing behavior is of ecological significance, helping to shape and preserve tropical rain forests.
Orangutans are a keystone species. As orangutans disappear, it signals the disappearance of thousands of other animals and plant species in fragile tropical rain forest habitats. Conversely, by saving orangutans and their habitats, we save those same species.
Orangutans are, with the other great apes, among the most intelligent beings to have evolved on land. As individuals, orangutans display unique and rich personalities. They provide models for human behavior, in terms of physiology, cognition, and evolution..
As great apes and one of humankind’s closest primate relatives, orangutans are sentient beings that deserve respect and life.
Do orangutans make good pets?
No, they do not. In addition, OFI does not recommend having an orangutan as a pet! In Indonesia OFI can attest to the problems facing orangutans as species and as individuals when well meaning people want orangutans as pets. Here are some of the reasons:
First, the orangutan pet trade has been partly responsible for the decline of orangutan populations. While illegal throughout the world, this brutal trade brings orangutans into captivity at a high price. Six to eight orangutans die for each orangutan baby sold as the infant orangutan’s mother is shot and killed while many babies die due to poor handling, trauma in the capture process, malnutrition, and rough transport to market. During the early 1990’s over 1,000 orangutans were illegally imported into Taiwan because children watched a TV show featuring a young orangutan and demanded one for themselves.
Second, while some orangutans in the USA are captive bred, there are laws that do not allow ownership. US Fish and Wildlife Service regulates who can obtain a permit. Such permits are usually reserved for zoological, research, and educational institutions. There are some people who own or lease them for commercial purposes, but USFWS and the animal rights community keep close tabs on the animals. Abuse in the training process used to be relatively common.
Third, because orangutans are so much like humans, they pose challenges to anyone who owns them. Orangutans are long lived with a long period of dependency on a mother. They can transmit and receive respiratory and gastrointestinal diseases from humans. Improper medical care can result in a high mortality rate during the first year of captivity. Additionally, they are particularly strong and are determined. They can be very destructive as they search for food items or play. As they age, they pose increasing difficulties for their human owners who cannot properly keep them in humane conditions. In the USA, some orangutans in private hands wind up in tiny cages, in dank basements, or worse.
It is better to own a domestic dog or cat as a pet. Another alternative is to become a foster parent to one of the many orangutans that OFI is rehabilitating in Borneo. Our challenge is find the funds to feed and care for the hundreds of orphan orangutans that need to return to the forest. Many come to us as the consequence of illegal logging and pet trade. You can help save orangutan orphans, some of them small infants, by becoming a foster parent. Our website provides information about this program.
What laws exist to protect Orangutans?
International law and national laws provide legal protection to the orangutan and other endangered plants and animals. CITES, the Convention on the International Trade of Endangered Species, provides a framework giving orangutans endangered status in international commerce (Appendix I listing for wild orangutans). Countries around the world must ratify the CITES accords by passing national laws. Malaysia and Indonesia have already done this; however, they passed their own laws many years ago giving orangutans protected status. Indonesia, under Dutch rule, made it illegal to own, sell or possess orangutans in the 1930s. Malaysia passed similar laws in the mid-1960s. More recent accords and treaties such as the Biodiversity Treaty or Rio Accords passed at the Earth Summit strengthened international legal efforts already made to protect endangered plants and animals such as those under CITES. Ultimately, it will be enforcement of these laws in the countries of origin and destination that will make the laws and accords work. Too many animal dealers are still not arrested or prosecuted for violation of national and international wildlife protection laws.
What do you see the future to be for Orangutans?
