by Editor on August 21, 2009

Orangutans are losing habitat at a horrifying rate. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Orangutans are losing habitat at a horrifying rate. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Orangutans — native only to to the islands of Borneo and Sumatra — are losing habitat at an alarming rate due to logging and the expansion of huge palm-oil plantations in their native rainforests. Increasingly, when it is time for an orphaned or rescued orangutan to return to the wild, there is no “wild” it can be returned to.

Today’s Top 10 Endangered Species News

Over at Mongabay.com, Rhett Butler has a terrific — though somewhat disheartening — piece about orphaned orangutans, habitat loss and industrial greed.

Orangutans, which are found only on the islands of Borneo (shared by Indonesia and Malaysia), and Sumatra (in Indonesia), are large, solitary apes that need expanses of rainforest habitat in order to survive. During the past few decades orangutans have lost a great deal of habitat due to logging in the rainforests. But a relatively new threat, the cultivation of vast tracts of oil-palm trees, which are used chiefly to produce cooking oils, has greatly accelerated rainforest destruction. Palm oil is one of the two most commonly produced edible oils, second only to soybean oil. In tropical areas across the world, including in South America and Asia, native forest is rapidly being cut in order to convert land to the cultivation of oil palms, which are native to Africa.

Many orangutans in the new Indonesian agricultural areas — by many accounts over 1,000 per year — are killed by humans who see them as pests. Others are injured or orphaned in conflicts with humans, and some of these animals end up in rehabilitation facilities run by conservationists. The goal of these survival centers is to prepare orangutans for eventual return to the wild. However, those wild areas are now vanishing at such a terrific rate that finding suitable habitat for all the orangutans that are ready to go back to the rainforest is becoming increasingly difficult — and soon it may be virtually impossible.

The orangutan is on virtually every international top ten endangered animals list, with perhaps as few as 50,000 remaining in the wild. The Borneo subspecies is by far the more numerous, as only around 7,000 of the Sumatran subspecies remain in the wild.

Butler has been following the palm-oil issue for years, and has published many excellent articles on the subject. To view them, visit Mongabay.com. And to go directly to his recent article on rainforest destruction and orphaned orangutans, click here.

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