Their very name means “man of the forest,” and anyone who has ever seen an orangutan close up and personal will understand why these highly intelligent primates, with their human-like features and their acute sensitivity, are considered to be one of our closest living relatives.
And yet, despite their gentle, unaggressive nature and their compassionate personalities, the world’s orangutan populations — found only in the plush, green tropical rainforests of Indonesia and Malaysia — are in dire danger of becoming extinct.
Illegal logging and poaching over the last century have already reduced the red ape’s numbers by nearly 91 percent.
Bornean orangutans were declared critically endangered this year by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
But estimates suggest that between 2,000 and 3,000 orangutans are still slaughtered each year on the island for their meat, and even more die due to the destruction of tropical forests for plantation agriculture.
The only other orangutan species, the Sumatran orangutan, is found only on Sumatra and has been critically endangered since 2008.
The IUCN estimates the number of Bornean orangutans has dropped by nearly two-thirds since the early 1970s and will further decline to 47,000 animals by 2020.
Untempered slash-and-burn farming could, according to the United Nations Environment Program’s Great Apes Survival Project, completely eradicate the orangutan within 15 years.
In 1978, the Indonesian government decided to set up a series of rehabilitation centers and sanctuaries for orphaned, captured and domesticated orangutans which had been recovered from poachers or people who had taken the long-limbed hirsute primates as pets.
These state-run facilities provide medical care for orphaned and confiscated orangutans, as well as dozens of other wildlife species, and help the rehabilitated apes to learn to live on their own inside their natural habitat.
Furthermore, the Indonesian government has targeted a full 10 percent of that nation’s territory as federally protected areas, and at present, there are no less than 320 natural reserves and parks under state supervision.
The Wanariset Orangutan Reintroduction Project (WORP) in Sumatra is a major orangutan survival program on which all other primate centers in Indonesia are modeled.
First established as part of a research project of Indonesia’s Ministry of Forestry, in recent years, the program has been extended to include in-depth research on orangutan survival and habitat preservation issues.
WORP also runs education and outreach programs.
In the last 25 years, the Wanariset center has released more than 800 orangutans back into their natural habitat.
Another 100 orangutans have been liberated into other parts of the Sumatran forest.
Indonesian rescue centers now have about 1,000 orangutans being retrained to live in the rainforests.
In 2001, the Indonesian Ministry of Forestry banned the domestic and international sale of a valuable tree species, ramin, to help protect vital orangutan habitat in the world famous Tanjung Puting National Park in Borneo.
But despite that commitment, Indonesia has granted large strips of supposedly protected land to large corporate palm oil, pulp and paper companies over the past 10 years, and those companies are now eroding the land of the orangutans.
Moreover, incidences of poaching are also up.
Green Peace and other international environmental organizations have raised a red flag of alarm and have pushed to enlist global support to stop the destruction of the orangutan refuges, but to no avail.
Meanwhile, time is running out.
Unless dire action is taken now, and international pressure is placed on Indonesia to halt the commercialization of the orangutan’s natural habitat, the gentle man of the forest risks being the first great ape to become extinct.
Thérèse Margolis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.