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How to Help Endangered Orangutans: Red Apes of the Rainforest
Critically Endangered Orangutans
The orangutan is a forest ape with shaggy, red-orange or red-brown hair. It lives in Sumatra and Borneo and is the largest tree-climbing mammal in the world. Like the other great apes—gorillas, chimpanzees, and bonobos—orangutans are clever animals and have much in common with humans. In fact, 97% of their DNA is the same as ours. DNA contains the genetic code of an organism.
Unfortunately, the two species of orangutans are in big trouble, mainly due to habitat destruction and fragmentation and the conversion of forests to oil palm plantations. Both the Sumatran species and the Bornean species are critically endangered.
Most of us live far away from Sumatra and Borneo and can't afford to travel there. It may seem that there is little that we can do to help orangutans, but there are actually multiple ways in which we can aid the animals. Fundraising for conservation organizations, buying items from them, publicizing the plight of the animals, and refusing to buy products whose production involves the destruction of orangutan habitat can all be helpful.
August 19th of each year is International Orangutan Day. The goal of the event is to raise public awareness of the orangutan's problem and to encourage people to help the apes. Any day is a good one to help the animals, though.
Red Apes of the Rainforest
The two species of orangutan are the Sumatran orangutan (Pongo abelii) and the Bornean orangutan (Pongo pygmaeus). Compared to Bornean orangutans, the Sumatran animals are thinner and have longer faces and longer hair. They live in the trees and rarely come to the ground.
Orangutans have grasping hands and feet, long, strong arms, and relatively short legs, which are bowed. They prefer to travel by slowly swinging from tree to tree instead of by walking over the ground. When they do come to the ground they walk on all four limbs instead of standing on two legs.
Adult males are larger and more muscular than adult females. Mature males have large cheek pads, which may help to amplify their sounds. The cheek pads are covered with fine, short hairs. Male orangutans also have a large throat pouch, which acts as a resonating chamber for their calls.
The Life of an Orangutan
Orangutans are active during the day and eat mainly fruit. They also eat a smaller quantity of leaves, stems, bark, insects, bird eggs, and honey. They sample food with their mobile lips before eating it. They get their water from fruit juice and from pools that collect in tree holes. At night an orangutan sleeps in a tree nest which it makes from branches and leaves. The animal may also make a nest during the day so that it can rest.
Unlike the other great apes, orangutans are solitary or semi-solitary animals in the wild. The close relationship between a mother and her child may last for as long as eight years after the child's birth, however.
Orangutans are curious about the world around them and use sticks to dig, explore areas, collect honey, and scratch themselves. According to the World Wildlife Fund, some animals released from captivity learned independently to untie "complex" knots that were attaching rafts (or boats) to docks. They then pushed the rafts away from the docks, climbed on board, and rode the rafts across rivers. Orangutans have also been observed holding large leaves above their heads to act as umbrellas in the rain.
A female orangutan generally has her first baby between the ages of ten and seventeen. She has a new baby every five to ten years. She usually has one child at a time but may occasionally have twins. Orangutans generally live for about forty-five years. They have a low reproductive rate, which makes it hard for them to recover when their population size is reduced.
Why Are Orangutans Endangered?
Palm oil is obtained from the fruit of the oil palm tree. It's used in many different products, including processed foods, cosmetics, soaps, and washing powders. "Vegetable oil" in processed food is often palm oil. There is a huge, worldwide demand for the oil.
Palm oil production is a major industry in Sumatra and Borneo. Rainforest is being logged for its wood and to create space for oil palm plantations, other cultivated plants, mining, and urban expansion. In Sumatra, the orangutan's habitat is disappearing at an alarming rate. The Sumatran orangutans are more sensitive to habitat disturbance than the Bornean animals, but even in Borneo orangutans are disappearing as their habitat is destroyed.
In some area orangutans are hunted for food or are killed because they feed on crops. Females with a baby are shot so that the babies can be captured and sold as pets. Orangutans are also hunted to obtain their skulls, which are sold as souvenirs.
According to the World Wildlife Fund, 200 to 500 young orangutans are captured for the pet trade each year in the Indonesian part of Borneo alone.
Trying to Save the Sumatran Orangutan
Population estimates for orangutans vary, but all researchers agree that the number of animals is decreasing and that the situation is especially serious in Sumatra.
According to the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature), in 2016 researchers estimated that 14,613 Sumatran orangutans still existed. This number is actually higher than a previous estimate, but the IUCN says that this is due to better survey techniques and not to an actual increase in the population.
IUCN researchers have also estimated that around 55,000 Bornean orangutans are still alive. Unfortunately, this number is based on a 2004 survey and badly needs to be updated. The real number is suspected to be higher. Even considering this fact, conservation organizations say that the species is critically endangered.
In 1986, Dr. Birute Galdikas and some of her associates started a non-profit organization called the Orangutan Foundation International, or the OFI. The aim of the organization is to protect orangutans and their habitat. The OFI is involved in research and education as well as conservation.
A leading figure in the effort to save orangutans is the primatologist Birute Galdikas. She traveled to Borneo in 1971 to begin her study of orangutan behaviour in their natural habitat. She soon realized that there was an urgent need to protect the animals. She was initially aided by Louis Leakey, the anthropologist who also helped Jane Goodall begin her study of chimpanzees and Dian Fossey start her mountain gorilla research. Dr. Galdikas is still working to help endangered orangutans today and is an advocate for the apes. Part of her work involves rehabilitating orphan orangutans so that they can be released into the wild to lead a natural life.
