Orangutans are extraordinary beings and our closest relatives, sharing 97% of our DNA. But they are also Critically Endangered, facing imminent extinction if direct and immediate action is not taken.
The orangutan, Asia’s only great ape, is found exclusively on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra. There are three orangutan species; Pongo pygmaeus (the Bornean orangutan), Pongo abelii (the Sumatran orangutan), and Pongo tapanuliensis (the newly described Tapanuli orangutan). The majority of orangutans (~85%) are situated in Indonesia (Kalimantan and Sumatra), with the remaining 15% found in Sabah and Sarawak, in Malaysia.
WHY ARE THEY IMPORTANT
As one of our closest living relatives, the orangutan is a highly intelligent, sentient being. Capable of forming intimate personal bonds and experiencing emotions, such as grief over the loss of a loved one, orangutans are closer to humans than most realize. In Indonesia, this is more apparent, as the word ‘orangutan’ itself derives from the two words ‘orang’ and ‘hutan’, which together mean ‘person of the forest’.
As a keystone species, orangutans are integral to the health of the tropical forest ecosystems they occupy. They play a vital role in seed dispersal as they consume a wide variety of fruits, are capable of ingesting seeds larger than most frugivores, and travel long distances over which they deposit seeds. By protecting orangutans in their natural habitats, countless other species of flora and fauna are also protected. And conserving these forest ecosystems is just as important to humankind as it is to the biodiversity found within them.
Losing the rainforests of Borneo would spell an ecological catastrophe, which would not only affect local residents but the entire planet. When we clear and burn these forests, the significant stores of carbon within are released into our atmosphere and contribute further to the global climate change crisis. As these forests disappear, local communities also lose their livelihoods and valuable resources. The whole world loses out too. Tropical forests have long been the source of medicinal breakthroughs. Right now, scientists are conducting trials on promising new drugs in the fight against cancer and AIDS, both of which were derived from Bornean plant species.
When we lose orangutans, we risk losing forests and all life within them - and then the whole world pays the price.
*The numbers are rounded. For further information, please check the references this document.