Orangutans are native to Indonesia and Malaysia and can be found in the rainforests of Borneo and Sumatra. In recent decades, they have experienced sharp drops in their populations. The main threats to their existence are a loss of habitat through deforestation, proliferation of palm oil plantations, illegal hunting, and illegal pet trade. The World Wildlife Society website says that “A century ago there were probably more than 230,000 orangutans in total, but the Bornean orangutan is now estimated at about 104,700 (endangered) and the Sumatran orangutan about 7,500 (critically endangered). While there is protective legislation in place dating back to 1931, the challenges to their existence have outpaced their protected status.
Orangutans spend most of their time in trees. They have very long arms, twice as long as their bodies, and shaggy, reddish-brown hair and are considered very intelligent. They are keen learners and construct sleeping nests every night from branches and foliage. Males and females differ in size and appearance. Adult males can weigh up to 200 pounds. Adult males have distinctive cheek pads and produce long calls that attract females and intimidate rivals. Younger males do not have these characteristics and resemble adult females. Fruit is the most important component of an orangutan’s diet; however, the apes will also eat vegetation, bark, honey, insects and even bird eggs. They can live over 30 years in both the wild and captivity.
The main reason orangutans are endangered is due to a shrinking habitat due to logging and deforestation, poaching of orangutan babies and hunting for meat, the palm oil business in which large areas of the rainforest are replaced with a single crop—the palm oil tree. In addition, farmers are cutting into the forest to grow their crops, which forces the orangutans to go out in search of food to survive. They often become stranded and are unable to return to their habitats. This puts them at risk of poaching for illegal pet trade and conflict with humans if they eat or damage their crops. Since orangutan females birth one infant every 3-5 years, the species’ low reproductive rate renders it especially vulnerable.
One of the most destructive forces to the existence of orangutans is the trade of palm oil, which is a globally traded commodity and for which demand has tripled in the last five years. It is used in roughly 50 percent of consumer goods such as lipstick, body lotion, etc. This has created the deforestation of rainforests, especially since palm oil companies use fire as a cheap way to clear the land. The production of palm oil is the key cause of the destruction of rainforests worldwide.
Emont, Jon. “A Refuge for Orangutans, and a Quandary for Environmentalists.” New York Times (New York, NY), April 25, 2017. Accessed August 12, 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/25/world/asia/indonesia-borneo-orangutans-palm-oil.html?_r=0.
“Orangutan.” World Wildlife Fund. Accessed August 12, 2017. https://www.worldwildlife.org/species/orangutan.