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SUMATRA ORANGUTAN POPULATION IS TWICE AS LARGE AS PREVIOUSLY THOUGHT – BUT THE THREAT TO THE SPECIES IS BIGGER THAN IT EVER WAS The result of a groundbreaking new study shows: The population of the Sumatra orangutan is twice as large as previously thought but still, the threat to the species is bigger than it ever was. Full view


The news already spread around the world: The new study conducted by the SOCP team around Ian Singleton and Serge Wich shows that over 14’000 orangutans – a highly endangered species – live on Sumatra. This number is twice as high as previously thought. However, this does not mean that the population has increased or their habitat has  grown. The new number is merely a result of a more detailed analysis and more exact data compared to the count in 2004. Back then the estimate for the number of orangutans stood at around 6’600 animals.

A few days ago, the research team that is part of the Sumatra Orangutan Protection Program (SOCP) together with other researchers published a groundbreaking study in the renowned science magazine Science Advanced. Among other things it shows that the population of orangutans is twice as large as previously thought. The authors estimate the population to stand at over 14’000 animals – so far it was thought to consist of only around 6’600 animals.

Dr. Ian Singleton, the head of the SOCP, stresses that the study should by no means be misinterpreted: Neither has the size of the population increased, nor has their habitat grown. Rather, the size of their habitat was previously strongly underestimated. New technology, like for example drones, make it possible for reseachers to count orangutan nests from the air in remote areas. Thus, in the latest count orangutans were also discovered in degraded forests and for example to the west of Lake Toba. This happened contrary to previous expectations. It is particularly exciting that orangutan populations were also discovered in very high regions of up to 1’500 metres above sea level. Until now, the assumption was that oranguntans can only be found in lowland rainforests no higher than 900 metres above sea level. It is as yet unclear whether the animals were pushed there by the ongoing destruction of the rainforest or if they always lived there. Dr. Ian Singleton, Head of SOCP and co-author of the study, stresses the strong threat to the orangutansand to their habitat:

«We see huge areas of forests being cleared in Sumatran orangutan habitat every year. We also see numerous roads being cut through the forests opening up even greater access to new agricultural expansion, settlements and other encroachment. Furthermore, our own orangutan quarantine centre in North Sumatra receives around 25 to 30 confiscated illegal pets every year as well. For each one of those that arrives there are almost certainly others that didn’t make it that far, and for every one of them their mother was killed during capture. Add to that the numbers of males killed each year and we’re already losing at least 100 or so orangutans each year, that are deliberately killed by people. Then factor in all those that die of starvation and malnutrition as their habitat is increasingly taken away from them, and they’re forced to try and survive in ever smaller and more impoverished patches of forest, and we’re probably talking several hundred, if not thousands being lost each year.»

While there are more orangutans then previously thought, today the species is under threat as it was never before- especially as a result of the ongoing destruction of the rainforest, the killings of orangutans and the trade in young animals. A scenario included in the study shows that until 2013 around 33 % of the remaining orangutans will die due to the loss of their habitat alone. How many more orangutans will fall victim to poachers or illigal trade remains in the dark. Today, 90% of the remaining orangutans live in the Leuser ecosystem – a rainforest area of 26’000 square kilometre in the north of Sumatra which is protected by strict indonesian laws. As a result of a new spatial planning law in the Aceh province which ignores the national nature protection laws the last bastion of the orangutans is under a severe threat. According to this spatial planning law large areas of the Leuser ecosystem are supposed to be allocated for new palm oil plantations and road building projects.

Our SOCP team work with all their heart for a better proctection of the orangutans and the rainforests in which they live. This is extremely important because the survival of the species is not dependent of the number of animals but on the long-term preservation of their habitat as Dr. Ian Singleton stresses:

«By far the simplest and most cost effective way to prevent the extinction of the Sumatran orangutan is to fully protect the Leuser Ecosystem. Aside from its orangutans the Leuser Ecosystem represents the only real hope for the survival of Sumatran tigers, rhinos, and elephants as well. An intact Leuser Ecosystem is also essential for the livelihoods and long term prosperity of Aceh’s human population too, providing the numerous essential ecosystem services and protection from flash floods and other environmental disasters that it does. To save the Sumatran orangutan we simply have to save the Leuser Ecosystem. Its destruction and the extinction of this and other magnificent species just cannot be allowed to happen!»

>Learn more about our research work and our commitment to preserve the rainforest as a habitat for plants, animals and human beings.

>Read the scientific study in «Science Advances»