The wild orangutan population is estimated to be 66,000, with about 80 to 90 percent of them in Indonesia . Today an estimated 45,000 to 55,000 orangutans live in Borneo, with another 6,000 to 10,000 in Sumatra. About half the orangutans that live on Borneo live peat-swamp forests in Central Kalimantan and the forest in East Kalimantan and Sabah. In the old days orangutans could range across the entire island of Borneo but today most live in small, scattered populations.

Orangutan populations have declined primarily as a result of poaching and loss of habitat, much of it a result of palm oil plantations and illegal logging. As well as forest clearing, they are threatened by commercial logging, hunting and poaching for the bush meat and pet trades and forest fires. Orangutans are slow to recover because they have a slow rate of reproduction.

In Sumatra, only 13 isolated clusters of orangutans remain. At the current rate of decline, experts estimate that the number will drop by half over the next decade. With its slow rate of reproduction and the continuing habitat destruction, the species has little chance of surviving outside well-protected reserves and zoos. Some have said that at the current of habitat destruction, orangutans could be extinct in the wild in 10 to 20 years. The WWF in Malaysia however has downplayed fears that orangutans could be extinct within the next few decades due to habitat destruction, describing those claims as “rather alarmist and not realistic”.

Birute Galdikas wrote in the New York Times: When I first arrived in Central Kalimantan in 1971, orangutans were already endangered because of poaching (for the pet trade and for the cooking pot) and deforestation (by loggers and by villagers making way for gardens and rice fields). But it was all relatively small-time. The forests of Kalimantan were vast — Indonesia’s are the second largest tropical rain forests in the world, after Brazil’s — and forest conversion rates small. People still used axes and saws to cut down trees and traveled by dugout canoes or small boats with inboard engines. [Source: Birute Galdikas, New York Times, January 6, 2007]

“In the late 1980s, as it entered the global economy, Indonesia decided to become a major producer and exporter of palm oil, pulp and paper. Before this, the government had endorsed selective logging. Now vast areas of forest were slated for conversion to plantations to grow trees for palm oil and paper production. Monster-sized bulldozers, replacing the chain saws of the early logging boom, tore up the forest, clear-cutting as many as 250,000 acres at once for palm oil plantations. At the same time, the price of wood, particularly the valuable hardwoods that grow in Indonesia’s rain forests and fetch a high price on the black market, increased. Illegal logging became rampant, even in national parks and reserves. While illegal logging degrades the forest, plantations absolutely destroy it. And the destruction is not only immediate, but also long-term. Forest-clearing leaves huge amounts of dry branches and other wood litter on forest floors; a small spark can ignite enormous forest fires, particularly in times of drought.

decline of orangutan habitat on Borneo

“Indonesia has achieved its goal of becoming one of the two largest palm-oil producers and exporters in the world. But at what cost? At least half of the world’s wild orangutans have disappeared in the last 20 years; biologically viable populations of orangutans have been radically reduced in size and number; and 80 percent of the orangutan habitat has either been depopulated or totally destroyed. The trend shows no sign of abating: government maps of future planned land use show more of the same, on an increasing scale.

“Indonesia is a vast, densely populated country where millions live in or near poverty. The temptation to exploit natural resources to feed people today, never mind tomorrow, and to expand the economy, is great. And the plantations are but one example. Surface-mining of gold in the alluvial fans of white sand has been practiced for two decades, leaving virtual moonscapes near the National Park where I work. Now zircon mining has entrenched itself all over Central Kalimantan, with each zircon mine obliterating 1,000 acres of rain forest. Two years ago nobody, myself included, even knew what zircon was.

Declining Orangutan Numbers

There are 30 percent less orangutans than there were in the 1980s. As recently as 1900, more than 300,000 orangutans roamed freely across the jungles of Southeast Asia and southern China A few decades ago there were still hundreds of thousands of them.

In the early 2000s it was said there were around 15,000 to 24,000 orangutans are left in the wild. The number was upped to around 40,000 after studies in 2004. A new population with several thousand members was discovered in Kalimantan. There are about 1,000 in captivity.

