Dear EarthTalk: Aren’t orangutans seriously threatened by the cutting down of forests?

— Nick Chermayeff, Greenwich, CT

Deforestation is indeed the primary threat to the orangutan, a species of great ape known for its keen intelligence and the fact that it’s the largest animal to live primarily in trees. A 2007 assessment by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) predicts that orangutans will be virtually eliminated in the wild within two decades if current deforestation trends continue. The great reddish-brown apes are native to the tropical rainforests of Indonesia and Malaysia, which are being cut down rapidly (and in many cases, illegally) to make way for agriculture and other development.

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) classifies the Bornean sub-species of orangutan as Endangered and the Sumatran sub-species as Critically Endangered. The non-profit Orangutan Conservancy estimates that 54,000 Bornean orangutans and only 6,600 Sumatran orangutans remain in the wild. Given that it’s rare for adult orangutans, supremely adapted to life in trees, to ever touch the ground; it’s no wonder that forest degradation, fragmentation and outright clearing — sometimes by intentionally set fires — are the main drivers of the species’ population decline. The result has been the loss of some 80 percent of the orangutans’ habitat in just the last two decades.

While small independent farmers are cutting down rainforest swaths to plant their crops, an even larger problem is the spread of large oil palm plantations — in some cases funded by supposedly forward-thinking international development banks — that stretch for hundreds of thousands of acres across formerly diverse rainforest. The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) reports that over the last four decades, the total land area planted with oil palm in Indonesia has grown some 30-fold to over three million hectares, while in Malaysia, oil palm agriculture has increased 12-fold to 3.5 million hectares.

Orangutans are also killed for the illegal wildlife trade. Poachers kill the mothers and then sell their babies as pets. According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), there may be more (pet) orangutans per square-mile in Taipei, Taiwan than in the wild. Unfortunately for the often unwitting owners, orangutans quickly grow out of being cuddly and can, like any wild animal, become unmanageable and unruly when confined.

Poachers are also killing orangutans for food for the so-called bush meat trade. According to the Orangutan Conservancy, the fact that many Indonesian logging companies do not provide food for their workers exacerbates this problem. “Hundreds of loggers are employed to cut down a particular area of forest, and they have to find food for themselves,” says the Conservancy. “The loggers, along with settlers who establish communities in the forest, hunt orangs, birds, and small mammals the orangs eat.”

The group pins the blame on economic pressures along with human greed and ignorance. “The needs of so many people with little landmass are pressingly urgent, allowing little time for planning or care about the environment.” Readers can help by donating time or money to the group, or by contributing to its adopt-an-orangutan program whereby donated funds go toward caring for specific orphaned orangutans.

Want to talk environment? Submit questions to earthtalk@emagazine.com.

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