Hello everyone! In this week’s blog I want to talk about one of my favourite primate species, not only are they on my favourite list, I also have the privilege to work with them here at Wingham Wildlife Park. Last week on August 19th there was a special day to celebrate them; International Orangutan day!

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This annual event carried out in August every year celebrates the Red Ape in all its glory, promoting awareness of their behaviour, ecology, habitat, and conservation issues. Here at the park we celebrated by giving our 3 Orangs (Molly, Jin and Belayan) some treats and decorating their outdoor enclosure. It was safe to say that they thoroughly enjoyed their treats even if they didn’t know that the day was all about them!

There are 3 different species of orangutan, only found on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra, and all of them are classified as critically endangered.  The Bornean orangutan (Pongo pygmaeus) population size estimated at 104,000, the Sumatran Orangutan (Pongo abelli) estimated population size of around 14,000 and lastly the recently discovered Tapanuli Orangutan (Pongo tapanuliensis) also found on the island of Sumatra with an astonishingly low population size of 700 individuals making it one of the world’s rarest and most endangered primates.

Unfortunately there are quite a few major threats facing orangutans in the wild:

Habitat loss/Habitat fragmentation

This is by far the worst issue facing orang populations in the wild. With the current scale of habitat exploitation, and conversion for commercial agriculture, only a small percentage of orangutan habitat will remain untouched by industrial expansion by the year 2030. Between 2000 and 2010, the annual rate of deforestation for Borneo was roughly 3,000 km² per year. So if we use this current rate of loss as a projection for how much habitat could be lost in the future, an estimated 226,000 km2 of forest could be lost  by 2080, which is just a bit smaller than the United Kingdom!

Illegal hunting

Illegal killing of all Orangutan species is a major cause of their decline. Recent surveys conducted in Kalimantan in Borneo revealed that several thousand individuals are killed yearly for meat consumption and also as a way to lessen conflict with humans. Overall, Orangutan mortality rates are significantly high and due to their slow reproductive rate, Orangs cannot sustain a healthy population growth. If hunting of orangs does not stop, all populations will decline, regardless of what happens to their habitat.

Fires

Fires occur on a yearly basis and are responsible for a considerable amount of forest loss with drastic results for orangutan populations. A study was carried out and found that in 1983 and 1998, 90% of Kutai National Park was lost to massive fires and its population was reduced from roughly 4,000 individuals to a mere 600. More recently in 2015, Borneo, experienced more than 20,000 km² of forest fires, which resulted in hundreds (or more) of additional orangutan deaths.

Lack of awareness

In certain areas of Indonesia, unfortunately, there is a lack of education and understanding of orangutans and their conservation issues. A recent study had shown that 27% of people in Kalimantan in Borneo did not know that orangutans are protected by law. There are several campaigns to effectively inform the public and encourage rural people to support environmental conservation and be actively involved in management of their resources, which in turn is a crucial element for successful orangutan conservation.

Climate change.

Climate change is a driving force that affects thousands of species around the world. Scientific models predict the possibility that a large amount of current orangutan habitat will become unsuitable because of changes in climate. It has predicted that only 50,000-80,000 km² of orangutan habitat will remain by 2080.

Illegal pet trade

As mentioned previously, Orangutans are frequently killed deliberately and surviving infants end up in an illegal pet trade. This trade tends to be a result of habitat conversion. For example, forests that have been cleared for palm oil plantations, disturb and destroy an orang’s home range and if aan orangutan is found in an isolated patch of trees during the conversion process, regrettably there is a high chance it will be killed and babies will be sold into the illegal pet trade.

Rescue, rehabilitation, release

Due to the threats mentioned above this has left a lot of young orangs across Indonesia without mothers, and therefore the majority of young will not survive to adulthood because they have not been able to learn from their mothers.

In the wild orangutan babies stay with their mothers for up to six years while they are taught the skills they need to survive in the forest, for example, learning to climb, building nests and finding safe food and water. Fortunately there are several charities that are dedicated to rescuing and rehabilitating and reintroducing infant orangs. Their organisations are contacted and they will retrieve the infant orang and take it to their facility, which provides medical care for orphaned and confiscated orangutans as well as other wildlife species.

Once they arrive they will have a small quarantine period, with a thorough vet check to make sure they are healthy and safe to be integrated with the rest of the orphaned orangutans. They will most likely be put in groups that are similar in age and capability levels, almost like a school for young orangs! Their diet is supplemented by daily feedings and are fed by caregivers which will be changed around to prevent any long-term attachments. They are then encouraged (by the help of their caregivers and other orphans) to find their own food, climb trees, build nests, socialise in groups and even learn to avoid predators and dangerous wildlife.

Eventually, if each orang has been successful with their rehabilitation and are safe to do so, they will be selected for reintroduction. These organisations will have small areas of protected forests that have been specially selected for release sites, that will have good sources of food and water and be able to track the orangs after their initial release. Unfortunately not every orphaned orang will be able to be released in the wild.

An uncertain future

So as you can see orangutans have a very dire future ahead if change does not happen soon. As humans we have a responsibility to care for the planet we live on and it will not only benefit wildlife but also ourselves as well.

Education is the best method we have so far to allow ourselves to fully understand the current issues orangutans face. I have written a previous blog about how to shop sustainably and reduce your amount of unsustainable palm oil usage, but it is as simple as doing a small amount of research by either doing a quick internet search, reading, visiting zoos or museums, or even as simple as watching a documentary and then spreading that message to friends and family.

Hopefully we can collectively work together to make a difference and give these amazing animals a hope for the future.

Bornean Orangutans at Wingham Wildlife Park, Kent.

About Leanne - Education Officer