Experts feud over how to save apes

Experts feud over how to save apes  26 April 2009

Conservationists divided over issue of reintroducing orang-utans in Borneo and Sumatra to the wild

A battle has broken out between conservationists over attempts to save the orang-utan. The groups are divided over the issue of reintroducing to the wild orphaned animals that are now living in refuges in Borneo and Sumatra.

On one side, experts say such attempts can no longer be considered important and that all efforts must be directed to saving the apes’ last rainforest homes. “If we cannot protect animals in the wild, there is no point in reintroducing rescued apes to rainforests,” said Ashley Leiman, of the Orangutan Foundation.

But this view is disputed by campaigners who say refuges are today bursting with almost a thousand orang-utans. “It is a simple matter of welfare,” said Cambridge biologist David Chivers “We are keeping these animals in artificial environments, in enclosures. Their rehabilitation should not be sneered at.”

The issue will form the core of the Great Ape Debate to be held at the Linnean Society in London on Thursday when conservationists will argue over the growing controversy surrounding measures to save the orang-utan. At stake is the survival of one of humanity’s closest evolutionary cousins, a creature whose numbers are now plummeting alarmingly. In Sumatra there are only 7,000 individuals of the species, Pongo abelii, which is now “critically endangered”, while in Borneo, there are 40,000 members of the Pongo pygmaeus species. Its status is “endangered”.

All great apes – chimpanzees, gorillas and orang-utans – are suffering from dramatic declines in numbers. Chimps and gorillas are victims of several forms of human activity, including their hunting for bushmeat. However, the orang-utan is affected by a single threat: habitat loss. Across Borneo and Sumatra, swaths of rainforest are being chopped down for wood and to provide land for farmers wishing to plant oil palm and acacia trees (for wood pulp). More than 1% of this forest is destroyed every year.

For orang-utans, the impact is devastating. Driven from their rainforests, adults are often shot by loggers or farmers when they stray into fields. Young orang-utans – who accompany their mothers until they reach the age of seven – are often caught and kept by villagers before being taken to a refuge.

Conservationists estimate that there are at least 800 orang-utans, most of them young, living in refuges in Borneo and Sumatra. Mary Tibbett, of the World Land Trust, said her group was committed to protecting orang-utan communities and was attempting to buy land around the Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary in Borneo to provide homes for them. “Reintroductions sound fine but carry risks: of bringing in diseases that orang-utans have picked up from humans or letting loose animals who simply do not have the skills to look after themselves in the wild,” she added.

But David Chivers warned that, in the long term, keeping orphaned animals in refuges could harm wild populations. “Keeping hundreds of animals in refuges, separated from wild animals, means you are isolating a large chunk of the orang-utan gene pool. That is ultimately harmful to the species. We need to reintroduce these animals.”

Most experts now believe that by the year 2020 there may be so few animals left in the wild that populations there will no longer be viable. Hence the emphasis placed by organisations such as the Orangutan Foundation on protecting rainforests at all costs. However, Leiman added that she did accept orang-utan refuges had helped the overall plight of the species in one way. “The animals here have got used to humans and will often play at ground level, sometimes with their babies. Until we had these refuges, neither scientists nor tourists could see very much of orang-utans because, in the wild, they spend their lives in tree-tops. We didn’t realise how intelligent they were.”

At the Lamandau Wildlife Reserve in Borneo, some orang-utans have revealed themselves to be startlingly intelligent performers. “They can pick any lock you give them and can copy the refuge’s carpenters by banging nails into bits of wood with hammers,” added Leiman. “They even imitate the way the carpenters hold their nails in their mouths.”

The discovery that orang-utans are sharp social observers has come as a surprise to many experts. While chimps and gorillas are relatively gregarious, orang-utans live isolated lives and were not thought to have any social prowess. But recently scientists have found that orang-utans have their own cultures. For example, some groups have developed special techniques for using leaves to scoop ants from nests, others for using twigs to get honey from bees’ nests. “These cultures are important for orang-utan survival,” added Leiman. “However, if we allow our rainforests to be destroyed those cultures will be lost. Refuges won’t help.

“This crisis has arisen because we have failed to protect the orang-utan for the past three decades. Rehabilitation will not save them now. We must do everything to protect them in the wild.”

Watch the debate on

Violet gets ready for forest freedom

Violet the orang-utan was 18 months old when her mother was shot by loggers in Borneo, in May 2004. She was found by local villagers who kept Violet for several months before volunteers working for the Orang-utan Foundation brought her to their refuge at Lemandau. Several hundred orang-utans, some only a few months old, are kept at the centre. Originally built to provide homes for around 150 animals, there are now more than 350 living there. “We are being swamped,” said Ashley Leiman.

Once at the refuge, a young orang-utan is kept in quarantine – diseases such as hepatitis and diarrhoea are particular problems for the species – for a few weeks before they are allowed to have contact with other animals. Violet (seen here with one of the centre’s volunteer carers) has now spent almost five years at the refuge and is approaching her seventh birthday, an age when orang-utans in the wild leave their mothers and fend for themselves.

To prepare Violet for a release into the wild, carers have been taking her and other orang-utan youngsters for forest training every day for the past few years. Each animal is looked after by an individual carer who tries to sharpen its survival skills. Bananas are hidden on tree branches, for example, so that youngsters have to learn to search for themselves.

Apart from the problem of habitat loss triggered by the clearing of plantations for oil palm and acacia plantations, forest fires have devastated the territories of hundreds of Borneo’s and Sumatra’s orang-utans and piled further pressure on the refuges which care for orphaned creatures. These currently provide homes for more than 800 apes, it is estimated.

“We are now stretched and are running up a backlog of animals that we are trying to prepare for release into the wild,” added Leiman.


How Can You Help

There are lots of ways you can support orangutans and help ensure the survival of this precious ape.

Adopt an Orangutan

Adopt an Orangutan

Orangutans are endangered and at risk of extinction. Habitat destruction results in hundreds of orphaned orangutans, who rely on our care every year. You can help by adopting one. Their dedicated ‘nannies’ teach them everything they need to know for when it’s time to release them back to the wild. You can follow their progress through Forest School.

Adopt Now
Make a Donation

Make a Donation

Please help the Orangutans in their struggle for survival. Your donation is important and goes directly to BOS Indonesia. By donating, you are helping bring this noble yet endangered species back from the brink of extinction and on a path to freedom - from rescue to rehabilitation and release.

Donate Now
Visit Our Shop

Visit Our Shop

The perfect gift for any occasion! Choose from our selection of instant gifts that directly support our orangutans. You can buy a wheelbarrow, provide food for an orangutan for two months or lots more. You will receive a certificate, personalised with the name of your choice - perfect gift for you or a friend.

Shop Now