Some day, with the help of wildlife managers, ex-captive orangutans will be able to live on their own. For this to occur, protection of forests and wild animal populations must occur. The day may come when orangutan populations will be safe in national parks, wildlife reserves, and protected forests. We are gently optimistic that the coming generation of Indonesians will make it happen. However, it will take an enormous effort and a will to put conservation ahead of greed. OFI itself helped develop international tourism for Tanjung Puting. The tourism activities are now totally in the hands of local guides and local communities. Although the money from tourism cannot compete with the lucrative cash-making machine of the palm oil plantations, nonetheless, nature tourism diversifies the local economy and gives business opportunities to local people. While the support of governments is crucial, without the support of local people orangutans will not survive as populations in the wild.
What concerns do organizations like yours have?
The main concern for Orangutan Foundation International is that orangutan populations survive in the wild. And that orangutans, as individuals, are well-treated and live under humane conditions. Concern for orangutans means concern for the tropical rain forests that orangutans call home.
In other words, the main concern encompasses a) insuring that wild orangutans are protected and have adequate habitat in which to survive in perpetuity, b) providing effective, safe, and humane procedures to repatriate and rehabilitate wild born ex-captive orangutans to life in the forest, c) understanding the many factors that affect orangutans: their ecology, behavior, and cognition, d) making life for captive orangutans as optimal as possible, both physically and mentally; e) educating the public, school children, and governments around the world about orangutans and the need to protect them and their habitat.
How does the Orangutan’s reproductive biology affect their chances for survival?
Orangutans have the longest interbirth interval of any mammal: 6 -10 years, depending on the population. A female may give birth to only 2 to 3 surviving babies in the course of her reproductive lifetime. In the wild females may first give birth when they are sixteen years of age. The slow reproductive rate of orangutans makes them especially vulnerable to extinction.
Computer models show that, because of the slow reproductive rate, local population orangutan extinctions are predicted whenever small numbers of female orangutans are consistently killed by local aboriginal people hunting for food,palm oil laborers killing orangutans as agricultural pests, or by poachers collecting infant orangutans for the pet trade
However, as long as forests are being converted to other uses, there will be less available habitat for orangutans. Orangutans cannot survive without forest. Protecting forests and making it possible for orangutans to survive alongside human activity will be the only long-term solution for orangutan survival in the wild. Making this happen is easier said than done.
As a student, what can I do to help save orangutans?
There are a lot of things you can do. Here are a few:
Learn more about the orangutan. Knowledge is power. Power for you to talk and write about the orangutan and the issues facing them. Go to your library, purchase a book about orangutans, or visit our website on the internet (this one) as well as other websites. Ask your teacher or professor to contact our office about a visit lecture to your classroom.
Join the Orangutan Foundation International. Students can join for only $35 a year- that’s less than 75¢ a week. We will send you our newsletter. We spend the funds we collect on things like food and medicine for rescued baby orangutans. You will get periodic updates on things you can do to help save orangutans.
Tell others about your concern about the orangutan and ask them to make a difference. Let them know about orangutans and what OFI is doing. Maybe they will want to join too.
Organize a small fund-raiser for the orangutans. We have received checks of $10, $50 and up from students and schools around the country and the world who have raised money by having car washes, holding cake sales, or collecting cans and bottles. Be creative and come up with a way that works for you.
Help increase future orangutan habitat by purchasing saplings which will be planted by local people in degraded forest areas outside the Tanjung Puting National Park. Trees are $1 each and a $25 donation to this project will entitle you or a designated recipient to a certificate of appreciation.
Become a Foster Parent to one of the orangutans under OFI’s care in Indonesian Borneo. We have a program for you or for your class. For $100 a year, you can help buy food, medicine and care for the orangutan babies learning to live freely in the forest. You or your class will receive a photo and biography of your foster orangutan and a certificate naming you or your class a foster parent to one of the orangutans. You will also receive a year’s membership to the Foundation. Ask your teacher about participating in this program.
Write to officials in Malaysia and Indonesia (where orangutan habitat is located) and let them know you care about orangutans and ask that they help make certain orangutans and their forests are protected. Ask them to keep supporting the work of people who are protecting orangutans in the forest. Keep the letters short and positive and write them often.