Borneo Orang Utan a step from being ‘extinct in the wild’

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KOTA KINABALU: The Orang Utan of Borneo is only one step away from being declared “extinct in the wild”, the precursor to being entirely extinct from the planet.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) announced this week that the Bornean Orang Utan, one of the only two remaining species of the great ape — the closely related Sumatran Orang Utan being the other — is now a “critically endangered” animal.

The IUCN warned in a statement that the numbers of the Orang Utan in the wild are in decline. Apparently, they fell by 60 per cent in the 60 years since 1950, and the organisation predicts a further 22 per cent decline from 2010 to 2025. It said the “sharp decline” is chiefly attributable to “destruction, degradation and fragmentation of their habitats, and hunting.”

Among all great ape species, Orang Utan are the most arboreal. They spend most of their time in trees, and certainly more than all other great apes.

That makes them particularly vulnerable to destruction or degradation of forests.

In Borneo, the third-largest island in the world, shared by Brunei, Indonesia and Malaysia, much of the destruction of their native habitat comes from conversion to plantations and logging.

While the governments of all three countries have declared most of the island’s rainforests protected areas, illegal logging for timber and burning of land to clear it for plantations are both continuing dangers to the Orang Utan’s natural habitat.

According to the latest assessment, about 104,700 individuals of the species are estimated to be still living in the forests of Borneo.

The issue is further complicated by the mating behaviour of the species.

According to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, where Bornean Orang Utan now features, these animals “are very slow breeders and produce on average one offspring every 6 to 8 years.” The slow breeding cycle — among the longest for any land mammal — makes them particularly vulnerable to hunting.

The Sumatran Orang Utan was declared “critically endangered” in 2008.

However, Andrew Marshall, one of the authors of the recent assessment, does not think the Orang Utan will necessarily go down the extinction road.

He believes the species was more adaptable than previously thought, and that if commitments to prevent further degradation of their habitat are properly enforced, their numbers could improve. “Although I think things will likely get worse before they get better, it’s not too late for the Orang Utan,” said Marshall.

Orang Utan and human beings share approximately 97 per cent of their DNA make-up. They are a highly intelligent species, one of the smartest among primates.

A study conducted by the Leipzig Zoo in Germany in 2008 showed the Orang Utan were capable of analyzing the benefits and costs of exchanging gifts, and also of keeping track of them over time, making them the first non-human species that has been observed doing so.

They can also use tools and use a variety of sounds to communicate.