All The Facts About Bornean Orangutans: 50% Wiped Out In The Last 30 Years

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Their name translates to ‘people of the forest.’ The Bornean orangutans are found only in the rain forests of the southeast Asian islands of Borneo and Sumatra, living their entire life swinging from treetops and building nests to sleep in. But some hard facts about Bornean Orangutans reveal that around 100,000 of them were wiped out from the forests of Borneo in the last 16 years. That is way more than the remaining population of the species.

The Bornean orangutans remain confined to the shrinking forests on the island of Borneo. The island is divided between Malaysia, Brunei, and Indonesia. It is one of the major rainforests on the planet, but rapid deforestation has converted the once lush forests into paper pulp mills and palm oil plantations.

The last of the Bornean orangutans have been recorded as being critically endangered under the International Union for Conservation of Nature list.

And despite this total protection in their natural habitat and their inclusion on Appendix I of the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species list, the numbers of the Bornean orangutans, the loss of habitat, and other reasons continue to decimate the population of the orangutans.

The Bornean orangutans are protected in their existing countries. But their habitats remain outside any protective agreements or conventions. Around 20% of the range of the Bornean orangutans in Malaysia and over 80% in Indonesia are outside the protected range of hunting and illegal logging.

Facts About Bornean Orangutans Reveal Their Human-Like Intelligence

The Bornean orangutans are close to their human cousins, sharing almost 97% of the DNA. They possess superior intelligence and have many human qualities. 

For instance, facts about Bornean orangutans reveal that they are adept at using tools for various everyday activities. The use of tools in the animal kingdom is rare and is often treated as a sign of intelligence. For example, otters use stones to break open shells, and archerfish bring down their prey by shooting streams of water at them. But such use of tools is limited to a controlled situation.

It is a part of the inborn behavioral pattern of the animal. But the use of flexible and intelligent tools requires an ability to integrate multiple sources of information to changing conditions in the environment.

The use of flexible tools is closely associated with higher mental processes. This includes the ability to plan multiple actions. Comparative psychologists and cognitive biologists have discovered that Bornean orangutans are capable of carefully weighing and then deciding on their options.

For instance, they were given an option of eating a food reward available immediately or waiting and using tools to obtain a better reward. The primates carefully considered multiple details, such as the difference in the quality of the foods rewarded and the functionality of the available tools to obtain a better quality food.

The Bornean orangutans make use of branches to find the depth of water and also to poke into termite nests. They have been found to utilize leaves to fashion sponges, umbrellas, or napkins. Research by the National Zoo in Washington has proved their ability to solve problems, reason, and even handle computers. Baby orangutans can whimper, cry, and even smile.

Read: Orangutan Stands Up To Heartless Machine Devastating His Home

The Bornean orangutans live on top of the canopies of the rainforests and are physically adapted to their environment. Their strong limbs and flexible hips allow them to spend long periods in the treetops.

They feed on leaves, fruits, bark, insects, and flowers. They cover long distances in search of their preferred fruits. They are aware of which fruits are in season plus where they can be found. Bornean orangutans use leaves to capture water for drinking. They hydrate themselves in drier seasons by trapping moisture in leaves that they chew to resemble a sponge.

The fact about Bornean orangutans reveals that they should flexibly adapt their foraging decisions depending on the availability of fruits and other highly nutritious foods. This will become vital as the primates will become extinct within another 20 years if the current loss of habitat through deforestation continues.

Bitter facts about Bornean orangutans reveal that their population has deteriorated by more than 50% within the last 60 years. The decline in the entire habitat has been in the range of 55% over the past two decades. The fate of the unique and brilliant animal depends on the protection of their habitat throughout the island of Borneo.

Facts about Bornean orangutans reveal that the period from 1999 to 2015 has seen the worst decline in their population. They are also equally under threat from illegal hunting plus the ill effects of global warming. Climate change has increased fires and droughts in the Bornean forests.

The facts about Bornean orangutans’ habitat reveal the conversion of forest land for other usages such as infrastructure development, agriculture, and plantations, by both Indonesia and Malaysia. Experts from IUCN say that by 2050, 50,000 sq. m. of the rainforests of Borneo could be wiped out, and another 37,000 sq. m. by 2080. This would mean the destruction of more than half of the range populated by Bornean orangutans. 

Read: Palm Oil: Your Cosmetics Might Be Making Orangutans Extinct

The loss of this dominant species of the forests of Borneo would have a detrimental effect on the health of the forest as the largest fruit-eating tree-dwelling animals on the planet play a key role in the dispersal of seeds in the forest.

But facts about Bornean orangutans reveal that it is not the only deforestation that is wiping out this primate’s population. Maria Voigt of the Center for Integrative Biodiversity Research, Germany, says that hunting too is a major reason affecting the population of the Bornean orangutans, if not the number one reason.

Facts about Bornean orangutans revealed by 16 years of a field study by Voigt and her team have dwelled on the reasons behind their declining numbers. Her team of researchers estimated orangutan numbers plus how various influences have affected their numbers over time.

The team compared their data with past data of land use for the study of their influence in areas that have seen a sharp decline, and finally to arrive at a conclusion behind their decline.