Dr. Birute Galdikas and the Orangutan Foundation International
Help Orangutans by Making a Donation or Purchase
There are many things that we can do to help endangered orangutans even if we live far away from them. Fundraising or donating money is one way to help the animals.
- Schools often hold bake sales, car washes, bottle drives, and other events to raise funds for worthy causes. If you're a teacher or a parent who helps with fundraising, think about organizing an event to raise money to help orangutans. Make sure that you advertise your event on school bulletin boards, in the school newspaper, or in a newsletter to parents. Also consider advertising the event in the outside community or in a community newspaper.
- Community groups, church groups, and businesses could also hold fundraising events to help orangutans and to raise people's awareness of the animals' problems.
Buy Gifts From Orangutan Protection Organizations
- When you want to buy birthday, Christmas, or other gifts, take a look at online shops run by Orangutan protection groups such as the OFI, Orangutan Outreach, and the Orangutan Conservancy. Consider purchasing the gifts from them (provided some of the purchase price is used to help orangutans) or buying the products for yourself. For example, the Orangutan Foundation International organization sells T-shirts, books, DVD movies, post cards, calendars, posters, bumper stickers, bracelets, stuffed animals, and palm oil-free soap. The products look attractive and also show photos of orangutans, helping to bring the animals to people's attention.
Adopt an Orangutan or Donate Money
- An "adoption" program is a fun way for people to give donations to conservation organizations. It's also a good way for organizations to maintain people's interest in their work. The organizations display photos of young orangutans on their websites, along with information about each animal. (Some of the descriptions are very creative and funny.) The viewer can then sign up to pay a monthly or yearly fee to help support the animal and the organization. In return the donor usually receives an information package about "their" orangutan as well as regular updates describing how the orangutan is doing. The websites also enable people to make donations without adopting an animal.
Sumatran Orangutans in the Cincinnati Zoo
Educate and Publicize
Informing others about the problems faced by organutans can be a good way to help the apes.
- Publicize the plight of the animals. Use social media accounts to share orangutan information and ideas for helping the apes. If you have many followers or friends and these people frequently read your posts, you have an excellent chance to spread your message. If some of your followers share your posts your message will spread even further.
- Don't overdo your orangutan posts on social media sites. If people see them too often they may ignore them. The repetition of orangutan information may even irritate your followers. In addition, make sure that you change the information in each post to keep your followers interested and to increase the likelihood that they will share the post.
- Think about sending interesting orangutan information and links in email or regular mail to friends and relatives. Once again, don't overload your friends with orangutan information.
- If you're an educator and will be teaching a unit about mammals or endangered animals, consider incorporating information about orangutans into the unit.
A Baby Orangutan at the Houston Zoo
Buy Sustainable and Environmentally Friendly Products
Buy FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) Certified Wood and Paper Products
- The Forest Stewardship Council is composed of environmental groups, businesses, and social organizations from around the world. Its goal is to ensure "environmentally appropriate, socially beneficial and economically viable forest management". The council has published ten principles describing their vision and has established criteria for judging whether an organization is adhering to each principle. One principle refers to maintaining and restoring the ecosystem and its biodiversity. Another refers to planning and managing plantations in accordance with FSC guidelines. FSC Certification is granted if an organization is adhering to all ten principles.
- If you can't find FSC certified products in your local stores, ask the manager to supply them. In my area even the supermarkets sell packages of toilet paper which bear the FSC logo. These products are quick to recognize because they have labels like "natural" or "green". They are a little more expensive than non-certified paper products.
Buy Certified Sustainable Palm Oil Products
- The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, or RSPO, is an organization whose goal is to ensure that all palm oil is produced in a sustainable manner that doesn't hurt the environment. One of its goals is to ensure that oil palm plantations are developed and managed responsibly. It's a "roundtable" organization because it includes many other organizations as members and listens to their views. Members of RSPO include palm oil producers, processors and traders, food manufacturers, and nature conservation groups. RSPO provides certification and a logo that can be used on product packaging.
- If there is a business in your area that makes extensive use of non-certified palm oil, consider asked them to switch to sustainable palm oil or to another oil. While it's true that one request probably won't have much effect, if you can get other people to join your campaign you might get the company's attention.
Sustainable Palm Oil Production
The Future for Orangutans
It's sad when any animal becomes extinct due to human activity, but the loss of orangutans would be terrible. They are magnificent and clever animals that have many similarities to humans. Predicting when orangutans will become extinct if present conditions aren't improved—or if they get worse—is difficult, especially since we don't have accurate population counts at the moment. However, most estimates say that Sumatran orangutans may become extinct within fifty years. We need organizations or individuals to create action plans that satisfy both the needs of humans and the needs of orangutans. We also need to ensure that these plans are put into operation and that they succeed.
A Disabled Orangutan Learning to Enjoy Life
"Orang-utans." World Wildlife Fund. http://wwf.panda.org/what_we_do/endangered_species/great_apes/orangutans/ (accessed August 18, 2017).
"Orangutan Facts." Orangutan Conservancy. http://www.orangutan.com/orangutans/orangutan-facts/ (accessed August 18, 2017).
"Pongo abelii." International Union for Conservation of Nature. http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/39780/0 (accessed August 18, 2017).
"Pongo pygmaeus." International Union for Conservation of Nature. http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/17975/0 (accessed August 18, 2017).
© 2012 Linda Crampton