Sun, Aug 24, 2014 - Page 9 News List

Time running out for our cousins

As orangutans join a list of the world’s 25 most-endangered primates, scientists are finding that these great apes are more like humans than we thought

By Carole Jahme  /  The Guardian

Illustration: Kevin Sheu

Tuesday last week was International Orangutan Day. This year, it followed hot on the heels of exciting genetic results from Sumatra that were made public at the International Primatological Society’s biannual conference last Sunday, which suggest the discovery of a new species of the ape.

Zurich University researcher Michael Krutzen studied the southernmost population, known as the Batang Toru orangutans, in the Tapanuli region of northern Sumatra.

“From a genetics point of view, we were taken by surprise to see these stark differences compared to other Sumatran orangutan populations further north,” he said. “Our findings highlight the urgent need for special conservation status for the Batang Toru forests.”

Indonesia is home to 59 primate species, of which 35 are found only in Indonesia. However, today about 70 percent of Indonesia’s primate species are threatened with extinction.

The majority of orangutans live in the protected Leuser Ecosystem, but the regional Aceh Government plans to develop the area, which is reportedly rich in minerals.

“We are extremely concerned about this situation. With these new developments, it seems crystal clear the Aceh Government deliberately intends to open up and destroy huge tracts of the Leuser Ecosystem. This will be disastrous for Sumatra’s orangutans and also Sumatra’s other iconic megafauna — the Sumatran rhino, elephant and tiger,” the Orangutan Project’s conservation director Ian Singleton said.

Orangutans have been studied for 200 years, and in 1837 were the first great ape species to be displayed at the London Zoo. Charles Darwin’s observations of Jenny, the zoo’s first captive orangutan, led him to write in The Descent of Man: “Let man visit Ouranoutang in domestication, hear its expressive whine, see its intelligence … as if it understands every word said, see its affection to those it knew, see its passion and rage, sulkiness and very actions of despair; and then let him boast of his proud pre-eminence.”

Due to their gentle nature, orangutans were Hollywood’s favorite ape. However, after years of animal cruelty — when movies such as Every Which Way But Loose were made — the genre came to an end.

Orangutan experts are pleased by motion-capture performances, such as Karin Konoval’s portrayal of Maurice in the new Planet of the Apes movies. Konoval modeled her performance on Towan, the oldest captive male orangutan in the US and a resident of Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, Washington. Primate expert Frans de Waal said her performance was “superb.”

Today’s zoological collections of orangutans, such as that at Chester Zoo in the UK, provide breeding programs, conservation initiatives and captive groups for study.

Despite the declining populations of its subjects, field research on the Bornean (Pongo pygmaeus) and the Sumatran (Pongo abelii) orangutans still yields fascinating data. It has recently been discovered that wild orangutans can make plans for the future. Adult cheek-padded male Sumatran orangutans make a final “long call” before bed. Remarkably, these vocalizations broadcast important information across several kilometers of rainforest, including his intended direction of travel the following day, up until 4pm. Female orangutans need to be aware of this, as it allows those that are sexually receptive to seek him out, confirming that females prefer the locally dominant male (who tends not to rape).

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