The shaggy, red-haired orangutan swinging through the lush tropical canopy is an iconic image of the Southeast Asian rainforests. But did you know that orangutans are critically endangered and at severe risk of extinction?
Asia's only great ape is disappearing before our eyes as their habitat is destroyed and they are hunted illegally. The Tapanuli orangutan, found only in a small region of Sumatra, is the most endangered of all great apes with likely less than 800 individuals remaining. The Bornean and Sumatran orangutans are also endangered.
In this article, you'll learn about the threats facing orangutans and why they are at risk of extinction. Most importantly, you'll find out what is being done to protect these gentle, intelligent apes and how you can help ensure their survival.
Habitat Loss is the Leading Cause of Orangutans' Decline
The biggest threat to orangutans is the loss of their forest habitat. Over the past 20 years, it's estimated that orangutans have lost over 80% of their home range. This drastic loss of habitat is primarily driven by human activity.
Deforestation for Palm Oil Plantations
The leading cause of orangutan habitat destruction is deforestation for palm oil plantations. Palm oil is an ingredient in a staggering 50% of packaged products we find in supermarkets, everything from cookies, ice cream and instant noodles to cosmetics and cleaning supplies.
The world's demand for palm oil has skyrocketed. Palm oil plantations are extremely profitable, so companies are slashing and burning rainforests at alarming rates to establish more plantations. This destroys the habitat orangutans rely on for food and shelter.
Rampant Logging Operations
Legal and illegal logging also pose major threats to orangutan habitats. Loggers build roads that fragment the forest, making it harder for orangutans to find food and mates. The noise and human presence also disturbs these shy apes.
Mining, Settlements and Other Developments
Mining for minerals, clearing forests for human settlements, and constructing roads and infrastructure all contribute to fragmentation and loss of orangutan habitat. Activities like these make it difficult for orangutans to move through the forest canopy as they've done for millennia.
Slash and Burn Agriculture
Local small-scale farmers also impact orangutans by using slash and burn techniques to clear land for crops. This involves cutting down vegetation and setting fire to it just before the rainy season. These fires can easily grow out of control in drought conditions, burning thousands of hectares of carbon-rich peatlands that provide prime orangutan habitat.
All of these human activities have taken a severe toll on orangutans, with an estimated more than 80% of their habitat destroyed in the past 20 years. With such an extreme loss of their rainforest homes, it's no wonder orangutans are endangered.
Hunting and the Illegal Pet Trade Threaten Orangutans
In addition to losing their home, orangutans are also directly targeted by illegal hunting and the pet trade.
Investigations show that poaching orangutans for meat, capture of baby orangutans for pets, and lack of law enforcement against trafficking pose grave threats to these apes.
Adult orangutans are killed by poachers who consider them bushmeat. The babies are often kept as pets or sold into the illegal pet trade. This is traumatic for the highly intelligent baby orangutans, who rely on their mothers for the first 6-8 years of their life to teach them essential survival skills like what foods to eat in the rainforest.
When kept as pets, the orangutans often live in poor conditions without proper nutrition or socialization. Many don't survive for long. Those that are rescued require special care centers to rehabilitate them before they can return to the wild.
Experts say the lack of enforcement against the illegal wildlife trade of orangutans means these harmful practices will likely continue, further endangering the wild orangutan populations of Borneo and Sumatra.
Conservation Groups Work to Protect Orangutans
While the situation is dire for orangutans, there is hope. A number of conservation organizations are working hard to protect these great apes and their rainforest homes from extinction.
Saving Orangutan Habitats
Groups like The Nature Conservancy, Save the Orangutan Foundation, and Orangutan Land Trust work directly with local communities to help protect orangutan habitats from deforestation. They provide training and support for more sustainable agricultural practices so that farmers don't need to keep clearing new land.
Eco-tourism initiatives help local people profit from the forest by guiding tourists to see orangutans responsibly. Forest-friendly agricultural products like wild honey also provide income while giving community members incentives to keep the forest standing.
Monitoring Wild Populations
Organizations like the World Wildlife Fund, Orangutan Foundation International and the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme have research teams that monitor wild orangutan populations.
This allows them to track the health of different groups, better understand their behavior and needs, and take action when necessary. For example, if a population declines in an area, the team can investigate what happened and implement solutions to protect the remaining apes.
Caring for Displaced Orangutans
Facilities like the Orangutan Care Center and Quarantine run by the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation care for orphaned or displaced orangutans. The apes go through rehabilitation to learn the skills needed to survive in the wild again. Once ready, they are released back into protected forest habitats.
Advocacy and Awareness
Organizations like Orangutan Outreach, Rainforest Action Network and Center for Orangutan Protection run campaigns to advocate for better political protection of orangutans and their habitat. They also spread public awareness about how everyone can help protect orangutans.
For example, by letting companies know you won't purchase products containing unsustainably sourced palm oil, you can influence them to adopt responsible palm oil policies that don't come at the expense of orangutan habitat.
Groups like Orangutan Republik also harness the power of social media to educate the public about threats to orangutans and how to take action. Their creative viral campaigns reach millions of people across the globe.
Through public pressure and working directly with corporations, these advocacy groups have already convinced many major consumer goods companies to commit to eliminating deforestation from their supply chains. The power of the people can go a long way in convincing companies to do the right thing for orangutan conservation.
How You Can Help Save Orangutans from Extinction
The outlook may seem bleak for orangutans, but there are still about 100,000 remaining in the wild. Conservation efforts can make a difference, especially when the public gets involved. Here are some impactful ways you can help ensure orangutans survive:
Adopt an Orangutan
Symbolically adopt an orangutan through a conservation group like Orangutan Foundation International or World Wildlife Fund. You’ll receive an adoption packet and updates about “your” orangutan while supporting their work.
Donate to Reputable Orangutan Groups
Look for well-established non-profits like Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation or Save the Orangutan that direct the majority of funds toward field conservation efforts. Even a small monthly donation can help tremendously.
Buy Deforestation-Free Products
Look for the RSPO label on palm oil products, sign petitions calling for deforestation-free palm oil or switch to products that use alternatives like coconut oil. You can also reduce consumption of highly-processed foods and cosmetics containing palm oil.
Spread Awareness on Social Media
Share posts from conservation groups about orangutan protection and habitat loss. Use trending hashtags like #SaveOrangutans to expand your reach and encourage others to take action.
Contact Elected Officials
Write to your representatives asking them to support policies and conservation funding that protects orangutans and their diminishing tropical forest habitats.
Book forest tours or stays at eco-lodges in Indonesia where your dollars support local communities and forest protection efforts. This makes the forest economically valuable standing vs. cleared for palm oil.
Reduce Your Paper Use
Paper production to meet our voracious consumption depletes the forests orangutans call home. Go paperless when possible, print double-sided, reuse office paper, and recycle what you do use.
Every individual can make a difference when it comes to saving orangutans and their rainforest home. While the forces driving their decline seem daunting, by coming together and taking action, we can reverse the trend and ensure orangutans thrive for generations to come.
The next time you see that iconic image of an orangutan swinging through vibrant green trees, let it be a reminder that we have the power to protect them. Get involved however you can - the orangutans need you!