16 Aug 2018 Story Ecosystems and Biodiversity

Orangutan conservation’s balancing act

Kabir Bakie

International Orangutan Day on 19 August coincides with the start of the International Primatological Society Congress in Nairobi, Kenya, and is a much-needed reminder that orangutans’ survival hangs in the balance.

There are three species of orangutan in the world and they are only found on two islands in Southeast Asia – Sumatra and Borneo. All three species are critically endangered.

Last year saw the amazing discovery of a new species, the Tapanuli orangutan. This is the eighth great ape species known to exist on Earth. However, the Tapanuli orangutan faces extinction, threatened by plans to build a huge hydroelectric power dam in Batang Toru, North Sumatra.

The newly discovered Tapanuli orangutan. Photo by Wikimedia

Orangutans tend to spend most of their time in the treetops, making deforestation particularly devastating for them.

"This Orangutan Day, it’s important to highlight that the newly discovered and critically endangered Tapanuli orangutan, with only about 800 individuals left, is being pushed towards extinction by an unnecessary hydroelectric dam project,” says Serge Wich, chair of UN Environment’s Great Apes Survival Partnership (GRASP) Scientific Commission.

“It’s very hard to understand that a great ape species is pushed towards extinction for 510 MW of electricity that can be generated somewhere else. This project should be stopped, and the energy generated somewhere else. Humanity can and must do better than this."

Great apes under pressure

Over the past century, orangutan populations in Southeast Asia have seen a very steep decline, driven to the brink of extinction by a host of man-made threats. Deforestation through illegal logging and the expansion of agro-industrial – especially oil palm – plantations and hunting have combined to isolate orangutans into precarious pockets of forest. Now, a new threat has emerged: climate change.

Primates of all kinds, not just orangutans, are in peril as their forest habitats have come under increasing pressure. Agricultural expansion, resource extraction and infrastructure development due to population growth and economic development are among the principal threats.   

According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), 62 percent of the more than 700 known species and subspecies of apes, lemurs, monkeys, and other primates are currently facing serious threats to their survival. About 42 per cent of them are endangered or critically endangered.

“The newly updated assessments for the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species provisionally find that 95 percent of Earth’s lemurs are on the brink of extinction: 105 of the 111 species are critically endangered, endangered or vulnerable,” says the Global Wildlife Conservation in a blog post.

Connecting science with policy

GRASP is a UN initiative committed to ensuring the long-term survival of chimpanzees, gorillas, bonobos and orangutans, and the protection of their habitats in Africa and Asia. GRASP is organizing the International Primatological Society Congress in Nairobi from 19-25 August 2018. The congress will bring together 800 experts and scientists at the United Nations in Nairobi.

Topics for discussion include conservation and ecology, cognition and the ability of learning in great apes, behaviour and social dynamics, and diseases in primates. Participants will also discuss regional and national conservation perspectives. 

“We are proud to host the meeting and hope that the gathering of such a diverse group of scientists from all parts of the world will help UN Environment and GRASP to connect science and policy,” says GRASP coordinator Johannes Refisch.

For further information: Johannes.Refisch[at]un.org