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Simone Sbaraglia


Orangutans – our endangered cousins

October 14, 2020

Could orangutans become extinct in the next 10 years? According to scientists, it’s possible, unless protections are put in place and strictly enforced.

Seacology is working hard with indigenous communities to avert that potential tragedy.

Plummeting populations

Orangutans—the big, gentle, rust-colored apes that spend their lives high in rainforest trees—are both mysterious and familiar to humans. Mysterious, because these largely solitary animals are rarely seen except by the indigenous people who live near them. But familiar because biologically, they are our cousins. It’s right there in their name: in Malay, orang-utan means “person of the forest.”

The three species of orangutans live in the magnificent rainforests of just two islands: Borneo (which is split between Malaysia and Indonesia) and Sumatra (Indonesia). The plight of the orangutans is yet another example of the vulnerability of island species. If the orangutans disappear from Borneo and Sumatra, they will be lost to the world.

Bornean orangutan

Photo © Rick Prebeg

Sumatran orangutans

Photo © Dee Marshall

Tapanuli orangutan

Photo © Tim Laman

These southeast Asian forests are home to more kinds of plants and animals, per acre, than almost anywhere on earth. But people have been cutting them at an alarming rate, for logging, mining, and to create huge oil palm plantations. Planned dams could flood huge tracts of forest as well. 

There are other threats as well. When populations are isolated, genetic diversity is reduced, endangering health and resilience. If the orangutans enter palm oil plantations to eat palm fruit, they may be killed by workers. Poachers kill orangutan mothers to sell their babies as black-market pets. 

As a result, orangutan populations have plummeted. All three orangutan species are classified as critically endangered.

Climate change poses another threat to orangutans, as their traditional habitats become inhospitable. Recent models predict that on Borneo alone, 69 to 81% of orangutan habitat will be lost by 2080 as a result of climate change and other human activities. 

Avoiding an ecological catastrophe

As always, the key to lasting environmental protection is to support indigenous communities as they protect the ecosystems they cherish and rely on. In Borneo, that means helping indigenous communities conserve the rainforests where orangutans live.

“Over the last 20 years, indigenous people living in and close to the world’s oldest forests have seen their land and the forests of orangutans taken over by big-city developers,” explains Chris Wright, Seacology Field Representative for Malaysia. “By supporting indigenous people’s efforts to control their lands and their lives, we can ensure the future of orangutans across Borneo. That’s Seacology’s core philosophy—and the world’s best conservation ecologists have proven that it’s the best path forward.”

Our project at Dagat Village protects orangutan habitat by funding lucrative and sustainable swiftlet-nest farming.

By developing ecotourism, the people of Tiga Bundu are resisting industrial agriculture that threatens their forest.

Two recent Seacology projects are helping indigenous communities protect critical orangutan habitat in Malaysian Borneo. 

In remote Dagat Village, Seacology funded a project with the Tidung people, who pledged to protect 550 acres of rainforest for 15 years. In exchange, Seacology helped young community members start a swiftlet-nest farming business. By harvesting the nests that are used for bird’s-nest soup, the young people have a sustainable source of income—which is crucial if the village is to resist encroachment by palm oil plantations.

Last year, in the community of Tiga Bundu, we launched a project helping Dusun people protect 5,548 acres of rare virgin tropical rainforest for 15 years, including some of the last remaining orangutan habitat in their part of Sabah. The villagers are investing in local ecotourism as the next step in forest protection. They’ve turned traditional rattan-harvesting paths into a series of hiking trails, which will attract local school groups and take advantage of the growing local camping culture.

Orangutan facts

Orangutans spend 90% of their time in trees. Every night, they build a new nest out of branches and leaves.

Photo © Simone Sbaraglia

They eat mostly leaves and fruit, supplemented by bark, insects, and meat.

Photo © Rick Prebeg

Orangutans usually live 40 to 50 years in the wild and have survived 60 years in captivity. 

Photo © Rick Prebeg

Unlike other great apes, males are mostly solitary, calling loudly to keep others away as they move through the forest. 

Photo © Simone Sbaraglia

Babies cling tightly to their mothers and breastfeed until age six, and don’t become independent until age six or seven. 

Photo © Simone Sbaraglia

A mother will sometimes wait eight years between pregnancies, the longest of any animal on Earth.

Photo © Simone Sbaraglia