By B.C. Riley
Green Right Now

Part of the genus Pongo, there are two species of orangutan: the Bornean and the Sumatran orangutan. The name comes from two Malay and Indonesian words that together mean “person of the forest”. They are endemic to Malaysia and Indonesia, and are not found naturally outside of Asia.

Deforestation in Southeast Asia has hit them hard. Of all great apes, orangutans spend the most time in trees, hardly ever touching the ground. They eat mainly fruit, as well as leaves, bark, flowers, insects, and occasionally some meat. Though they have complex social bonds, they are also the most solitary of the great apes.

Orangutan-bornean Julie Langford, Wikimedia Commons PROMO

A Bornean Orangutan (Photo: Julie Langford, Wikimedia Commons)

Bornean orangutans are endangered and have been estimated to have decreased 50% in the past 60 years. There may be fewer than 45,000 left living in the wild, according to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

Critically endangered Sumatran orangutans are even more threatened, having lost 80% of their population in the past 75 years. They used to be present all throughout Southeast Asia, but deforestation from logging and palm plantations has fragmented their habitat and curtailed their range. Because of this, they live almost exclusively in trees. The most recent estimates taken nearly 10 years ago indicate that only around 7,000 are still living, a number that has likely declined, according to the IUCN Red List .

Paper and palm plantations, roads, and increased urbanization isolate the communities, causing genetic drift and susceptibility to human disasters and hunting. It’s estimated that orangutan communities of less than 50 are not sustainable and will become extinct within 100 years.

Other threats include hunting and illegal pet trade.

Facts about orangutans:

  •  Orangutans are the only primate where “bimaturism” is present in males, meaning they can take two distinct forms as adults. Flanged males are twice the size of females, have facial disks and can be aggressive towards other males. They are able to make a special vocalization to attract females and intimidate males. Unflanged males are the same size as females and do not possess any of these characteristics.
  • They are the largest mammals living in trees.
  • Sumatran orangutans are more social than Borneans, and will gather to eat together at certain trees
  • Bornean orangutans are darker and have shorter beards than Sumatran orangutans, though both species have the reddish-brown hair that distinguishes them from the black-haired apes found in Africa.
  •  They build nests of branches and leaves in the forest canopy where they sleep at night
  •  Sumatran orangutans have been observed using tools for various tasks, and have passed down the knowledge of these methods through generations.

Orangutans, The Standoff ( Photo Orangutan Outreach)What you can do:

  • Consume less paper and use recycled or sustainably grown paper products.
  • Learn about how the demand for toilet paper and tissues has destroyed much of the Sumatran rain forest; and the latest progress to stop this destruction at World Wildlife Fund’s website.
  • Avoid palm oil products in foods and beauty products whenever you can. This can be tricky, you must look for the many ways palm oil is identified — Cetyl Palmitate, Palmitic Acid, Hydrated Palm Glycertides, Palm Oil Kernal, Palmate, Palmitate. In addition, many other items are likely to be derived from palm oil, such as Sodium Laureth Sulfate and Sodium Lauryl Sulfate, typically found in soaps and personal products. Find out more on the Say No to Palm Oil website.
  • Donate your cell phone to your local zoo to support environmentalism that can help endangered species.
  • Keep up with the news about orangutans at Borneo-based Orangutan Outreach, the world’s largest rehabilitation and advocacy for orangutans, or follow regional groups around the world. In the U.S., the Orangutan Conservancy in Calif.  advocates for these endangered apes. Conservancy groups around the world received some good news in early Feb. 2013, when the world’s largest paper product Asia Pulp and Paper announced that it would no long expand operations into native forests in Indonesia, but would move new operations to “open land and scrubland.” That concession came after years of pressure from groups like Greenpeace, Rainforest Action Network and World Wildlife Fund.

(B.C. Riley writes about nature and the environment. She is a student intern for GreenRightNow, studying to be a wildlife biologist.)

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