According to Serge Wich, a scientist with the Iowa-based Great Ape Trust orangutan numbers declined sharply between 2004 and 2008 in Indonesia and Malaysia. A survey by a team led by Swich estimated that the orangutan population in Sumatra dropped by nearly 14 percent in that period to 6,600. The team estimated the number of orangutans dropped by 10 percent between 2004 and 2008 on Borneo. Wich told AP, “It is disappointing that there are still declines even though there have been quite a lot of conservation efforts over the past 30 years.” [Source: AP, June 2008]

Orangutans and Loss of Habitat

Fires in Sumatra
Habitat loss is regarded as the No. 1 factor in the decline of orangutan populations. Orangutan habitats have been lost to legal and illegal logging, the encroachment of farmers in search of new crop land, and the clearing of forest for palm oil or rubber plantations.

Over the centuries orangutan habitat has shrunk dramatically from a wide band of territory stretching across western India, Southeast Asia, southern China and Indonesia to a few isolated areas in Sumatra and Borneo. Orangutans have become traumatized when trees they rely on are cut down and sometimes become so despondent they don’t eat. See Deforestation

According to some estimates the natural range of orangutans has shrunk 90 percent in the last half of the 20th century and 80 percent of that in the last 20 years. Indonesia’s transmigration has consumed large chunks of orangutan habitat. In 1995, Jakarta proposed transforming 1 million acres of prime orangutan habitat in the peat-swamp forest into a huge rice plantation farmed by tens of thousands transmigrants.

According to the Nature Conservancy, forest loss in Indonesia has contributed to the death of some 3,000 orangutans a year over the past three decades. All told, the world's fourth most populous nation is losing about 4.6 million acres of forest every year, an area almost as large as New Jersey. Cheryl Knott, an anthropologist at Borneo’s Gunung Paiung National Park, Indonesia, wrote in National Geographic: “By some estimates more than 80 percent of aII orangutan habitat has been destroyed. Deforestation in Indonesia is escalating; since 1996 legal and illegal logging has consumed about five million acres of forest each year. Recent political upheaval has brought economic turmoil and lawlessness — hardly a recipe for successful conservation. [Source: Cheryl Knott, National Geographic, October 2003]

Richard C. Paddock wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “Since the arrival of democracy in Indonesia in 1998, corrupt officials and lax enforcement have allowed logging to continue unabated, even in national parks. The illicit industry, fueled by global demand for wood products, has turned a few crooked businessmen into the country's new tycoons. Forestry officials acknowledge that illegal logging is costing the government more than $3 billion a year in lost revenue. [Richard C. Paddock, Los Angeles Times, May 14, 2005]

Orangutans and Palm Oil Plantations

20120525-palm oil Oilpalm_malaysia.jpg
Palm oil palm in Malaysia
Bill Brubaker wrote in Smithsonian magazine, A 2007 United Nations Environment Programme report, "The Last Stand of the Orangutan: State of Emergency," concluded that palm oil plantations are the primary cause of rain forest loss in Indonesia and Malaysia — the largest producers of palm oil and the only countries in the world where wild orangutans can still be found. Between 1967 and 2000, Indonesia's palm oil plantation acreage increased tenfold as world demand for this commodity soared; it has almost doubled in this decade. [Source: Bill Brubaker, Smithsonian magazine, December 2010]

“With 18 million acres under cultivation in Indonesia and about as much in Malaysia, palm oil has become the world's number one vegetable oil. The easy-to-grow ingredient is found in shampoos, toothpaste, cosmetics, margarine, chocolate bars and all manner of snacks and processed foods. Global sales are expected only to increase as demand for biofuels, which can be manufactured with palm oil, soars in the coming years.”

“Palm oil companies don't see themselves as the bad guys, of course. Singapore-based Wilmar International Ltd., one of the world's largest producers, says it is "committed to ensuring the conservation of rare, threatened and endangered species." The companies point out that they provide employment for millions of people in the developing world (the oil palm tree is also grown in Africa and South America), while producing a shelf-stable cooking oil free of trans fats. As fuel, palm oil does not contribute as much greenhouse gas to the atmosphere as fossil fuels, although there is a furious debate over whether the carbon dioxide absorbed by the palm trees makes up for the greenhouse gases dispersed into the atmosphere when rain forests are burned and plowed to create plantations.

