'Old Man of the Forest'
We humans have always had a lot of fascination and affection for our cousins the great apes, and there is none more fascinating than the orange-furred ‘Old Man of the Forest’ — the orangutan. An exclusively Asian species, and found only in Borneo and Sumatra today, the limited natural habitat means these amazing creatures face several ongoing threats. Their loss would threaten the ecosystems of some of the most important rainforests, which is why the organisations associated with World Orangutan Day are asking for our help. Conservation groups are working diligently to preserve and protect not just the species, but their natural habitats, too.
Three Different Types of Orangutan?
Visitors to Borneo and Sumatra, and even those who visit them in captivity, will notice that there are a few distinctions between three different types of orangutan — the Bornean, the Sumatran and the recently discovered Tapanuli. The latter was found in south Tapanuli, part of Sumatra, in 2017. Physically, they differ very little, aside from the Sumatran and Tapanuli having longer facial hair, though you may notice that some males have facial flanges and others do not. Nobody has ever worked out why this is the case and it occurs in both species; only males develop this curious feature.
In terms of their behaviour, the Sumatran orangutan lives in social groups and the females spend more time up in the canopy. The Bornean orangutan is more solitary with males spending the majority of their time on the ground.
Threats to the Orangutan
On World Orangutan Day, conservation organisations want people to understand and recognise the many threats to this great ape. They once populated most islands of southeast Asia and even into southern areas of China, but today, with deforestation dramatically reducing their range, they are limited to just these two islands. The exact global population living out of captivity is unknown, but is likely to be around 100,000, with most of these living in Borneo. Shockingly, at the start of the 20th century it was estimated at closer to 200,000 individuals worldwide.
Deforestation is largely down to the increase in farming of palm oil, a common substance in supermarket and cosmetic products, but illegal logging and some unsustainable farming practices have also contributed greatly to natural habitat loss.
The major long-term threat is of course climate change and unpredictable shifts in weather patterns. More frequent El Niño events already affect the South Pacific. Borneo and Sumatra have experienced both wild-fires and drought — both have profound impacts on what is already a delicate ecosystem. Sadly, around 90% of Kutai National Park was lost to wildfire in the 1980s, which obliterated its orangutan population. Kalimantan, also in Borneo, suffered severe wildfires in 1997-8, losing a third of its inhabitants in just twelve months. The same area experienced drought in 2006, putting further strain on these magnificent creatures.
Another major concern is poaching — as a protected species, people may not kill or capture orangutans, but the WWF and other conservation organisations have evidence to suggest that both are happening. Dealers all over the world trade orangutans on the black market. There is also evidence that local communities may hunt orangutan to protect their crops and, in desperate cases, eat them.
World Orangutan Day is an annual event. By raising awareness for the threats this iconic species faces, conservation groups aim to protect them. The integrity of their rainforest homes are vital to the success of these groups. One of the immediate steps to take as consumers is reducing our palm oil consumption. As travellers, we can support the local economies and conservation efforts by visiting Borneo and Sumatra. Journeysmiths partners with leading eco-lodges and conservation groups on the ground, and by travelling with us you can be sure that your trip helps protect orangutans now and for the future. Whether you would like an insight into these conservation initiatives or would just like to see these amazing creatures in their natural habitat, our team of experts can craft the perfect journey for you.