Finding a new population of any species is good news in conservation. But finding a hitherto undiscovered population of orangutans (see one in the video above) is really exciting. And we did just that.
In December 2008, we found a significant population of Bornean orangutans. This is some welcome news on a generally gloomy conservation agenda.
Orangutans are among the rarest primates on Earth. Populations are plummeting under the various pressures on their forest habitats. An increasing demand for timber, palm oil, coal and other things desired by the world’s growing human population makes life for orangutans very difficult these days.
So, we all got pretty excited when our field team came back from a survey in a really inaccessible part of Borneo with photos and videos of orangutans. They had traveled to the heart of a 2-million-acre forest area situated in the rugged Sangkulirang limestone mountains in East Kalimantan Province.
Since I first surveyed the vicinity of these mountains in the mid 1990s, I had heard rumors of orangutans in this largely unexplored part of the island. In 2003, The Nature Conservancy organized a major expedition to this same region, and confirmed that at least on the western fringes of the area there were orangutans. But we didn’t expect any significant orangutan populations further east.
Our recent preliminary survey seems to have proven us wrong. Along some six miles of forest transect we found 219 orangutan nests. We cannot yet determine the density from this, but such number generally indicates medium densities of orangutans.
A rapid botanical analysis showed the presence of several orangutan food trees. And because we know that there are very few people in this area and that the forest remains largely untouched, it is quite likely that this area has a population of several hundred orangutans, possibly more than a thousand.
On a total population on Borneo of probably fewer than 50,000 animals, such a find is really important.
The next steps are to work with the local governments to protect these crucial orangutan habitats, and keep orangutan populations from declining further.
The Conservancy is working closely with Indonesian and international partners, including 18 local NGOs, the Indonesian Orangutan Forum, the USAID-funded Orangutan Conservation Services Program, and the Indonesian government, industries, and local communities to develop and implement more coherent and effective strategies to reverse the rapid decline of orangutans.
It’s a struggle, but one that we cannot afford to lose.
(Video: Male orangutan encountered in the Sangkulirang limestone forests. Credit: Nardiyono/TNC.)