In Borneo swampland areas that orangutans are found in are also coveted by the palm oil barons. To grow oil palm (Elaesis guineensis) in a peat swamp forest, workers typically drain the land, chop down the trees (which are sold for timber) and burn what's left. It's a procedure, Galdikas says, that not only has killed or displaced thousands of orangutans but also has triggered massive fires and sent huge amounts of carbon dioxide into the air, furthering climate change.

“The 6,000 remaining orangutans in Tanjung Puting can no longer travel at will because of palm oil plantations surrounding the park, all created since 1971. When she began the study, she says, "orangutans could wander to the other side of Borneo if they felt like it. Now they're trapped. They get lost in these palm oil plantations and they get killed."

Palm Oil Demand Drives Orangutans to Extinction

In 2005, AFP reported: “Demand for palm oil, which is widely used in processed foods, is driving the orangutan towards extinction by speeding the destruction of their forest habitat, Friends of the Earth said on Friday. The environmental campaigners said Asia’s only great ape could be wiped out within 12 years unless there was urgent intervention in the palm oil trade, which it said was also linked with human rights abuses. “Almost 90 percent of the orang-utan’s habitat in Indonesia and Malaysia has now been destroyed. Some experts estimate that 5 000 orang-utan perish as a result every year,” it said in a statement from London.[Source: AFP, September 23, 2005]

“In a report it dubbed the “Oil for Ape Scandal”, the group said wildlife centres in Indonesia were over-run with orphaned baby orang-utans that had been rescued from forests being cleared to make way for new plantations. “Oil-palm plantations have now become the primary cause of the orang-utans’ decline, wiping out its rainforest home in Borneo and Sumatra,” it said.

palm plantation in Cigudeg, Indonesia

“Palm oil plantations have also been blamed for the annual haze crisis which hit Malaysia and Thailand last month, as clouds of smoke and dust from “slash and burn” operations drifted over from Indonesia’s Sumatra island. “Research by Friends of the Earth shows that the forest fires which ravaged the island of Sumatra in August, and continue to burn today, were mostly set by palm oil companies clearing land to set up their plantations,” it said. “It is estimated that one third of the orang-utan population on Borneo was killed by the forest fires of 1998,” it said, referring to the disastrous haze crisis that year which crippled business and tourism in parts of Southeast Asia.

“Global conservation group WWF has also sounded the alarm over plans to create a huge new oil palm plantation in Indonesian Borneo, saying it would have a devastating impact on the wildlife and indigenous peoples. The proposed plantation, funded by China, is expected to cover 1.8-million hectares along the mountainous border with Malaysian Sarawak, WWF said in August.

Biofuel Boom Threatens Orangutans at Tanjung Puting

Reporting from Tanjung Puting National Park, Indonesia, Paul Watson, wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “In the rush to feed the world's growing appetite for climate-friendly fuel and cooking oil that doesn't clog arteries, the Bornean orangutan could get plowed over. Several plantation owners are eyeing Tanjung Puting park, a sanctuary for 6,000 of the endangered animals. It is the world's second-largest population of orangutans. [Source: Paul Watson, Los Angeles Times, October 19, 2008]

“On the receding borders of this 1,600-square-mile lush reserve, a road paved with good intentions runs smack into a swamp of alleged corruption and government bungling. It's one of the mounting costs few bargained for in the global craze to "go green." The park clings to the southern tip of the island of Borneo, which is shared by Indonesia and Malaysia, the top producers of palm oil. Exporters market it as an alternative to both petroleum and cooking oils containing trans fats.

“Indonesia is losing lowland forest faster than any other major forested country. At the rate its trees are being felled to plant oil palms, poach high-grade timber and clear land for farming, 98 percent of Indonesia's forest may be lost by 2022, the United Nations Environment Program says."If the immediate crisis in securing the future survival of the orangutan and the protection of national parks is not resolved, very few wild orangutans will be left within two decades," UNEP concluded in a report last year. "The rate and extent of illegal logging in national parks may, if unchallenged, endanger the entire concept of protected areas worldwide."

