Critically Endangered Bornean Orangutans Battle Shrinking Habitats

While the species is protected in Borneo, much of their native range is not.

A Bornean orangutan female and her baby in Indonesia

 Anup Shah / Getty Images

Found on the Indonesian and Malaysian sides of the island of Borneo, the world’s last remaining Bornean orangutans are listed as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Sadly, populations have continued to decrease despite having complete protection within their natural range and placement on Appendix I of the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), due largely to habitat loss.

While the Bornean orangutan as a species is protected in its extant countries, a majority of its range is not. According to the IUCN, about 20% of the orangutan range in Malaysia and 80% in Indonesia are not protected from illegal logging and hunting.

With a current estimated population of just 104,700, the number of Bornean orangutans has declined by over 50% in the past 60 years, while their total habitat has reduced by 55% in the past 20 years. The future of these brilliant and unique animals relies on the conservation of forests throughout Borneo. 

Threats

A young Bornean orangutan in Malaysia
Manoj Shah / Getty Images 

Between 1999 and 2015 alone, experts estimate that over 100,000 Bornean orangutans were lost, the most severe declines occurring in areas in which habitat was removed. These animals are also threatened by illegal hunting and the effects of climate change, such as drought and fires.

Habitat Loss and Fragmentation

Orangutan habitat is mainly affected by forest conversion to other land uses, such as agriculture and infrastructure development. IUCN experts predict that nearly 50,000 square miles of forest in Borneo could be lost by 2050 and upwards of 87,000 square miles by 2080 should the current annual rate of deforestation continue—resulting in the loss of over half of the current orangutan range on the island of Borneo over the next 50 years. Losing the Bornean orangutan would have even further detrimental effects on forest health, as the species plays an important role in seed dispersal as the world’s largest tree-dwelling fruit-eating animal on Earth.

Illegal Hunting

Although orangutan parts still have a market in places like Kalimantan (the Indonesian portion of Borneo), the most considerable demand comes from the illegal pet trade. Young orangutans fetch several hundreds of dollars in local cities and nearby islands, with studies showing that between 200 and 500 orangutans from Indonesian Borneo alone enter the pet trade every year. Considering that these animals are extremely slow breeders—females aren’t sexually mature until about 15 years of age and only give birth every seven to eight years—orangutan communities struggle to repopulate after even the most minimal losses.

The Bornean orangutan is also threatened by conflict with humans, as they are sometimes hunted as a retaliatory measure when they move into agricultural areas and destroy crops while seeking food, especially in the case of palm oil (Indonesia and Malaysia produce 53% and 32% of the world’s palm oil, respectively). More times than not, this happens when orangutans can’t find adequate food sources within the forest.

Fires and Climate Change

Wildfires in Kutai National Park, a jungle conservation area making up about 200,000 hectares and one of East Kalimantan’s last intact forest canopies, ravaged a significant portion of orangutan habitat in 1983. Increasing drought and fires caused by climate change have continued on almost a yearly basis. During another particularly devastating wildfire season over 1997 and 1998 in Kalimantan, an estimated 8,000 individual orangutans were killed. In 2018, over 1.2 million acres of tropical peatlands were burned, and in 2019, another 2.1 million.

While many of these fires are started accidentally, a vast majority of them begin when companies use fire to clear land on the cheap for use in agriculture, habitation, or to transport timber for the logging industry. In 2019, the Center for International Forestry Research found that the palm oil industry was responsible for 39% of forest loss in Borneo between 2000 and 2018. They’re not just burning the forest canopies that support orangutan populations directly, either, but also burning the peatlands underneath them that house some of the world’s largest carbon sinks.

What We Can Do

Large male Bornean orangutan in Indonesia
Aprison Photography / Getty Images

Orangutans represent some of humankind’s closest living relatives (they share about 97% of their genome with us), and they’re also essential to maintaining the health of the forest ecosystems where they live as an umbrella species. Organizations worldwide are working to conserve Bornean orangutan habitat both for the betterment of the animals themselves and for surrounding biodiversity. Factors like wildlife trade monitoring, raising awareness, conducting research, and restoring rainforest habitats will be integral in saving this critically endangered species.

Wildlife Trade Monitoring

Global networks like TRAFFIC work directly with local governments to enforce anti-poaching laws through supporting the wildlife rangers who patrol for illegal hunting and training custom workers to identify wildlife crimes. Organizations like the World Wildlife Fund assist efforts in rescuing captured orangutans from traders and those who would keep them as pets.

The good news is that orangutans are very resilient under the right circumstances—many of the rescued youngsters are taken to wildlife refuges and rehabilitation centers to recover and eventually be released back into the wild. The Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation, for example, has released 478 individual orangutans into safe forested areas (and has recorded 22 wild-born babies among them) since 2012.

Awareness and Research

Bornean orangutan foraging in Malaysia
Thommy Ting / Getty Images

Studies suggest that a startling number of people who live near orangutan habitats don’t even know that the species is protected by law. In Kalimantan, it’s been shown that 27% of locals didn’t realize that the animals were legally protected, a majority of which had lived in the area for over 20 years.

Along with developing plantation methods that don’t interfere with orangutans, efforts to ensure well-managed land use planning will keep developing agricultural areas as far from orangutan habitat as possible.

Likewise, highlighting sustainable ecotourism in Indonesia and Malaysia to support orangutan conservation generates funds for conservation and provides financial benefits to the local economy, which in turn increases residents’ incentive to protect the species.

Protecting and Restoring Habitat

With the exception of mating and raising young, orangutans are solitary animals, meaning they require a lot of space within their range. Strengthening law enforcement in the forests where orangutans live and increasing habitat protection in areas that are vulnerable to illegal land clearing are both essential for the future of the Bornean orangutan.

Researchers and orangutan experts are thinking outside the box, as well. A 2019 IUCN study was able to identify several tree species native to Kutai National Park that are fire resistant and could therefore be planted in buffer zones around orangutan habitat. The researchers for the study hope that these climate-resilient trees could help protect the orangutans living in the park from the impacts of climate change.

Save the Bornean Orangutan: How You Can Help

  • Buy products certified by the Forest Stewardship Council to ensure that the wood has met the highest standard for environmental sustainability. The FSC label means that the trees were not harvested from rainforests where orangutans live but rather from third-party certified forests that are sustainability managed.
  • Palm oil is used in about half of all products found in grocery stores (it can even go by different names), so it can be pretty difficult to avoid. As a result, a number of certification bodies have arisen to trace more sustainable palm oil, such as the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil and the Rainforest Alliance. Consider taking a minimalist approach and decrease your use of products made using palm oil, but if you can’t avoid it, then look for these sustainably certified labels when shopping.
  • Support organizations that help protect Bornean orangutans like the Orangutan Foundation International, which has programs that purchase land in Borneo for the specific purpose of orangutan conservation.