The orangutan is the only one of the great apes that lives outside the continent of Africa. They are also one of the most endangered apes. The word orangutan means ‘person of the forest’ in Malay. Orangutans are one of our closest relatives and we share more than 96% of our DNA with them. They have learned sign language and how to use some computers and tools, and in the wild show empathy and teach each other skills. There are three species of orangutan, the Bornean orangutan, the Tapanuli orangutan, and the one we will focus on, the Sumatran orangutan or Pongo abelii. Sumatran orangutans are a little bit smaller than Bornean orangutans, and have lighter orange-red fur. The distinctive throat pouches and cheek pads are also smaller on the Sumatran orangutan. Sadly, the Sumatran orangutan is also more endangered. The Sumatran orangutan lives in Sumatra, an island in Indonesia, though they only live in the northern part in lowland tropical forests. They live almost completely in the trees; females will almost never touch the ground and males do so infrequently. Orangutans are not very social animals, though the Sumatran orangutans are a bit more social than the Bornean orangutans, most likely because they will often gather in groups around trees with a lot of fruit and are not very territorial. Other than this they are mostly solitary except for when females have offspring. They spend most of the day slowly searching for food, and at night they will make a nest out of branches to sleep in.
All three species of orangutans are listed as Critically Endangered on the IUCN red list. Sumatran orangutans used to live all over Sumatra, but now only live in the northern part. There are 9 known populations of Sumatran orangutans; only seven of which have more than 250 animals, and only three of those have more than 1,000 individuals. The main reasons the Sumatran orangutan is endangered is deforestation, forest fires, development, and wildlife trafficking. Because Sumatran orangutans depend on high quality forests, deforestation is a big problem for orangutans. Lots of forest is lost to make room for oil palm plantations and other forms of development, like roads. Another problem facing the forests is fires. There have been a lot of fires in the area, many of which are set on purpose, to clear land for agricultural development. This is not only harmful to the forest, but is also horrible for orangutans who are often not fast enough to escape the fires. Another problem threatening Sumatran orangutans is the wildlife trade, as some are captured and kept as pets, and some are hunting for food. Even a little bit of hunting is bad because orangutans have babies so infrequently. Even 1% of females being threatened by hunting would move orangutans irreversibly closer to extinction. Because of all this there are only about 14,000 Sumatran orangutans left.
Image courtesy of Anup Shah
Orangutans are extremely important to the forest they live in. They are frugivores, meaning they eat mostly fruit, plants, roots, nuts, and shoots. In this way orangutans help disperse seeds over their entire home range. Because of this, orangutans are vital to many fruit trees’ survival and reproduction. Most likely, if orangutans were to go extinct, several fruit tree species would go extinct as well. This would end up affecting other animals and trees, adversely affecting the entire forest. We need to protect this amazing species, and by doing so we will also help the forest they live in and the animals they live with.
You can support efforts to protect forests from deforestation, which helps not only the orangutans, but the forest and other animals as well. One particular area is the forest outside Bukit Tigapuluh National Park. This forest is essential to the orangutan and other species, and is vulnerable to deforestation because it is unprotected. Another thing you can do is find out where your palm oil is coming from. You can also support organizations who are trying to protect orangutans from being captured. In the Bukit Tigapuluh National Park mentioned above, there are about 70 orangutans that were confiscated from the wildlife trade or as pets, and now they live in the National Park. You can also tell people about orangutans. Though many people know about them, few know just how endangered they really are. We need to protect the orangutan and the other animals that live in this area.
Sumatran Orangutan. (n.d.). Retrieved September 05, 2020, from http://animalia.bio/sumatran-orangutan
Sumatran Orangutan. (n.d.). Retrieved September 05, 2020, from https://www.worldwildlife.org/species/sumatran-orangutan
Selayang, M. (2017, November 03). Sumatran orangutans. Retrieved September 05, 2020, from https://www.sumatranorangutan.org/sumatran-orangutans/
*all pictures and videos used with permission, and/or taken from the sites above.
Top image by Flecher and Baylis of WWF Indonesia