“In July 2008, loggers finished buzz-sawing and bulldozing a 40,000-acre swath in a northeastern corner of the park, where at least 561 orangutan lived, to clear ground for oil palm plants, Zaqie said. The government isn't much help, say environmental activists, who accuse corrupt officials, military and police officers of siding with timber poachers, illegal miners and others threatening the forests.

“Activists bemoan a territorial dispute between local officials and the provincial and national governments. "The problem now is even the central government can't really say where the exact border of the national park is," said Yeppie Kustiwae, who handles the issue of forest conversion for the World Wide Fund for Nature in Indonesia. Zaqie says palm oil companies are determined to take as much as 5 million acres of orangutan forest habitat in Tanjung Puting and the larger Sebangau National Park, where Borneo's largest population of orangutans lives.

“Zaqie says he first saw bulldozers knocking down trees for the northeastern palm oil plantation five years ago. He was certain the loggers were on land included in the park in a 1996 government decree. He tried without success to stop the bulldozer operators. So Zaqie went to a manager, who confirmed that the forest was being converted into a plantation by an Indonesian company called Wanasawit Subur Lestari. A spokesman for its parent company, BEST Plantation Group, denied encroaching on the park. "We are working based on a permit issued by the government," said Wahyu Bimadhrata, BEST's legal manager. "We don't work inside the national park."

“Mounting pressures on the forest are easiest to see in the money made by palm oil plantations. In 1990, Indonesia earned $204 million from palm oil exports; the value exploded to more than $7.8 billion in 2007. Palm oil exports started growing sharply in 2003 after the European Union declared a mandatory quota to replace gasoline and diesel from crude with biofuels. In 2007, it raised the biofuel target to 10 percent of transportation fuels by 2020, driving the price of palm oil higher and ratcheting up the threat to rain forests.

“The EU has maintained the policy even though a report in April by European Environment Agency scientists called it an "overambitious" experiment "whose unintended effects are difficult to predict and difficult to control." Instead of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, producing palm oil on what was once peat swamp forests may be boosting the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Leveling the jungle not only destroys trees that absorb carbon dioxide, it also releases millions of tons of carbon dioxide stored in Borneo's peat for thousands of years. Fires set to clear trees and stumps add to the problem.”

Curbing Plantations to Protect Orangutans

In October 2009, The Express reported: “Malaysia is to ban companies from planting palm oil and other crops near rivers in a large state on Borneo island to preserve the habitat of orang-utans and other endangered wildlife. The government of Malaysia's eastern Sabah state plans to start enforcing land laws to forbid the clearing of forests along rivers over the next three years, said Sabah Environment Minister Masidi Manjun. [Source: The Express, October 6, 2009]

The pledge came after wildlife groups and government officials held a meeting about orang-utan conservation. The groups urged authorities to establish protected zones of at least 110 yards (100m) wide on each side of a river so animals can move between forest areas. Activists say Sabah's orang-utans, pygmy elephants, rhinoceroses, sun bears and other wildlife are at risk because their jungle habitats are increasingly being taken over by plantations.

Some plantation operators have long flouted the law by expanding their crops to the edge of rivers, but officials plan to crack down on such actions and get the businesses to replant trees which have been cut down near rivers, Masidi told The Associated Press. "We accept the fact that it will be a gigantic effort," Mr Masidi said. Marc Ancrenaz, co-founder of French-based conservation group Hutan, said laws should also be amended to ensure that protected areas are properly managed. "It's a major project," he said. "At the end of the day... there is no other way." Hutan estimates there are fewer than 11,000 orang-utans remaining in Sabah. There were up to eight times that number 15 years ago.

Orangutan Killing and Poaching

orangutan poacher

Galdikas told Smithsonian magazine that killings are usually carried out by plantation workers who consider the animals pests, by local people who eat their meat and by poachers who slaughter females to capture their babies, which are then sold illegally as pets. [Source: Bill Brubaker, Smithsonian magazine, December 2010]

Because getting orangutans to breed in captivity is difficult most captive orangutans have been captured in the wild, often illegally by poachers who kill the mother to obtain the babies, which are more sought after and easier to sell than adults.

Orangutan poaching is a serious problem in Borneo. Dyak tribesman, a group of former headhunters, kill the slow-moving and easy-to-shoot mothers and take their babies. Sometimes the babies are shot accidently or die when they fall with their mothers to the ground.

