Losing the Orangutan

There are only about 20,000 orangutans left in the world, and their numbers are dwindling rapidly. The Sumatran Orangutan Society suggests that the animals may be extinct in the wild within 10 years. The "man of the woods" once spread across Southeast Asia, but is now limited to the islands of Borneo and Sumatra. The orangutan’s chances of survival are hindered by the growing global market for timber and agricultural products, which have driven loggers and plantation owners to rapidly eradicate the apes" forest habitat (see "Connecting the Dots," Features, November/December 2004).

At the current rate of loss, orangutans may be extinct in the wild by 2015.

The illegal pet trade also threatens the orangutan’s future. According to the Balikpapan Orangutan Society, "It is estimated that four to five orangutans are killed for every baby reaching the market." As many as 100 orangutan babies are sold as pets in Indonesia each year. A typical orangutan female gives birth only once every seven to eight years, making any population increase a challenge.

It’s not completely hopeless. Willie Smit of the Balikpapan Orangutan Survival Foundation has also set up the Wanariset Orangutan Reintroduction Center, which houses orangutans recovered from the illegal trade and helps reintroduce them to the wild.