An eye on the future for orangutans

Orangutans and other apes are threatened by forest fires, illegal logging and poaching of their babies to supply an illicit pet trade

REUTERS , Sepilok, Malaysia

Mon, Jan 26, 2004 - Page 12

In great ape terms, nine-month-old orangutan orphan CT could consider herself lucky.

The furry orange ball's arrival at Malaysia's main orangutan center last month, after a plantation owner tipped off staff about her fate, makes her future prospects quite bright.

Her kin and other great ape species are not so fortunate.

Sepilok has a strong record of rehabilitating its charges to the wild. It sits in Sabah state, the part of orangutan territory probably least likely to be destroyed.

But orangutans elsewhere in Borneo and in Sumatra face a grave risk of extinction while their close African cousins gorillas, chimpanzees and bonobos are in danger everywhere.

Orangutans' main problems are forest fires, illegal logging and poaching of their babies to supply an illicit pet trade.

Habitat loss threatens the other great apes across central and western Africa, which also face being killed for their meat.

Adopted as "flagship species" by conservationists, along with animals such as rhinos and giant pandas, great apes have assumed the role of high-level envoys in extinction diplomacy.

For orangutans, that means symbolizing efforts to protect Southeast Asia's rainforests and other habitats, according to Geoffrey Davison, WWF Malaysia's Borneo Program Director.

"If orangutans are conserved, then other wildlife will be saved alongside them," he says.

Such issues feature high on the agenda for a meeting from Feb. 9 to Feb. 20 in Kuala Lumpur, where government officials from around the world will discuss how to slow global species loss.

Beefing up protected areas is one of the priorities of the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity, the broad aim of which is to achieve a "significant" drop in the rate of species extinctions by 2010.

While scientists wrestle with exactly how many species exist and how fast they are vanishing -- no one really knows -- other groups are busy with projects on the ground.

Data on apes, though patchy, was alarming enough to prompt the United Nations Environment Program to launch its great apes survival project (GRASP) in May 2001.

The accepted estimate for orangutan populations has now risen to 40,000-plus after a workshop in Jakarta this month increased it from a previous figure of around 30,000.

Sabah hosts maybe a quarter of them, although most live outside protected areas, increasing their vulnerability.

Of the Africans, chimps are most numerous at around 100,000 while bonobos are anywhere between 30,000 and 50,000. Gorillas number somewhere between the two, but spread across several subspecies with some reduced to just a few hundred animals.

GRASP's plan is to be a focus for non-governmental organizations (NGOs) working on great apes and to act as a diplomatic channel between ape-range governments and major donors.

It hopes to repeat the 1990s success of a similar effort to help halt the plunge in African black rhino populations.

"There's 30 or 40 NGOs and a whole bunch of scientists and other researchers working on great apes. It helps to make sure we don't duplicate efforts," says Matthew Woods, a technical coordinator for GRASP in Nairobi.

Its work includes reconciling different ape campaigners' goals, from those wanting quasi-human-rights standards of protection to others supporting sustainable culling for food.

GRASP has run workshops in four of the 23 states with great apes, producing national action plans each time, and aims to hold more across the other states.

The Jakarta orangutan meeting, although not a GRASP event, did much the same for Indonesia and Malaysia, and spread word of a previously unknown population of a few thousand animals in Borneo's Kalimantan.

Ashley Leiman, director of the Orangutan Foundation's UK office, said the finding was welcome but not the critical issue.

"It's not how many orangutans there are right now, we have to look at the trend," she said, citing a projection that just 1 percent of the Asian ape's habitat would remain by 2030.

That put projects like Sepilok, albeit with a proud 40 years of successfully returning distressed and orphaned animals to the wild, further down the list of priorities.

"Rehabilitation is very much a welfare issue. Putting them back in the wild isn't anywhere near as important as saving the wild population," she said from the Jakarta meeting sidelines.

Cede Prudente, a Sabah photographer and former wildlife guide, knows what Leiman's talking about, having recently visited Gunung Palung National Park in Indonesia's West Kalimantan.

"We were filming here and there was, about 200m behind us, a chain saw rattling. I could not believe that could happen in a national park," he said, visibly saddened by his memories of watching one of mankind's closest relatives in distress.

"You could tell from their faces they are losing hope. They know there's disturbance, they know there are chain saws, they can hear. They are very intelligent animals."