Wildlife

Conservationists organise online hangouts to mark International Orangutan Day

A Tapanuli orangutan in Sumatra, Indonesia. Photo by Maxime Aliaga.

Conservationists around the world are today (Wednesday) joining forces to mark International Orangutan Day and raise awareness about the critically endangered primate whose DNA is 97 percent the same as humans.

The Bornean Orangutan Survival Foundation (BOSF) and its global partner organisations are hosting ‘Hangout with Orangutans’, a 16-hour, web-based marathon of entertainment and education about orangutans and habitat conservation.

The online events will include film screenings and artistic performances and will be accessible to the public via Zoom and YouTube.

The Indonesia programme director for International Animal Rescue (IAR), Karmele Llano Sánchez, Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme (SOCP) director Ian Singleton, and BOSF CEO Jamartin Sihite will be speaking today in an webinar hosted at @atamerica. They will be talking about actions people can take to help protect orangutans. 

The Orangutan Information Centre (OIC) in Medan on the Indonesian island of Sumatra is holding its annual orangutan festival, which, because of Covid-19, is this year online. The events include a webinar via Zoom along with photography and poster design competitions and the festival will continue until September 4.

The theme of this year’s festival is #orangutansfreedom. OIC chairman and founder Panut Hadisiswoyo says the theme is a reminder that true freedom for orangutans is roaming in the wild.

“Time is now extremely limited,” Hadisiswoyo told Changing Times. “We must act very rapidly to save orangutans from extinction.

“We must take immediate action to secure their habitat and their lives from imminent threats such as forest loss for development and infrastructure expansion, poaching, and the wildlife trade.”

Three species

There are three species of orangutan, one of which – the Tapanuli – was only described in November 2017 and is the world’s rarest and most endangered great ape species.

In 2016, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) changed the classification of the Bornean orangutan (Pongo pygmaeus) from endangered to critically endangered, citing the main causes of its population decline as habitat loss and fragmentation, primarily for logging and oil palm plantations, along with illegal hunting and fires.

The Sumatran orangutan (Pongo abelii) is also listed as critically endangered. There are now estimated to be about 14,000 left in the wild.

There are estimated to be about 104,000 Bornean orangutans living in the wild, split into three distinct subspecies.

The IUCN says the population trend is a decrease for both species.

Fewer than eight hundred Tapanuli orangutans remain and the IUCN has already declared the species critically endangered.

The Tapanuli live in the Batang Toru forest in Sumatra. Their geographic range is just 1,200 square kilometres.

Conservationists say the planned construction of a 510-megawatt hydropower plant in the Batang Toru forest threatens to further imperil the species.

The hydropower plant would flood part of the orangutans’ habitat and the project includes a network of roads and high-voltage transmission lines that would fragment the primates’ habitat. Other endangered species would also be impacted.

A planned expansion of gold mining in the Batang Toru forest is another threat to the Tapanuli.

According to a report on the website Mongabay, environmental, funding, and pandemic-related concerns may delay the construction of the Batang Toru power plant for up to three years.

Hans Nicholas Jong quoted Muhammad Ikhsan Asaad, who oversees the project for the state-owned electricity company PT PLN, as saying the project may be delayed until 2025.

Orangutans’ solitary nature and slow reproductive rates leave them particularly vulnerable when there is forest loss. The rate of population decline is such that it is difficult for the populations to recover because of the lengthy birth intervals.

Serge Wich from the IUCN’s Primate Specialist Group’s section on great apes said of the Tapanuli: “If more than one percent of the population is lost annually this will spiral them to extinction.

“Tapanuli females have their first offspring when they are about 15 years old, and the interbirth interval is then about eight to nine years.”

The Tapanuli orangutans have thicker, frizzier hair than their Bornean and Sumatran relatives, and, unlike the Bornean orangutans, the females grow beards. The dominant males have a prominent moustache and flat flanges covered in downy hair, whereas the flanges of older males are more like those of Bornean males.

The species is similar to the Sumatran orangutan in its linear body build and has a more cinnamon-coloured pelage than that of its Bornean relative.

Researchers have seen the Tapanuli orangutans eat plant species that have not been observed in the diet of other orangutan species. These include aturmangan (Casuarinaceae) seeds, sampinur (Podocarpaceae) fruits and flowers, and agatis (Araucariaceae).

