Facts About Endangered Orangutans and Some Ways to Help Them
Critically Endangered Animals
The orangutan is a forest ape with shaggy, red-orange or red-brown hair. It lives in Sumatra and Borneo and is the largest tree-climbing mammal in the world. Like the other great apes—gorillas, chimpanzees, and bonobos—orangutans are clever animals and have much in common with humans. In fact, 97% of their DNA is the same as ours. DNA contains the genetic code of an organism.
Unfortunately, the two species of orangutans are in big trouble, mainly due to habitat destruction and fragmentation and the conversion of forests to oil palm plantations. Both the Sumatran species and the Bornean species are critically endangered.
Most of us live far away from Sumatra and Borneo and can't afford to travel there. It may seem that there is little that we can do to help orangutans, but there are actually multiple ways in which we can aid the animals. Fundraising for conservation organizations, buying items from them if we can afford to do this, publicizing the plight of the animals, and refusing to buy products whose production involves the destruction of their habitat can all be helpful.
August 19th of each year is International Orangutan Day. The goal of the event is to raise public awareness of the orangutan's problem and to encourage people to help the apes. Any day is a good one to help the animals, though.
Red Apes of the Rainforest
The two species of orangutan are the Sumatran orangutan (Pongo abelii) and the Bornean orangutan (Pongo pygmaeus). Compared to Bornean orangutans, the Sumatran animals are thinner and have longer faces and longer hair. They live in the trees and rarely come to the ground.
Orangutans have grasping hands and feet, long, strong arms, and relatively short legs, which are bowed. They prefer to travel by slowly swinging from tree to tree instead of by walking over the ground. When they do come to the ground, they walk on all four limbs instead of standing on two legs.
Adult males are larger and more muscular than adult females. Mature males have large cheek pads, which may help to amplify their sounds. The cheek pads are covered with fine, short hairs. Male orangutans also have a large throat pouch, which acts as a resonating chamber for their calls.
The Life of an Orangutan
Orangutans are active during the day and eat mainly fruit. They also eat a smaller quantity of leaves, stems, bark, insects, bird eggs, and honey. They sample food with their mobile lips before eating it. They get their water from fruit juice and from pools that collect in tree holes. During the night an orangutan sleeps in a tree nest, which it makes from branches and leaves. The animal may also make a nest during the day so that it can rest.
Unlike the other great apes, orangutans are solitary or semi-solitary animals in the wild. The close relationship between a mother and her child may last for as long as eight years after the child's birth, however.
The apes are curious about the world around them and use sticks to dig, explore areas, collect honey, and scratch themselves. According to the World Wildlife Fund, some animals released from captivity learned independently to untie "complex" knots that were attaching rafts (or boats) to docks. They then pushed the rafts away from the docks, climbed on board, and rode the rafts across rivers. Orangutans have also been observed holding large leaves above their heads to act as umbrellas in the rain.
A female generally has her first baby between the ages of ten and seventeen. She has a new baby every five to ten years. She usually has one child at a time but may occasionally have twins. Orangutans generally live for about forty-five years. They have a low reproductive rate, which makes it hard for them to recover when their population size is reduced.
Why Are Orangutans Critically Endangered?
Palm oil is obtained from the fruit of the oil palm tree. It's used in many different products, including processed foods, cosmetics, soaps, and washing powders. "Vegetable oil" in processed food is often palm oil. There is a huge, worldwide demand for the oil.
Palm oil production is a major industry in Sumatra and Borneo. Rainforest is being logged for its wood and to create space for oil palm plantations, other cultivated plants, mining, and urban expansion. In Sumatra, the orangutan's habitat is disappearing at an alarming rate. The Sumatran animals are more sensitive to habitat disturbance than the Bornean ones, but even in Borneo orangutans are disappearing as their habitat is destroyed.
In some areas, orangutans are hunted for food or are killed because they feed on crops. Females with a baby are shot so that the babies can be captured and sold as pets. Orangutans are also hunted to obtain their skulls, which are sold as souvenirs.
