Are Bornean Orangutans Disappearing?

“If something doesn’t happen in the next ten years, the only orangutans that are going to be left are the ones in zoos,” says Kobe Steele.

Let that sit.

These great apes that we share 97% of our genetic make-up with are dying at an alarming rate. A study conducted by Maria Voigt, a doctoral researcher from the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research, found that the population of Bornean orangutans had halved over the past 16 years, with around 100,000 orangutans lost. Despite these concerning statistics, one organisation in particular is working to change the fate of these creatures, one orangutan at a time.

Orangutan Foundational International is a non-profit organisation dedicated to the preservation and conservation of orangutans. The Australian division was set up by Kobe Steele in 2013 who has been working with these “fantastic animals” for over a decade now. They run an orphan care program in Borneo where they rescue, care for and rehabilitate orangutans and help protect their rainforest habitat.

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Ms Steele says the rehabilitation of these animals is a “hugely complex issue” that encompasses many challenges and factors that aren’t working in their favour. Orangutans were officially declared a critically endangered species in 2016 and due to their slow breeding habits, it is impossible for them to breed themselves out of extinction. She says that they have the longest birth interval of any mammal including humans. Baby orangutans are dependent on their mothers for around eight years and a mother will not have another baby during this time.

This evolutionary trait would not be so much of an issue but man-made interferences with their habitat and livelihood have damaged the orangutan population so much that this unwavering devotion to their young has now become a vice that is fuelling their slow descent to extinction. Ms Steele says that “a mother and a baby will never … be parted except through death, the mother fights to the death,” which is one of the realities the Bornean orangutan population is facing.

Infant orangutans are stripped away from their mothers, who are in many cases killed in the process, to be sold into the international pet trade. “It’s [an] absolutely gargantuan issue,” says Ms Steele, “they have no compassion … for the animals whatsoever”. The exotic pet trade is the third largest money generator after the drug and weapons trades and has wreaked havoc on the orangutan population. They are one of the most desired exotic pets in the world and can reach a value of up to $200,000. After being violently separated from their mother, a common tactic for smugglers is to drug the babies, put oxygen masks on their faces and pack them in a suitcase on a flight to their new concrete jungle; a journey that eight in ten orangutans don’t make it to the end of.

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But these buyers who splash the cash on an orangutan that has managed to survive the trip often regret their purchase once the baby starts to mature and become more of a ‘hassle’ for them to look after. So, these unwanted creatures are then sent off to live in a zoo, or as Ms Steele describes it – a “prison”, for the rest of their life or if they are lucky, they may end up in the care of Orangutan Foundation International.

This is just one of the ways in which orphaned orangutans find themselves with OFI. Authorities may intercept them at an airport before being displaced to the other side of the world or they may find them themselves while patrolling through the Bornean rainforest. Ms Steele says that when they receive some of these baby orangutans “they’re completely traumatised”. At the moment OFI has 330 orphans in their care and it takes 10 years to rehabilitate a single orangutan. They do this by giving them a human ‘mother’ who helps them through their ‘forest schooling’ as they are taught vital skills before being released. This isn’t as easy as it seems though, as the Indonesian government have to approve every single release and OFI must make sure the habitat they are putting them back into is protected and won’t expose them to further harm.

This brings us back to protecting the Bornean rainforest. It is one of the world’s most biodiverse rainforests and is even older than the Amazon. This precious ecosystem is a vital part of not only the life of orangutans and other wildlife, but to humans as well. Serge Wich, a researcher focusing on primate conservation and tropical rainforest ecology, says that if orangutans and older species of wildlife and plant-life begin to disappear, our own existence is placed at risk. “Conserving orangutans is about saving ourselves as well,” he says.

But, as Ms Steele says, “to save the orangutans, we have to save the forest”. One of the biggest problems facing the survival of the Bornean orangutan and the rainforest they live in, is palm oil plantations. These plantations are typically selectively logged, and Ms Voigt’s survey found that 70% of the orangutan population decline came from these areas. Deforestation is not as large of an issue as common opinion may convey, as only 9% or orangutan lost was found in areas of forest loss.

“The only way to save orangutans is to slow down the production of palm oil and to make people more aware”.

Ms Steele believes this should be the main focus of conservation efforts surrounding the plight of the Bornean orangutan. She says that the issue is more in relation to encouraging people to do something themselves because the awareness of the problem is somewhat widespread already. “Most people just want convenience … and they’ll all say they care about rainforests and they care about animals until someone tells them … they have to give up Nutella”. By educating people on what these forests mean to the orangutan population and to the broader survival of humanity in general, it would make a great difference.

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One of the initiative trying to save these important forest habitats is the incorporation of drone technology into conservation efforts. Prof. Wich is not only a primate researcher, but the founder of Conservation Drones, an organisation that provides drone technology to conservationists around the globe. These drones can be fitted with different various sensor types, including RGB and infra-red sensors, and flown over small or large areas in order to monitor them.

Looking specifically at orangutans though, this technology is particularly useful when it comes to identifying orangutan nests for estimating their distribution and density as well as monitoring forest fires. The latter is a strategy being implemented by Orangutan Foundation Australia and Ms Steele says that this technology “help[s] us all enormously”. Prof. Wich says that “the conservation community seems to embrace the technology and it is exciting to see so many uses of the technology”. Ms Voigt is also on board with the use of drones, saying “it certainly is a promising technology to acquire data from remote areas or areas with difficult access”. She also noted that data coverage and quality is the most limiting issue surrounding estimating orangutan abundance, so in future she hopes to see this technology continue to evolve and improve.

As a by-product of orangutans being forced out of their forest homes, they are more frequently coming into contact with locals, especially farmers. Ms Voigt says orangutans may venture into farmer’s crops to feed on the food on offer and get injured or killed in the process. Since these crops are their whole livelihood, she says it is understandable that these locals would want to protect and get rid of anyone, or anything, that is a threat to this. This doesn’t have to be the case though, as there are other means to protect their gardens so as to not harm the orangutans, including fire crackers to chase them away and covering their crops with nets, however people may “lack the knowledge or the means to acquire them”.

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Ms Steele also noted that killing orangutans for food is also a practice that, while uncommon, still takes place within traditional tribes on Borneo. Prof. Wich suggests that this issue is a lot more common than we might think however, and research indicates that killing orangutans for their meat is just as commonplace as the animals being killed during human-orangutan conflict.

 The overwhelming need for education on the topic of orangutan conservation is abundantly clear. Orangutan Foundation International are trying to start with the locals and creating awareness of this issue by putting out newsletters in Indonesian full of information. It may be difficult to shift the attitudes of locals but it’s just as challenging to change the attitudes of the western world.

“You can only educate people who want to listen,” says Ms Steele. “It’s not just that people don’t care, it’s that they don’t know … it’s hard when you’re preaching to the converted”. 

She is hopeful however for the future generations to be able to make a positive change. “I really believe that the younger generation coming up now do care more … I think we’re in better hands … I can only hope and pray that we can save orangutans as a species,” she says.

Even researchers are optimistic about the future of the Bornean orangutan. Ms Voigt says, “When forest areas are protected and the killing is stopped we think that orangutans could slowly bounce back and might even recolonize areas from which they were once lost”.

What it really comes down to is attitude. Shifting our way of thinking to take into account the broader picture of the future of our existence. Even small efforts in our everyday lives can have a snowball effect and amount to something more than we can fathom.

As Ms Steele says, “every single orangutan saved is a victory”.

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This was an article written for QUT unit KJB280
All Images were sourced from Orangutan Foundation International Australia

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