Research by Voigt and her team revealed that the rainforests of Borneo have seen the largest rate of destruction of forests on the planet, even more than the Amazon rainforests. From 2001 to 2016, around 350,000 hectares of forests were decimated every year, according to data released by the Center for International Forestry Research.

A disturbing fact about Bornean orangutans is that while the deforested areas saw the greater rate of decline in their population, even forested areas, and forests, where selective logging has taken place, have witnessed the highest loss of Bornean orangutans in absolute numbers.

The reason is that while the numbers were less hurried in the forested areas, these were also the areas where their population continues to be the highest.

Facts About Bornean Orangutans Reveal The Effect Of Climate Change

Another recurrent threat to the Bornean orangutans is forest fires. Wildfires in Kutai National Park, East Kalimantan’s last forest canopies that remain in an intact state, ravaged large areas in 1983. The 200,000-hectare park has been affected in recent years by more frequent fires and droughts almost every year. 

bornean orangutan

More devastating wildfires in 1997-1998 killed around 8,000 orangutans. 1.2M acres of peatland were burnt down in 2018, and another 2.1M in 2019.

While some of these wildfires were accidental, most were set off by companies, as they burn down forests to clear them for use for habitation, agriculture, and for transportation of timber. While the burning of the canopies destroys the home of the primates, the burning of the peatlands releases an enormous amount of carbon from the largest carbon sinks on earth.

Facts About Bornean Orangutans Reveal The Effect Of Food Scarcity And Habitat Loss

The destruction of forest land and the consequent decline in their natural habitat has been one of the biggest reasons for the decline in the population of the primates. Facts about Bornean orangutans have revealed that they decline physically due to the scarcity of food. These findings have dire inferences as their food supplies are dwindling at an alarming rate as forest land gets fractured.

Researchers, led by Caitlin A. O’Connell of Rutgers University, have found that these apes lose muscle mass at a rapid pace during times of low availability of fruits, their main source of nutrition. The wasting of their muscle mass was studied both during phases of fruit shortage and fruit abundance.

The researchers found that the loss of muscle mass during lean periods of availability of fruits was consistent across all classes of sex and age. Even though the orangutans have the ability to store fat for surviving the lean seasons, their muscle mass was found to be significantly lower during such periods.

The availability of food in the rainforests of Borneo is limited for the large fruit-eating primates like the Bornean orangutan. This has caused these primates to evolve to have extremely low rates of metabolism and the ability to store fat. Only the giant pandas and sloths have a lower metabolic rate.

This is seen in the tendency of captive orangutans to pick up fat easily and turn obese. This ability to store fat during periods of abundant supply and using the stored fat to survive the lean periods set the orangutans apart from other apes.

But fresh studies have revealed that this mechanism is not as efficient as previously thought. The primates were found to frequently slip into starvation mode. During such a period, the apes frequently burnt their reserves of fat and even wasted their muscle mass. While this was expected among pregnant apes, the researchers had not expected to witness this phenomenon across the population.

These disturbing findings reveal that further loss of habitat, and the subsequent loss of sources of nutritious foods, will accelerate the decline in the population of the apes. The continuing loss of the forest cover to land clearance and logging will aggravate the situation to a point of no return.

This problem is further aggravated by global warming brought about by climate change. Frequent El Niño weather events are worsening wildfires and droughts in this part of Asia.

O’Connell says that the changes need to be assessed, whether caused by humans or by natural fluctuation. She said that we need to assess whether the forest areas are large enough to sustain a population even during lean periods. The fact that the primates were burning body muscle was an alarming sign of starvation in the orangutan population.

Voigt says that orangutans are in many ways more flexible and resilient than previously thought. They can walk on the ground for short distances if needed. They have also learned to survive on palm and acacia, not their natural food. So there is the possibility that they might survive in areas where plantations exist as long as sufficient food exists, and they are not hunted down.

But this intrusion into plantations also leads to a confrontation with humans. This sometimes leads to hunting as a retaliatory measure. Lack of food in the forests is the main reason for this intrusion.

bornean orangutan

The survival of the Bornean orangutans will depend on protecting their remaining habitat and making people aware that even occasional hunting could push them to extinction.

The capture of orangutans for the pet trade industry is another major threat. There is a considerable demand for the animals from the illegal trade as young orangutans fetch a high price in the international market. Each year, around 200 to 500 apes are captured and enter the pet trade.

Orangutans are extremely slow breeders. Females are sexually mature only after 15 years while they give birth only one in 7-8 years. The loss of even one individual is a huge setback for the group.  

Read: Adorable Animal Video Shows Baby Orangutan Clutching Mother

Restoring their natural habitat, monitoring the illegal wildlife trade can save this critically threatened species. Monitoring of the global trade of the apes has been strengthened. The WWF is assisting measures to rescue the captured orangutans from traders and individuals who keep them as pets.

These rescued animals are nurtured and eventually released into the wild. People who live in areas around the forests are also being made aware of the need to protect the apes.

Developing plantation techniques that do not interfere with the orangutans’ habitat and the development of sustainable ecotourism can also help in the conservation of endangered species. Experts at the Kutai National Park have also identified trees that can serve as buffer zones to protect the forest areas from wildfires that are increasing due to climate change.

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