According to the World Wildlife Fund, 200 to 500 young orangutans are captured for the pet trade each year in the Indonesian part of Borneo alone.
Population estimates for orangutans vary, but all researchers agree that the number of animals is decreasing and that the situation is especially serious in Sumatra.
The Sumatran Species
In a recent report from the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature), researchers estimated that 13,848 Sumatran orangutans still exist. This number is actually higher than a previous estimate, but the IUCN says that this is due to better survey techniques and not to an actual increase in the population. The organization says that the population is decreasing. Interestingly, at the time when this article was last updated, the 13,848 number had been removed from the relevant IUCN web page and the space for the current estimate of the animal's population was blank. As of October 2017, the Sumatran species has been classified as critically endangered.
The Bornean Species
Also in a recent report, IUCN researchers estimated that around 55,000 Bornean orangutans are still alive. As in the case of the Sumatran species, however, when this article was last updated, the space on the relevant IUCN web page where the population estimate is placed was empty. The organization classified the animal's population as critically endangered in 2016. Hopefully new and reasonably accurate population assessments for orangutans are being performed and the results will soon be published by the IUCN.
Some people might wonder why an estimated population over 50,000 (if this is the correct number) puts the Bornean orangutan in the critically endangered category. As the quote below shows, it's not just the number of animals in existence that is of concern to biologists. They are also concerned about the rate of the population decline.
Bornean Orangutans decreased by more than 60% between 1950 and 2010, and a further 22% decline is projected to occur between 2010 and 2025. Combined, this equates to a loss of more than 82% over 75 years, 1950–2025.— IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature)
Saving the Animals
A leading figure in the effort to save orangutans is the primatologist Birute Galdikas. She traveled to Borneo in 1971 to begin her study of orangutan behaviour in their natural habitat. She soon realized that there was an urgent need to protect the animals. She was initially aided by Louis Leakey, the anthropologist who also helped Jane Goodall begin her study of chimpanzees and Dian Fossey start her mountain gorilla research.
Dr. Galdikas is still working to help endangered orangutans today and is an advocate for the apes. Part of her work involves rehabilitating orphan orangutans so that they can be released into the wild to lead a natural life. She's interviewed in the video below. She discusses the problems of habitat loss and degradation and the demand for palm oil.
Practical Steps to Help Orangutans
There are many things that we can do to help endangered orangutans, even if we live far away from them. Not all of these things require money. Fundraising is one way to help the animals. Making purchases that support the animals or donating money to organizations that help them are other ways to help the animals, if we can afford to do these things. Publicizing the problems of the animals in various ways and avoiding the purchase of products whose production often hurts the orangutan population can also be helpful steps to take.
Before giving money to an organization, it's very important to investigate their reputation and explore what they do with the money. It's also important to discover what percentage of the funds raised by selling items and accepting donations is used to help orangutans.
Schools often hold bake sales, car washes, bottle drives, and other events to raise funds for worthy causes. If you're a teacher or a parent who helps with fundraising, think about organizing an event to raise money to help orangutans. Make sure that you advertise your event on school bulletin boards, in the school newspaper, or in a newsletter to parents. Also consider advertising the event in the outside community or in a community newspaper.
Community groups, church groups, and businesses could hold fundraising events to help orangutans and to raise people's awareness of the animals' problems. Funds raised by individuals during events such as garage and craft sales could also be used to help the animals. Some community runs and walks enable participants to raise money for a worthy cause via pledges. A sponsored bike ride could be a good way to raise money, too.
Buy Items to Support the Animals
When you want to buy birthday, Christmas, or other gifts, take a look at online shops run by orangutan protection groups. Consider purchasing the gifts from them (provided some of the purchase price is used to help orangutans) or buying the products for yourself. The websites of some aid organizations enable people to make donations without purchasing products.
