“If the current destruction of the rainforest continues, then I have no hope any orangutans will remain in the wild.”
Orangutans are among the most iconic species on earth, yet like many animals these days they have been having it pretty bad in their native forests in Indonesia and Malaysia.
An expert is now warning that unless their fast-diminishing habitats are better protected, the primates may go extinct within a decade in the wild. Orangutans have been pushed to the “precipice of extinction,” warns Alan Knight, chief executive of the conservationist group International Animal Rescue.
“If the current destruction of the rainforest continues, then I have absolutely no hope that any orangutans will remain in the wild,” Knight, whose organization runs a rescue center in Borneo, said. “I would probably say 10 years if we cannot stop the destruction. I think the Sumatran [orangutan] will go before then if they don’t sort out the situation they are in.”
As much as 76 million acres of forest in Indonesia has been cut down in the past 25 years alone, accounting for a quarter of the country’s forests. Meanwhile, on the island of Borneo, which is shared by Indonesia and Malaysia, forest cover has likewise been reduced to a shadow of its former self. Only half of the island in covered in forests, down from 75% three decades ago. Most of the land where biodiverse forests once thrived has been converted into soulless palm oil plantations.
“With a current deforestation rate of 1.3 million hectares per year, only peat and montane forests would survive in the coming years,” WWF has warned. “[I]f current deforestation rates continue, 21.5 million hectares will be lost between 2007 and 2020, reducing the remaining forest cover to 24 per cent. If this is the case, then Borneo – the world’s third largest island – could lose most of its lowland rainforests outside of protected areas by 2020.”
Between 1999 and 2015 as many as 100,000 of the critically endangered orangutans perished on Borneo alone as a result of human activities, according to a recent study. “[B]etween 1999 and 2015, half of the (island’s) orangutan population was affected by logging, deforestation, or industrialized plantations,” the researchers write. “Although land clearance caused the most dramatic rates of decline, it accounted for only a small proportion of the total loss. A much larger number of orangutans were lost in selectively logged and primary forests, where rates of decline were less precipitous, but where far more orangutans are found.”
Many forests are nominally protected in Sumatra and Borneo, yet farmers often burn large swathes of them down while pretending they were accidental, Knight says. “The fires produce quite a good excuse,” he said. “All of a sudden this area they wanted to produce palm oil on, it’s useful for nothing [after being burned], so they end up planting palm oil on it.”
Last year alone forests over a large area that equaled the size of “Kent, Sussex, Hampshire, Dorset and half of Devon” in the United Kingdom were burned in just three months. “What keeps me awake at night is whether there is going to be a forest for use to release [captive orangutans] into,” said Knight, whose organization helps rehabilitate captive animals. “It’s a real struggle and we are losing the battle.”