Episode 3 – Orang-utans

Fast facts:

• Orang-utan is derived from Malay words meaning man of the forest.
• Orang-utans are now only found on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra in south-east Asia.
• In Borneo, orang-utan populations are estimated to total about 55,000. In Sumatra, the estimate is approximately 7,500.
• About half of the forest previously containing orang-utans has been lost over the past 30 years, due to a combination of deliberate conversion to plantations and widespread forest fires during El Nino drought years.
• In Sabah (Malaysian Borneo) about 70% of the estimated 11,000 remaining wild orang-utans live in timber production forests.
• About 1,000 wild orang-utans live in a scattered array of small protected forests, situated in the floodplain of the Kinabatangan River, eastern Sabah. These forests are surrounded by oil palm plantations, which act as a barrier to the movement of orang-utans.

Orang-utans and Tropical Forests
Orang-utans are the only great ape found in Asia. Once, they lived all the way from southern China to the foothills of the Himalayas and south to the island of Java, Indonesia. Today, the red ‘man of the forest’ is confined to just two islands - Sumatra and Borneo. Orang-utans travel about by moving from one tree to another, avoiding climbing down to the ground. At night they make a nest of vegetation to sleep in, with smaller ones made during the day to rest.

Just 100 years ago there were probably more than 230,000 orang-utans in Borneo and Sumatra. In the last ten years alone their numbers have declined by 30–50%.That’s because their lowland forest habitats are fast disappearing under the chainsaw, or being burned deliberately to make way for agriculture and oil palm plantations. Unless these unique great apes are conserved in well-managed, secure protected areas, and in wider forest landscapes connected by corridors, they may well be facing extinction in the wild.

With less area to live in, overcrowded populations of orang-utans gather in small fragmented areas of forest. This not only makes the animals an easy target for poachers, but also causes them stress, often meaning they don’t reproduce. In some areas of Borneo and Sumatra, orang-utans are still hunted for food and to be kept as pets.

As well, forest destruction leads to less food supply and much greater competition for food between orang-utans and other wildlife, therefore prompting them to encroach into commercial plantation areas. In some areas of Borneo and Sumatra, orang-utans are shot as pests by plantation owners or farmers.

Rebuilding and conserving orang-utan habitat are just two ways to help the species survive. That is certainly no easy task. Half of all the world's original forest cover has already disappeared and much of that destruction has taken place over the last 50 years.

© Animal Planet
Animal Planet
© Animal Planet

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WWF in Kinabatangan

The past fifty years have been a period of intensive change in the lower Kinabatangan. In the 1950s, being relatively accessible, the region became the focus of commercial logging activity. And since the mid-70s, there has been a steady shift towards large-scale conversion to palm oil crops.

There are only a few scattered protected forest reserves in the Kinabatangan. The participation, therefore, of major landowners and palm oil producers is key to the survival of many rare habitats and wildlife species. WWF is trying to work with oil palm companies so that the concept of environment protection and responsibility will be introduced into the decision-making and planning process carried out by the oil palm estate managers.

One project that WWF supports is the Habitat Restoration Project in Bilit, Kinabatangan, which aims to rebuild the home of orang-utans. With the help of local youths and volunteers, more than 15 orang-utan food tree species have been identified, as well as the locations to collect seeds and wild young seedlings. A nursery has been set up to ensure successful germination and growth of tree seedlings. The seedlings produced are of non-commercial trees, thus eliminating the possibility of illegal logging of the trees when they’ve grown.

As well, the lower Kinabatangan has only recently begun to be valued as a nature adventure destination. More and more tourists are becoming interested in visiting what remains of the wild areas of Borneo. Local people can benefit from responsible, community-based ecotourism, which conserves the environment and promises continued income.

WWF is working in many villages to help develop sustainable tourism. The popularity of Sukau, where five tour companies currently operate lodges and river tours (and Bilit with three tour operators), are good examples of the potential that exists.

How You Can Help Save Orang-utans

• Support WWF’s work on the ground http://www.panda.org/join
• Join Panda Passport, WWF’s online lobbying site http://www.passport.panda.org
• Tell your family and friends about orang-utans and their plight so that they can help too
• If possible, try to see orang-utans in the wild in the countries where they still live, and not in the zoo, thus decreasing the demand for the captive and commercial use of orang-utans
Donate to WWF

Your support will help us build a future where humans live in harmony with nature.