LJMU conservation scientist leads new orangutan research

Liverpool John Moores University: 12 November 2012

According to new research led by an LJMU conservation scientist, one of our closest cousins, the Bornean orang-utan, is facing extinction.

Sharing 97% of human DNA, orang-utans are close to humans in evolutionary terms but scientist Professor Serge Wich and others have found that only 22% of the already endangered species are actually living in protected areas.

Appearing this week in the scientific journal 'PLOS ONE' the research also shows that the rest of the orang-utans are inhabiting areas used for logging (29%), oil palm plantations (19%), industrial tree plantations (6%) or are in land that is not allocated for any specific use (24%).

Recent studies show that orang-utans could possibly survive in well-managed logging areas so a very optimistic outcome would be that half of the current population could continue to exist. Unfortunately, it is more likely that far less than half of the population will survive as not all protected areas and logging areas will continue to be well-managed. Improving such management is therefore a high priority.

Commenting about the research, Professor Wich said:

"This research paints a bleak future for the Bornean orang-utan. To avoid this potential decline, plantation development in orang-utan habitats must be halted because it infringes national laws on orang-utan protection.

Further growth of the oil palm plantation sector should be achieved through increasing the productivity of trees in existing plantations and expansion of new plantations into areas that have already been deforested.

"To reach this goal a large scale, island-wide land-use masterplan is needed that clarifies which possible land uses and managements are compatible with orang-utan conservation. Such a plan should make much better use of values of ecosystem services of forests such as water provision, flood control, carbon sequestration, and sources of livelihood for rural communities.

"Presently land use planning is more driven by vested interests and direct and immediate economic gains, rather than by approaches that take into consideration social equity and environmental sustainability."

To view the full research manuscript in PLOS ONE, visit the website

Professor Serge Wich joined LJMU this academic year. He started his biology study at the University of Amsterdam but in 1995 moved to Utrecht University for his MSc on Sumatran orangutan feeding ecology. After a brief study of bonobos in DRC, he returned to Sumatra to do a PhD on Thomas langur male long-distance calls, which he completed in 2002. A subsequent post-doctoral position at Utrecht University brought him to the island of Borneo where he continued to study orangutans. In 2005, he joined Great Ape Trust of Iowa where he worked as a scientist until 2009 when he joined the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Program and the University of Zurich. He then joined LJMU.

Professor Wich's research interests are focused on primate behavioral ecology, tropical rain forest ecology and conservation of primates and their habitats. Research is strongly focused on the Indonesian island of Sumatra, but also on the island of Borneo. In the future he hopes to extend the geographic spread of projects to mainland Asia and other continents.

At present the key species he studies with collaborators are the Sumatran and Bornean orangutan. Another field of study is primate communication and especially what the meaning and function of calls are, whether they are learned and what the geographic variation of calls is. This has the ultimate aim of informing theories on how human speech evolved. In addition, Professor Wich is collaborating (with Professor Lian Pin Koh) to develop and use unmanned aerial vehicles (conservation drones) for conservation and ecological research. This project has drones flying at several locations around the world (Africa, Asia, and Europe).