Imagine being in the jungles of Borneo and looking up to see a human-sized nest balanced on a horizontal branch in the jungle canopy. The nest looks more like a mattress with inward bent branches woven together as a base, while leaves and twigs create a softer inner lining. Sitting within the nest, you notice an orange-furred great ape eating a ripe durian, a yellow fruit found in East Asia with a spiky exterior and foul odor. In this case, you would likely be looking at the Bornean orangutan.
Orangutans are highly intelligent apes. Studies have found that groups of orangutans exhibit distinct and unique cultures in which older apes will typically teach younger apes behaviors, such as how to make umbrella-like structures, through social and observational learning. Orangutans are also similar to humans in their genetic code and have been described as one of our closest animal relatives.
Orangutans, though, and the Bornean orangutan in particular, are under threat due to habitat destruction. Land conversion, typically for palm oil plantations, destroy the lush forests orangutans depend on for safety and food. Wildfires are also destroying habitat. Additionally, illegal hunting and trafficking have contributed to the decline of the slow-reproducing orangutan. According to a study published in the journal Current Biology, more than 100,000 orangutans died between 1999 and 2015 due to habitat loss. Since their population has decreased by 25 percent in the last 10 years, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List™ changed the classification of Borneo orangutans to critically endangered.
The orangutans can be rescued … but then what?
Although managing the issue of habitat loss has been difficult, officials have had some success with addressing threats from trafficking. Captive orangutans, a majority of which are under 7 years old, are sometimes confiscated from illegal operations. Many of these rescued orangutans have suffered both physical and psychological damages including feelings of isolation. After rescue, an orangutan is evaluated to determine if it is healthy enough to be released back into the wild or if its injuries necessitate a period of rehabilitation at a facility. If placed into a rehabilitation facility, the orangutan is able to recuperate while data is gathered and analyzed about its behavior.
The ultimate goal of many facilities is to reintroduce the orangutans into the wild once they recover. For orangutan conservation efforts, reintroduction is crucial because it helps re-establish populations in areas where the population has either disappeared or is too small to sustain itself. Recently, reintroduction has come to the forefront of Indonesia’s National Strategy and Action Plan for Indonesian Orangutan Conservation 2007-2017. The plan emphasizes the need to stabilize wild orangutan populations, in particular through orangutan reintroduction.
One organization in particular has demonstrated its commitment to the conservation of orangutans and their habitat: the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation (BOSF). From 2013 to 2015, BOSF began a reintroduction initiative in three districts of East Kalimantan in partnership with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service International Affairs Program. The effort focused on the reintroduction of 27 formerly captive orangutans that had either lost their habitat or were rescued from cages. Although some of the reintroduced orangutans experienced difficulties in re-adapting to the conditions present in the wild, many were able to live a fully independent life 12 months following their release. In some cases, a recently released orangutan observed the behaviors of a previously released orangutan and acquired the necessary survival skills that way.
Contributing to the general success rate of the program, a female orangutan, gave birth to a baby female orangutan in July 2015. The baby was born in the wild, which indicates that the reintroduced orangutans are able to survive and reproduce once they are released. Photo at left by Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation
Through their two rescue centers, BOSF has helped more than 680 orangutans recover. They declared 2017 as the “year of orangutan freedom.” Without their efforts, many of the rescued orangutans would have likely died in poor conditions or been killed. While BOSF’s work and that of similar programs is helping to save the imperiled wild Borneo orangutan population from extinction, the overarching process of recovery of Borneo’s orangutans is far from complete. Reintroduction efforts need to continue, and long-term protections have to be established for the orangutans and their habitat in order to create a self-sustaining wild orangutan population. Proceeds from the Tiger Stamp are making this possible.