A success story

One of the BOSF success stories that has received global attention is that of Alba, a Bornean orangutan who is believed to be the only albino orangutan alive in the world.

Alba was rescued in April 2017 by the BOSF and the Central Kalimantan Natural Resources Conservation Agency (BKSDA).

She was five years old and had been held captive for two days by local residents in the village of Tanggirang in the Kapuas Hulu sub-district of the Kapuas Regency. She still displayed wild behaviour when confiscated.

“She was stressed, dehydrated, weak, suffering from a parasite infection, and displaying a poor appetite,”  Jamartin Sihite said at the time.

Alba spent nearly two years in the Nyaru Menteng rehabilitation centre in Central Kalimantan before she was released back into the wild. She is now thriving in the rainforest where she was released more than a year ago.

Earlier this year, a monitoring team was checking on three other rehabilitated orangutans who were released in the Bukit Baka Bukit Raya National Park in Central Kalimantan when they spotted Alba.

The BOSF is currently taking care of 122 orangutans in Samboja Lestari, East Kalimantan, and 305 in Nyaru Menteng.

Under the umbrella of the Mawas Conservation Programme in Central Kalimantan, the foundation also protects a population of 2,550 wild orangutans living on 309,000 hectares of peat swamp.

Since 2012, the BOSF has released 468 orangutans: 183 of them in the Bukit Batikap Protection Forest, Central Kalimantan, 167 in the Bukit Baka Bukit Raya National Park, and 118 in the Kehje Sewen Forest, East Kalimantan.

The foundation also translocated three orangutans into the Bukit Baka Bukit Raya National Park from places where there was human-orangutan conflict.

Between 2012 and 2018, and based on only known outcomes, 74 percent of the releases are determined to have been successful. In the case of the other fifty orangutans (26%), the primates were either translocated, required medical attention, or died.

Since 2012, twenty orangutans have been born in the wild at the three release sites.

Photo courtesy of the BOSF.

Since 2012, the Human-Orangutan Conflict Response Unit (HOCRU) teams from the Orangutan Information Centre (OIC) in Medan, Sumatra, have rescued 215 orangutans.

There are three HOCRU teams working in North Sumatra and Aceh, and the centre has three professional vets on its staff.

In one of the most recent rescues by one of the HOCRU teams, working in collaboration with staff from the Gunung National Park authority, a male infant orangutan was evacuated from the Sei Musam village in the Langkat district of North Sumatra.

The baby, who is about one year old, and was later named Kike, was found in a cardboard box.

He was in good health and was handed over to the SOCP to be rehabilitated before release back into the wild.

Since 2001, the SOCP has received more than 410 orangutans at its quarantine and rehabilitation centre north of Medan. More than 185 of them have been released at the SOCP reintroduction centre in Jambi province, and 125 orangutans have been reintroduced into the forests of the Jantho Nature Reserve in Aceh.

Over the past ten years, the SOCP has had to deal with more than 15 orangutans who have had air rifle pellets embedded in their bodies (nearly 500 pellets in total).

Ian Singleton said: “These two new wild orangutan populations that we have been creating in Jambi and Jantho have never been more important.

“There is scientific evidence that orangutans and other great apes could be susceptible to SARS-CoV-2 infection and we have no idea how it might affect them.

“I never imagined that, in my lifetime, I might see these new populations playing such a vital role as a safety net, or back-up population, in case catastrophe befalls the original wild populations.”

Earlier this month, two male Bornean orangutans, estimated to be about twenty years old, were rescued after they spent years in captivity in small, barren cages in two separate locations in Central Java in Indonesia.

The rescue operation was led by members of the Central Java and West Kalimantan natural resources conservation agencies, supported by a team from International Animal Rescue Indonesia.

The orangutans, named Samson and Boboy, were transferred to IAR’s rehabilitation centre in Ketapang Regency in west Borneo.

IAR veterinarian Temia said that both orangutans showed signs of malnutrition, which had resulted in stunted growth and susceptibility to various diseases.

“Their poor health was also the result of being confined for years in narrow, substandard cages, Temia said. “Based on our observations, their needs as protected animals were not met.”

Karmele Llano Sánchez said: “It’s very sad to see individuals like Samson and Boboy, who should be living free in their natural habitat, but instead have been confined to cages for years.

“The rehabilitation process for rescued orangutans is long and complicated. It will be extremely difficult for an orangutan that has been locked in a cage all its life to learn how to survive in the wild.”

