06 Nov 2017 Story Ecosystems and Biodiversity

Economic development threatens habitat of newly discovered orangutan species

The Tapanuli orangutan recently discovered on the Indonesia island of Sumatra has no more than 800 individuals and faces extinction.

While new species of animals and plants are being discovered all the time, in the age of drones, satellite imagery and citizen science, it is very unusual for a new species of medium-sized mammal to be discovered.

The Tapanuli orangutans live in a remote 1,100 square kilometre upland forest area known as the Batang Toru Ecosystem in North Sumatra, and are distinct from the northern Sumatran and Bornean species – something that has been corroborated by population genomic analyses.

“This is an amazing discovery,” said head of UN Environment, Erik Solheim. “It is essential that we do everything in our power to protect the tiny numbers of this new species.”

The problem is that the area is under intense pressure due to conversion of pristine forest for mining, plans to build a hydro-electric dam, and general human encroachment.

“If steps are not taken quickly to reduce threats to the small orangutan habitat in Batang Toru, we may see the newly discovered species going extinct very soon,” says UN Environment great apes expert Johannes Refisch.

Refisch heads UN Environment’s Great Apes Survival Partnership (better known as GRASP.  


GRASP conducted a study on sustainable forest management in Sumatra in 2011, which looked into sustainable pathways to development while keeping this important orangutan habitat intact.

“No new species of great ape has been discovered for many years – this really is an amazing find,” says Refisch. “The Indonesian government has been an important partner of GRASP and participated in the Sumatra report.”

Professor Serge Wich, who also serves as chair of the GRASP Scientific Commission, has been involved in surveys and research on this new species since 2001 and provided ecological expertise to the study.

He commented: “It is incredibly exciting that a new orangutan species has been described and it’s a wonderful addition to Indonesia's high biodiversity. At the same time, the low number of Tapanuli orangutans in the wild indicates that there can be no complacency in terms of its conservation. If steps are not taken quickly to reduce current and future threats to conserve every last remaining bit of forest, we may see the discovery and extinction of a great ape species within our lifetime.”


More about GRASP

GRASP is a United Nations initiative committed to ensuring the long-term survival of chimpanzees, gorillas, bonobos, and orangutans and their habitats in Africa and Asia.

Deforestation and habitat destruction are the primary threats to great ape survival in Asia, as great apes depend heavily on the forests in which they live.

GRASP engages with governments, communities, national and private land owners, agro-industrial stakeholders, corporate executives and private sector decision-makers to promote responsible land-use management that protects and expands great ape habitat.

GRASP seeks to strengthen protected areas, encourage the development of corridors and connectivity, and raise the capacity of indigenous and local communities in natural resource management.

GRASP projects support forest patrols and community awareness programmes to prevent further deforestation, in addition to developing economic alternatives to unsustainable forms of land use. 

For more information: Johannes Refisch: Johannes.Refisch[at]unep.org