Rare Population of Sumatran Orangutans Could Be Wiped Out in Weeks

Indonesia's Tripa swamp forest has long served as a critical habitat for one of the world's rarest primates, Sumatran orangutans -- but conservationists warn that by year's end, the endangered species there could be wiped out entirely.

From an estimated population of 3,000 just decades ago, there are now believed to be as few as 200 orangutans living in the wilds of Tripa, and those that remain are under increasing threat. Years of forest clearing and the encroachment of palm oil plantations into the protected swamp forest, and more recently devastating fires and drought, has reduced the available habitat of Tripa's orangutans by as much as 80 percent. Yet despite calls for protection of this crucial ecosystem, conservationists fear it will soon become uninhabitable for the 200 critically endangered primates still clinging to life there.

In an interview with the Associated Press, Ian Singleton of the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Program warns that the Tripa forest could be orangutan-free in a matter of weeks:

"It is no longer several years away, but just a few months or even weeks before this iconic creature disappears," he said. "We are currently watching a global tragedy."

He described those kept illegally as pets as the "lucky" ones but said they will be refugees from a forest that no longer exists.

Although the loss of Tripa's few remaining wild orangutans would reduce the species population by just 200 out of an estimated 6,400 individuals, it has troubling implications for the entire species scattered throughout the forests of Sumatra. While Indonesia has set aside several conservation zones for the orangutans, many still live regions unprotected from agricultural expansion.

Sumatran orangutans aren't the only native species under threat from habitat loss, which has claimed nearly half of the island's forest cover since the mid-1980s. Conservationists have painted a similarly bleak future for Sumatran rhinos, Sumatran tigers, and Sumatran elephants.

Tags: Endangered Species