Orangutans are Critically Endangered: Why should we care?

The orangutan is the largest tree-dwelling animal in the world.   The two separate species are native to only two islands in Southeast Asia; Borneo and Sumatra.  The rate of deforestation on these two islands is among the worst of any region on our planet.

An unsustainable Southeast Asian palm oil plantation. (c) Angela Sevin

Orangutans are one of our closet living relatives.  Orangutans, native to Asia, along with gorillas, chimpanzees and bonobos, which are  native to Africa, comprise the great apes.  There is much debate regarding whether humans are more closely related to the African apes or the orangutans and there are compelling arguments on both sides.  Although human and chimpanzee DNA is a closer match, studies have shown that humans and orangutans share more common traits, including similar teeth.  Studies of orangutans have also proven there are cultural differences between populations.  This means that learned behaviors are shared and passed down through generations of orangutan groups, but that these traits can differ between populations.  Studying these cultural differences could lead to new findings on how human cultures evolved.

Orangutans are considered umbrella species.  This means that by saving the orangutans we will be saving many other species that share the same habitat.  Orangutans require large tracts of forested habitat to survive.  Their role as seed dispersers helps the forest thrive. We cannot save orangutans from extinction if we do not save the forests and the biodiversity that these ecosystems contain.  We also cannot save the forest if we do not save the orangutan.

Losing the forests of Indonesia will affect our lives, too.   The vast rain forests and peat swamp forests of Indonesia play a major role in the climate of our planet.  These biomes absorb huge amounts of greenhouse gasses.  When the forests are clear-cut, we lose this resource that helps absorb carbon and release oxygen. While we often associate deforestation with the harvesting of trees, forests are often simply burned down to create room for agriculture.   In fact, this type of slash and burn agriculture is even worse for the environment than deforestation. During this process, an even higher amount of carbon that is contained in the plants of the forest is released into the atmosphere.  Destruction of the forests in Indonesia accounts for almost half of all global carbon emissions.

Why is this happening? 

Huge tracts of orangutan habitat are being lost due to land conversion for palm oil plantations and a large consumer market for Indonesian hardwood.  This hardwood is used to make furniture, flooring, pulp, paper, and other goods. The market for these goods has existed for many years, but grew particularly strong in the 1990s.  It is estimated that at least 70 to 75% of the logging to make these products is illegal.  Items made from illegally logged wood can be bought in many countries, including the United States.   Do you know where your furniture came from?  Illegal logging also leads to unfair pricing in markets causing the loss of revenue and jobs for legal logging practices.  Look for the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) label when buying wood and furniture.  Learn more at the FSC website.

Palm oil is now the biggest threat to the existence of orangutans.   Logging of all the trees in an area and then burning what is left in order to turn the once thriving forest into mono-culture palm oil plantations, is taking place at an alarming rate.  It is estimated that thirty square miles of forest is cleared daily for this purpose.  Palm oil has been used in many foods, soaps, shampoos, and other household products for many years but a dramatic increase in its demand has led to an even faster rate of deforestation and thus an increase in the supply of palm oil from unsustainable sources.  Palm oil plantations grew from 1.5 million acres in 1985 to 15 million acres in 2007 (and even more today).

Why was there an increase in the demand for palm oil?  The irony of palm oil is that it is being touted as both a healthy food additive choice and a solution to the energy crisis.  It is neither.  Palm oil contains no trans fat, which is a good thing.  However, it is high in saturated fat, which makes it almost as bad.  Labels that declare a food “trans fat free” do not necessarily mean the food is a healthy choice.  The claims that biofuels derived from plants such as palm oil are the perfect solution to free us from our dependency on fossil fuels is unfortunately not true either.  The increase of carbon in the atmosphere caused by the destruction of the forest to grow palm oil, coupled with the fact that oil palm trees only absorb about 45% of the carbon that the native trees absorb, mean that this biofuel is a worse choice for the environment.

What is AZA doing about this issue?  The Association of Zoos & Aquariums is committed to orangutan conservation and has convened a Palm Oil Task Force to explore how AZA can help its members address this complex issue.   The Task Force is comprised of professionals from multiple AZA-accredited institutions working on a variety of methods to combat this wildlife conservation crisis.  Their work will provide more resources for educating zoo and aquarium visitors about the palm oil conservation issue and inspiring the public to take action to help save affected species.  Check back for future recommendations from the Palm Oil Task Force.

What can we do to help?