For example, at least one organization sells T-shirts, books, DVD movies, post cards, calendars, posters, bumper stickers, bracelets, stuffed animals, and palm oil-free soap. The products look attractive and also show photos of orangutans, helping to bring the animals to people's attention.
Doing an Internet search for appropriate terms should enable you to find potentially useful websites for supporting orangutans. You can then investigate the operation and reputation of the sites and decide whether it's appropriate to use them in your effort to help the animals.
Adopt an Orangutan
An "adoption" program is a fun way for people to give donations to conservation organizations. It's also a good way for organizations to maintain people's interest in their work.
The organizations display photos of orangutans on their website, along with information about each animal. The viewer can sign up to pay a monthly or yearly fee to help support the animal and the organization. In return, the donor usually receives an information package about "their" orangutan as well as regular updates describing how the animal is doing.
Educate and Publicize
Informing others about the problems faced by orangutans can be a good way to help the apes.
- Publicize the problems that the animals face. Use social media accounts to share orangutan information and ideas for helping the apes. If you have many followers or friends and these people frequently read your posts, you have an excellent chance to spread your message. If some of your followers share your posts, your message will spread even further.
- Don't overdo your orangutan posts on social media sites. If people see them too often, they may ignore them. The repetition of information may even irritate your followers. In addition, make sure that you change the information in each post to keep your followers interested and to increase the likelihood that they will share the post.
- Think about sending interesting orangutan information and links in email or regular mail to friends and relatives. Once again, don't overload your friends with orangutan information.
- If you're an educator and will be teaching a unit about mammals or endangered animals, consider incorporating information about orangutans.
Buy Environmentally Friendly Products
Buy FSC Certified Wood and Paper Products
The Forest Stewardship Council is composed of environmental groups, businesses, and social organizations from around the world. Its goal is to ensure "environmentally appropriate, socially beneficial and economically viable forest management". The council has published ten principles describing their vision and has established criteria for judging whether an organization is adhering to each principle. One principle refers to maintaining and restoring the ecosystem and its biodiversity. Another refers to planning and managing plantations in accordance with FSC guidelines. FSC Certification is granted if an organization is adhering to all ten principles.
If you can't find FSC certified products in your local stores, ask the manager to supply them. In my area, even the supermarkets sell packages of toilet paper which bear the FSC logo. These products are quick to recognize because they have labels like "natural" or "green". They may be a little more expensive than non-certified paper products. If the price is beyond your budget, you could use one of the other ways to help the animals instead.
Buy Certified Sustainable Palm Oil Products
The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, or RSPO, is an organization whose goal is to ensure that all palm oil is produced in a sustainable manner that doesn't hurt the environment. One of its goals is to ensure that oil palm plantations are developed and managed responsibly. It's a "roundtable" organization because it includes many other organizations as members and listens to their views. Members of RSPO include palm oil producers, processors and traders, food manufacturers, and nature conservation groups. RSPO provides certification and a logo that can be used on product packaging.
If there is a business in your area that makes extensive use of non-certified palm oil, consider asked them to switch to sustainable palm oil or to another oil. While it's true that one request probably won't have much effect, if you can get other people to join your campaign you might get the company's attention.
The palm oil problem is not an easy one to solve. Producing and selling the oil provides a significant amount of money for many people. Investigating the problem and all of the factors involved could be very worthwhile for someone who wants to help orangutans.
The Future for Orangutans
It's sad when any animal becomes extinct due to human activity, but the loss of orangutans would be terrible. They are magnificent and clever animals that have many similarities to humans. Predicting when orangutans will become extinct if present conditions aren't improved—or if they get worse—is difficult, especially since we don't have accurate population counts at the moment. However, most estimates say that Sumatran orangutans may become extinct within fifty years, or within the lifetime of people alive today.
We need organizations or individuals to create action plans that satisfy both the needs of humans and the needs of orangutans. We also need to ensure that these plans are put into operation and that they succeed.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Questions & Answers
© 2012 Linda Crampton