Samson

If orangutans have a disease or permanent disability as a result of poor care during their years in captivity, they will never be able to return to their natural habitat, Sánchez says. “They will have to live in our sanctuary for the rest of their lives.”

Sánchez says she hopes that local communities will continue to play a role in protecting orangutans.

The head of the West Kalimantan Natural Resources Conservation Agency (BKSDA), Sadtata Noor Adirahmanta, said it remained a concern that members of the public were still keeping protected wildlife as pets. “We need to foster greater awareness in the community of the need to preserve endangered species like the orangutan in their natural habitat,” he said.

‘Time to remember our obligations’

The founder of the Centre for Orangutan Protection (COP) in Indonesia, Hardi Baktiantoro, said: “It is time for us, on World Orangutan Day, to be quiet for a moment, understand and remember our obligations as humans. Especially to care for and maintain what is in nature around us as best as possible. Let’s act to save forests, orangutans, and lives. Together we can make a difference.”

Hardi spoke about the fate of an orangutan called Hope, who, when she was rescued from an oil palm plantation in March last year, had 74 air rifle bullets lodged in her body. Her eyes were blinded and she had fractured bones.

Hope underwent a three-hour operation at the SOCP to repair her collarbone. During the surgery, it was discovered that her broken collarbone had pierced her throat sac, which had become infected.

The vets had to remove infected bone and tissue before inserting a pin and six screws to fix the end of her collarbone back in place. Hope’s baby, who was about one month old, was so weak and malnourished that he didn’t survive. His mother was too injured to feed him and he died on the way to the SOCP quarantine centre.

“Orangutan habitat is getting smaller and smaller and this is causing conflict with humans,” Hardi said.

”People are trying to make a profit by hunting and trading baby orangutans. “There needs to be control over land use and orangutan habitat must be maintained. Without forests, orangutans and other wildlife will not be able to survive.

“Orangutans play a very important role, maintaining the health of the forest ecosystem by spreading seeds. This is of great benefit to other animals and local communities.”

The executive director of the UK-based Orangutan Land Trust, Michelle Desilets, said: “Long-term solutions must go beyond the rescue, rehabilitation, and release or translocation of orangutans, and look at protecting habitat in the first place so that these animals are not displaced or, worse, killed by starvation or human-wildlife conflict.

“Everyone can play a part to protect orangutans in the wild by demanding that the products they buy and consume are not associated with deforestation and biodiversity loss. That means choosing sustainable palm oil and wood and paper certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, for example.”

The BOSF ‘Hangout with Orangutans’ will include a screening of the two first episodes of ‘Orangutan Jungle School’, a documentary series produced by NHNZ (formerly Natural History New Zealand), the Canadian broadcasting and media company Blue Ant Media, and the BOSF.

This film tells the story of orangutans and daily activities at the Nyaru Menteng rehabilitation centre forest school.

Jamartin Sihite said: “We have prepared many exciting events that anyone can tune in to. For all our friends who want to learn more about and help orangutans, this is the perfect opportunity to, virtually, take a closer look at our orangutan rehabilitation centres, especially the forest school activities.

“Not only are we going to tell stories about orangutans, we also want to share with you insights on the challenges we are facing during this pandemic.

“Efforts to conserve and preserve wildlife, including orangutans, are no small undertaking. It takes widespread cooperation, a lot of money, and even more hard work to achieve the desired results.

“We hope that, with this online event series, we can expand the network of supporters for efforts to conserve Asia’s only great ape.”

BOSF awareness campaigner Davina Veronica Hariadi added: “The fact that orangutans play a significant role in maintaining the quality of forest ecosystems adds to the importance of universal support for their conservation.

“I hope that from this event, the public will gain a deeper understanding about the importance of nature and the environment for the health of our world.”

Ian Redmond OBE, chairman of the Ape Alliance and a trustee of the Orangutan Foundation UK said: “What is clear from all these innovative actions for International Orangutan Day, is that it is within our power to save all three species of orangutan and their natural habitat – indeed we must if we are to prevent climate breakdown. How would we, individually and as a species, look ourselves in the mirror each day if we fail?”

You can register for ‘Hangout with Orangutans’ here, and join the network of BOSF supporters, but you can also follow the events on YouTube without registering. At 7 p.m. Western Indonesian Time there will be an information session in English entitled ‘On the Frontline of Orangutan Conservation’.

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