Sometimes the mothers are eaten. Sometimes they are left to rot. Sometimes the skulls are removed and decorated with carvings and a coat of shoe polish. Tourist shops sell them for about US$75 a piece. There are also stories of baby orangutans that wake up screaming at night from nightmares after witnessing their mothers being killed by poachers and skinned and eaten in front of them years before.

Orangutans have been captured by felling trees or chasing them with dogs to corner them and catch them with nets. Cornered male orangutan have bitten off the hands and feet of humans hunters with their powerful jaws.

See Fires Below

Orangutan Trafficking

Orangutan orphans are sold for US$80 to $200 each by hunters and villagers to middlemen, who offer them as pets to wealthy Indonesians or Chinese in Jakarta or smuggle then to Thailand where they are sold to rich Thais, Taiwanese or people from other countries.

Young orangutans sell for up to $55,000 on the black market in Thailand and Taiwan. They are often transported out of Indonesia ports by sailors and sold through dealers in Bangkok and Taipei. Orphaned babies are kept in cages or on leashes while they are being transported. Some are kept in horrid conditions. In Bangkok, one was found frozen to death in a cooling container at an animal trafficker’s house. According to some estimates only one orangutan in five that has been shipped overseas survives the journey.

Orangutans are protected by the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species of Flora and Fauna (CITES) act. Malaysia and Indonesia now have stiff penalties for illegally selling , keeping or smuggling orangutans. Laws designed to protect orangutan are only now starting to be enforced. There is strong resistance to helping orangutans. Willie Smots, a British oilmen who has tried to combat orangutan poaching, has had his life threatened, three of his dogs killed and a house set on fire with his wife and children inside.

In 2004, about 50 orangutans were rescued from a Thai amusement park — Bangkok’s Safari World theme park — where many of the apes were forced to stage mock kickboxing bouts. Owners of the park said their 115 orangutans were the result of a successful domestic captive breeding program however DNA testing indicated many of apes originated from Indonesia. In September 2006, several dozen of the orangutans were flown back to Indonesia, where they were welcomed by Indonesian President Susilo Yudhoyono, for rehabilitation. [Source: Reuters, June 2006]

Orangutans and Fires

Orangutans have also suffered as a result of the fires that periodically hit Sumatra and Borneo. During the 1997 El Niño drought, approximately 25 million acres, an area about half the size of Oklahoma, burned in Indonesia. Thousands of orangutans died. In Indonesia, orangutans were slaughtered by farmers and plantation workers as they fled the fires and smoke. At least 120 orangutans were killed and 60 young were taken in Central Kalimantan alone.

The fires and smoke also burned leaves and stunted the growth of jungle fruits that orangutans rely on for food. Many baby orangutans were too weak to cling to their mothers fell and died. An orangutan rescue operation saved 200 orangutans, many were youngsters claimed by villagers who hoped to sell them for food.

Many orangutans driven out of the forests by the fires entered villages and gardens in search of food. Describing the fate of orangutans in village near Palangkaraya in Central Kalimantan, Ron Moreaeu wrote in Time, "Barking dogs had alerted the villagers to the presence of the animals. As the dogs attacked, farmers wielding machetes and sharpened sticks hacked and stabbed the mother to death. The babies were taken captive — to be sold...The dead mothers were skinned and eaten."

One wildlife specialist told the New York Times, "It's very scary. They come into the villages and rarely can find any trees, so they just lie on the ground. They invade people's gardens and plantations. People are scared to death of see those wild beasts, so they kill them, particularly the adults. They kill the mothers and steal the babies."

The year 2006 was a bad one for drought and fire on Borneo. Willie Smits of the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation estimated that 1,000 orangutans died as a result of drought and illegal wildfires on the island. He said, “Orangutans are starving. They are sick, and many of those we are treating were injured after being attacked by machetes.” He also reported that many orangutans were suffering from respiratory distress caused by breathing in smoky haze from the fires.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: National Geographic, Natural History magazine, Smithsonian magazine, Wikipedia, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, The Guardian, Top Secret Animal Attack Files website, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, The Economist, BBC, and various books and other publications.

Last updated November 2013

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