A new study led by the University of Queensland (UQ) in Australia suggests that despite significant conservation endeavors, the illicit hunting of the critically endangered orangutans in Borneo might persistently endanger the species.
Emily Massingham, a PhD student at UQ’s Faculty of Science, led a team of researchers that embarked on a journey across the Bornean orangutan habitat in Kalimantan, visiting 79 villages and engaging in one-on-one discussions with a total of 431 individuals.
“Our study builds on previous research which indicated killing was one of the key reasons for orangutan population decline, alongside habitat loss,” Massingham said.
The primary objectives of their investigation were to ascertain the recent occurrences of orangutan killings, evaluate the efficacy of conservation initiatives in mitigating these killings, and understand the local community’s perspective and the reasons driving such actions.
“It has been almost 15 years since the previous study, and we did not find a clear decrease in killings despite Indonesia’s commendable efforts to reduce habitat loss,” she reported.
Disturbingly, a significant 30 percent of the visited villages reported instances of orangutan killings within the last five to 10 years. According to Massingham, these activities are both “illegal and taboo,” making it challenging to gauge their full extent accurately.
Highlighting the alarming decline in the orangutan population, Massingham argued that the numbers had plummeted by approximately 100,000 in recent times, with fewer than 100,000 of these creatures surviving in the wild.
“Our findings did not indicate that conservation projects are reducing killing, highlighting an urgent need to improve the collective approach to orangutan conservation,” she added.
One of the central concerns raised by the scientists is the species’ intrinsic vulnerability. Given their long life expectancy and slow reproductive rate, the death of mature apes can severely impede population growth.
“Our interviews revealed some of the situations which lead to the killing or displacement of individual orangutans,” she said. “They include protecting crops and taking infant apes to keep as pets.”
To combat these challenges, the researchers provided several suggestions to bolster conservation efforts.
“Working with communities and collaborating across disciplines and projects will be key,” Massingham said. “Conservationists need to work closely with individual villages to understand their needs and perspectives, identify the social drivers of killing of orangutans and implement solutions that reduce human-orangutan conflict.”
The study – published in the journal Conservation Science and Practice – benefited from the involvement of a regional social development entity that aided in fieldwork facilitation.
Orangutans are one of the world’s most endangered primates and are found only in the rainforests of Borneo and Sumatra.
The Bornean orangutan (Pongo pygmaeus) is one of the three species of orangutans. The other two are the Sumatran (Pongo abelii) and the Tapanuli orangutan (Pongo tapanuliensis), which is found only in a specific region of Sumatra.
In Borneo, orangutans are distributed in fragmented forests mainly in the Indonesian provinces of Kalimantan and the Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak.
The population of Bornean orangutans has declined significantly due to deforestation, habitat loss, hunting, and the pet trade.
Various organizations and governments are working on conservation projects to protect the orangutans and their habitats.
Facilities like the Sepilok Rehabilitation Centre in Sabah and the Samboja Lestari Rehabilitation Center in East Kalimantan work to rehabilitate and reintroduce rescued orangutans back into the wild.
Ecotourism, when practiced responsibly, can be a tool for orangutan conservation. Tourists are educated about the importance of conserving the species and their habitats. The revenue generated can be reinvested into conservation projects.
Bornean orangutans are semi-solitary creatures. Adult males are particularly solitary, while females live with their offspring. They are known for their intelligence and have been observed using tools in the wild.
Orangutans are primarily frugivores, meaning they consume mainly fruits. However, they also eat leaves, bark, insects, and, occasionally, smaller vertebrates.
Female orangutans have a long inter-birth interval, only reproducing every 6-8 years, which is one reason why their populations are slow to recover from declines.
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