A battle has broken out between conservationists over attempts to save the orangutan. 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 1,000 orangutans.
“It is a simple matter of welfare,” Cambridge biologist David Chivers said.
“We are keeping these animals in artificial environments, in enclosures. Their rehabilitation should not be sneered at,” Chivers said.
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 orangutan.
At stake is the survival of one of humanity’s closest evolutionary cousins, a creature whose numbers are plummeting alarmingly. In Sumatra there are only 7,000 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 orangutans — 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. More than 1 percent of the forest is destroyed every year.
For orangutans, the impact is devastating. Driven from their rainforests, adults are often shot by loggers or farmers when they stray into fields.
Young orangutans are often caught by villagers and taken to a refuge.
Conservationists estimate that there are at least 800 orangutans, 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 orangutan communities and was attempting to buy up land around the Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary in Borneo to provide homes for them.
“Reintroductions sound fine but carry risks of bringing in diseases that orangutans have picked up from humans or letting loose animals who simply do not have the skills to look after themselves in the wild,” she said.
But Chivers said 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 orangutan gene pool. That is ultimately harmful to the species. We need to reintroduce these animals,” he said.