Friday, January 09, 2015

Highly endangered orangutans in Borneo need help to avoid extinction

Ecotourism may be best hope for saving the dwindling forests upon which gentle giants depend

KINABATANGAN RIVER, Sabah, Malaysia — High up in a tree, a female orangutan and her baby picked fruit as they slowly moved along the branches.

Craning our necks, we watched as the mother stretched her strong arms and legs to form a great, hairy X against the sky. The baby — old enough to have quit clinging but still several years away from being able to manage the jungle alone — lingered higher up.

There are fewer than 60,000 of these red-haired great apes remaining. They are the largest arboreal animals, spending 65 per cent of their time in the trees where they eat, sleep and use the branches as a highway. But given their size — males are up to 1.75 metres tall and weigh over 120 kilos, while the females can be up to 1.3 metres tall, weighing 45 kilos — they need very large trees to survive. In Malaysia’s easternmost state of Sabah, the official population estimate is 800. But experts challenge that number saying the method of reaching that estimation is faulty.

What is not debatable is the reason for orangutans being on the brink of extinction. Their habitat is disappearing at an alarming rate, equivalent to 300 football fields an hour, to make way for palm oil plantations, according to the World Wildlife Fund ( ).

The United Nations Environment Programme says orangutans’ extinction is likely if development continues unabated. The WWF predicts it could happen within the next decade.

If orangutans become extinct, humans will have killed them either directly for sport or use in traditional medicine or indirectly because of the desire for exotic hardwoods and cheap, edible, palm oil.

Unlike gorillas and chimpanzees, orangutans are solitary animals except for the mothers, who will travel with up to two of their offspring. It’s that solitariness that has led to an evolutionary oddity. Males have the surprising ability to grow huge cheek flanges and throat sacks within a few months of becoming the dominant male. The flanges and throat sack allow them to broadcast their presence and availability for mating with calls that carry for up to three kilometres through the forest.

Given that, seeing these highly endangered great apes in the wild is thrilling. It’s extraordinary because there are so few of them, but orangutans have an uncanny ability to blend into the foliage. And, On a recent tour to Sarawak and Sabah with Vancouver Sun readers, we lucky enough to have two sightings on two different days of mothers with their babies.