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Orangutans are a unique species of ape that inhabit the Southeast Asian islands of Borneo and Sumatra. They have interesting living conditions, feeding habits and procreation cycles that help their environment, yet they are critically endangered. Orangutans are hunted and killed, and their homes are being destroyed by deforestation for palm oil plantations. Conservation methods are taking place to save the species, but in the meantime, the population of these creatures is still decreasing at an alarming rate.
The orangutan is a type of ape whose population resides on only two islands in the world: Borneo and Sumatra in Southeast Asia, apart from zoos that keep them in captivity. They are one of four Great Apes in the World, alongside gorillas, bonobos and chimpanzees. The orangutan occupies the forest by living in the tree canopies, where they build their nests, forage for food and are safe from predators. The place of their occupancy donned them the name “orangutan” based on the words orang and hutan, because in Indonesian and Malaysian languages, those words mean “person of the forest.” They can live up to nearly 40 years, and even longer in captivity. Alongside chimpanzees, this species is of all primates the most genetically similar to humans, because their DNA is about 97% the same as ours. At the moment, the orangutan species is critically endangered. Their population is decreasing at an alarming rate, starting at around 60,000 and then losing 20,000 over a period of ten years. The causes for the declining number of orangutan not only include poaching, but also loss of habitat due to deforestation and Indonesian palm oil plantations (Orangutan Conservancy, 2011).
Orangutans help grow and change their environment by foraging fruit from the trees and scattering the seeds they leave behind, although, since they are omnivores, their diet can also consist of other small animals. Other species of environmental organisms, such as insects, also depend on the activities of an orangutan, so if the population of the ape were to decline too fast, other animals would be affected drastically (Republik, 2007). Sadly, poaching, hunting and pet trade has majorly contributed to the decrease of orangutans on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra. Borneo and Sumatra are the main islands that make up the island countries of Indonesia and Malaysia, where the market for palm oil is high and plantations are growing out of control. A good amount of the plantations are not even legally established. When it comes to human/orangutan interaction, the animals are killed and/or taken because of farm disturbance, self-defense (Meijaard, 2011) and even food consumption (Thompson, 2010). Orangutans are also victims of deforestation due to the market for palm oil in Indonesia. Besides the harvesting of the palm fruit, its nut and kernel, palm oil is used as an important ingredient in the food of that area, so palm oil plantations lead the market for food consumption (Kilby, 1967). Conservation methods for the orangutan are taking place to either protect the orangutans that already inhabit the forests, or to reintroduce rescued orangutans that were once captive back into the wild. These include patrols and replanting of environmentally familiar trees.
One factor that contributes greatly to the decline of orangutan population is their reproduction rate. An orangutan takes a little less than a decade to reach puberty, and the average age to bear offspring is one baby every eight years. Their rate of procreation does not come close to the rate of their deaths by humans. The hunting of these apes and deforestation of their homes combined with their long birth cycles suggests rapid decrease in numbers. Another factor is that these apes make their homes in the treetops. (Orangutan Conservancy, 2011) They are non-terrestrial creatures, and their ambidextrous appendages and flexible arms help them maneuver mostly by swinging in the trees. They hardly ever walk on the ground, so the more trees that loggers cut down, the harder it is for an orangutan to survive. Orangutans that lose homes have to either retreat or wander into the farms and plantations, where they have a high chance of being killed by the workers (Orangutan Conservancy, 2011). Mother-and child relationships of the species are also strained when affected by humans. An orangutan mom will raise her baby for six years, and even then the offspring will stay close and follow its parent for even more years (Orangutan Conservancy, 2011). Poachers hunt and kill the mothers so they can kidnap the babies for pet trade, and in cases where the babies are left alive and alone, they have a low chance of surviving in the forest on their own because they have no parent to raise them and to learn from, which leads to even more population decline.
Deforestation plays a critical role in the endangerment of the species. Loggers and plantation employees cut down trees constantly to make room for palm oil plantations in their place, and even more trees are being harvested for their palm oil. There are also numerous, man-caused fires that destroy the homes of orangutans and force them to move deeper into the forest. Along with the fact that the plantations are cutting down the one thing that orangutans use to make their home, people who work in the plantations are not supplied with food, among other poor conditions. Sometimes, the workers’ last resort option is to hunt the animals that the apes eat, or eat the orangutans themselves (Chermayeff, 2009). Since they share nearly the same genome, eating an orangutan would not be that different from cannibalism. Hunting has also lowered the population of these creatures; not just for food or for farm disturbance, but also to be kept as pets. The illegal pet trade has been going on for over 50 years, and not just so they end up in zoos or circuses (Butler, 2009). Orangutans suffer constantly from abuse and exploitation from humans, if not killed by them. The trade has caused male orangutans to be trained to perform boxing matches for the entertainment of people. Even with the pain they endure from punching each other, the apes’ training involves starvation, drugs and beatings from trainers. People can sexually abuse female orangutans. Recently, a 12-year old female named Pony was kept in a brothel in the small city of Keremgpangi, Borneo. After she was prepared for prostitution (shaved and covered with human cosmetics), people, mostly workers from the logging sites and palm oil plantations, would see her perform or sexually abuse her. When animal rescue came to take away Pony, the people affiliated with the brothel threatened them with weapons, and it took 30 agents to confiscate her (Perez, 2014).
This brings up conservation methods for rescuing orangutans and their habitat. After the animals are rescued from poor human treatment, they are relocated and reintroduced into the wild. Pony was one of these orangutans, so after the agents took her from the brothel, she was brought to the island of Bangamat, which is one of the islands that now houses around 70 rescued orangutans. Organizations like BOS and PETA are taking big steps to help save them. PETA (which stands for the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) is a group of officials that declared the animal boxing shows in that area to be shut down (Perez, 2014). The Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation (or BOS) is setting up animal orphanages for rescued orangutan babies so they can be properly trained until they are ready to be released back into the wild (Butler, 2009). Some groups are coming together to start owning the land the orangutans live in, so they can protect them. Special groups like the Orangutan Green Team are starting to buy parts of the forests before the trees are cut down by loggers and turned into plantations (Boltje, 2016). Rescue organizations are sending out patrols in the forest to make sure no illegal logging and killing of animals are taking place, and drones are being used to watch and look out for wildfires and illegal activities (Drake, 2015). Male orangutans, however, are solitary animals, (Orangutan Conservancy, 2011) so as they are rescued and deposited on parts of the forest far away from plantations, the act of being in groups might have an unpredictable effect on how they choose to survive in the wild.
To sum it all up, orangutans are one of the primary species of animals on the planet that are critically endangered and lacking in attention. Human activity on Borneo and Sumatra has harmed the apes’ population in almost every way possible: killing hunting, poaching, consuming, kidnapping, selling, beating, sexual abuse and deforestation, and one action is more often than not a reason for another. Orangutans have almost the same genome (or DNA) as humans, around 97% (Brubaker, 2010). They are able to learn fast, feel connections, and understand moments almost as well as we can with each other, yet humans do not give them nearly the amount of respect they deserve. New technologies may enable us to do a better job at preventing the forests and their inhabitants from suffering. Wildlife experts are taking part in conservation efforts to save this species and their homes by reintroduction, adoption, and protection. The future has yet to show if these efforts can outweigh the damage that is still being done, let alone make up for the damage that already happened. How can the “people of the forest” keep their title if there is no forest for them to inhabit?
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