ORANGUTAN DISTRIBUTION AND THREATS TO SURVIVAL
The world’s population of wild orangutans is to be found exclusively concentrated in the lush tropical rainforests of the islands of Borneo and Sumatra. Geographically isolated from each other, it is estimated that approximately 10,000-15,000 orangutans can be found on the island of Borneo and another 7,000-12,000 on the island of Sumatra. It is important to note that we would not even classify human communities of this size as towns. Even these totals represent many tiny communities living separately from one another. So the population in a sense is even more unstable than these numbers suggest.
The IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) classifies orangutans as endangered. This serious classification means that if actions are not taken to counter threats to their survival, orangutans are at risk of extinction in the near future, perhaps within the next 10-20 years. The two biggest threats these creatures face right now are habitat loss and predation.
The IUCN estimates that orangutan habitat has decreased by more than 80% in the last twenty years. The areas most appealing to humans are often also those that are prime orangutan habitat - lowland forests. Commercial ventures from timber and oil to rubber and rice plantations destroy such vast tracts of land that orangutans are deprived of even the minimum use of resources they need to survive. Another major cause of habitat loss is migrating humans. While small communities do little harm, tens of thousands of immigrants can do a lot of damage.
Predation poses a real threat to the survival of wild orangutans, and still flourishes despite prohibitory laws. People in those areas often eat orangutan meat, kill orangutans whom they consider pests, keep them as pets or capture them to sell.
The massive increase in tourism in the 1980's in Kalimantan has also enabled the sale of ape skulls as a fake but traditional head-hunter artifact. The expansion of the timber, plywood and shrimp industries have led to an increase in transport and infrastructure which in turn has led to an easier way of smuggling a large number of juvenile orangutans. It is estimated that less than 0.5% are detected at the borders.
To make it even worse, forest fires are burning again. On March 8, 2000, the Indonesian government declared the forest fires in Sumatra and Kalimantan a national disaster. Over 1200 hot spots have been reported on the two islands. As in 1997 and 1998, most of the fires are set deliberately and it is primarily the holders of large forest concessions who are responsible. The areas hit include areas likely to support orangutans, so yet again they are likely to suffer badly. Further information on the fires can be obtained at www.haze-online.or.id
Hollywood has also been a culprit in creating a demand for pet orangutans, especially in the Far East. Taiwan, during the period of 1987-1990 was the collector of approximately 1000-2000 smuggled young orangutans. The private market was willing to pay anything between US$ 11,000 - 20,000 for an individual ape.
Aside from illegal trade, numerous orangutans are kept in zoos and other institutes for amusement, education and other dubious purposes. It is estimated that there are approximately 900 living captives in some 200 different collections with the largest numbers being found in western Europe, where 303 orangutans are kept in 68 zoos. A close second runner up is the USA with approximately 268 apes in 64 different locations.
Right now, all efforts that are being used to combat extinction cannot outpace the primary cause - human need and greed. Until more stringent laws are passed and actually enforced, the plight of these creatures appears precarious.
Compiled by Sukanti Iyne and Anne Russon
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