ORANG-UTAN forest,” and it is one of thousands

ORANG-UTAN

The
only great ape that lives on the Asian continent, the orangutan is found on the
Malaysian islands of Borneo and Sumatra. Its name means “man of the forest,”
and it is one of thousands of species of wildlife that live in tropical Asian forests.

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There are two distinct species and both of them are
threatened animals according to the IUCN red list categories. The two species
are known as Bornean Orang-utan (Endangered) and Sumatran Orang-utan
(Critically Endangered). In addition to the IUCN categorizations, Orang-utan is
listed in the Appendix 1 of the CITES (Convention on International Trade of
Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora). The characteristics of these large
arboreal animals have long arms, which are long as twice as the legs or hind
limbs. Although they are arboreal animals, they can walk on the ground in an
upright posture, and it measures 1.2 – 1.5 metres when an Orang-utan stands on
feet.

 

Their body weights range from 33 to 80 kilograms, but their
males are heavier than 110 kilograms. Their large head with a characteristic
face profile makes them be unique among all animals. Orang-utans have long
hairs that are uniquely coloured in reddish brown all over the body except on
the face and palms.

They are amongst the most intelligent primates, and their
sophisticated tool using behaviours have proven that. Orang-utans are mostly
fruit eating animals with a sort of specialized diet, but omnivorous feeding
behaviours are also present according to the availability. Altogether, these
solitary animals have bulky body equipped with long and strong arms, bowed
legs, and a thick neck. Interestingly, Orang-utans do not have a tail, despite
being an arboreal animal. They averagely live about 35 years in wild and it
could extend up to 60 years in captivity.

The
orangutan’s story is similar to that of a large number of Asian animals: its
forest habitat is being rapidly destroyed by conversion to agriculture, both by
large commercial plantations and smaller subsistence farms. At the same time,
humans are killing the orang’s prey species (birds and small mammals) for food
and capturing it for the pet trade.

There
are an estimated 30,000 orangutans left
in the wild, about 20,000 on Borneo and under 10,000 on Sumatra. Scientists are
uncertain whether all orangutans are
one species, or whether the Sumatran and Bornean populations have become so
isolated from each other that they are two subspecies.

Orangutans spend most of their lives
alone. The males are very territorial, and each male’s territory overlaps those
of several females. Because orangutans do
not tolerate each other very well, they need large areas of forest to survive.
Crowding causes them to fight among themselves, possibly over the limited
supply of fruit.

 

CAUSES OF ENDANGERMENT

 

Habitat Loss

The orangutan’s forest habitat is
being cleared for agriculture. Oil palm plantations are taking over more and
more of the landscape. One plantation can be 100,000 to 300,000 hectares. World
development banks provide money to help create many of the oil palm
plantations, in an effort to improve the local economy.

Most
of the lowland forest on Borneo and Sumatra is gone, and orangutans and other forest
species are being forced into higher elevation forests. These forests are not
as productive as lowland forests and can not support the same density of
animals.

Borneo
and Sumatra are rich in oil and gas, so it would seem that the island people
and local governments could make money without having to log their forests.
However, the national government of Malaysia keeps 95 per cent of the revenue
from oil and gas sales, so the local government must raise funds some other
way. The local government raises revenue by logging the forests and by farming.

Researchers
have found that logging creates major problems for orangutans, other than destroying
older forest habitat. In fact, secondary forest grows rapidly after the older
forest has been logged, and orangutans are
able to adapt to this younger forest habitat.

The
bigger problem is that logging companies do not provide food for their workers.
Hundreds of loggers are employed to cut down a particular area of forest, and
they have to find food for themselves. The loggers, along with settlers who
establish communities in the forest, hunt orangs, birds, and small mammals the
orangs eat.

Pet Trade

Logging
brings another problem for the orangutans:
logging roads make forests more accessible. Poachers come into the forest on
logging roads, shoot mother orangutans, and capture the babies. Baby orangutans are very desirable
as pets in Asia. A few years ago, a Taiwanese television show featured a baby
orang as a pet. Suddenly, demand for orangs shot up.

Up
to 2,000 baby orangutans were
captured and shipped to Taiwan for the pet trade. Researchers estimate that
over 6,000 mothers were killed and 4,000 captured babies died to supply the
2,000 pets, since only about one-third of those captured survive.

 

CONSERVATION PROJECT

 

Protected Areas

Both
Borneo and Sumatra have established reserves for orangutans and other imperiled
forest species. The reserves are separated from each other by rivers,
mountains, and settlements. Scientists do not know whether the reserves can
support viable populations, or even how many orangutans live
in each reserve.

 

Rehabilitation of Pet Orangutans

When
baby orangutans grow
up, they become difficult pets, and owners often ask officials to take them
away. Many orangutans raised
as pets suffer from disease, and they are not suited to living in the wild.
Some can be taught to live in the wild, but rehabilitation is a long and
expensive process.

It
is also very expensive to keep former pet orangutans in rehabilitation centers, especially
since many never learn to live in the wild and must be kept in a center their
whole lives. The Malaysian government does not have enough money to run these
centers. Conservation groups from other countries are helping out.

 

KINABATANGAN
ORANGUTAN CONSERVATION PROJECT (KOCP)

KOCP was set up in 1998 by HUTAN in
collaboration with Sabah Wildlife Department. The goal of the project is to
achieve long-tern viability of Orangutan population in Sabah. The project’s
objective is to restore harmonious relationship between people and the
Orangutan, which in turn will support local socio-economic development
compatible with habitat and wildlife conservation.

 

GOAL
AND OBJECTIVES

The goals are to focus on finding
realistic solutions to enhance the orangutan prospects of long-term survival.
The project started in 1998 in the Lower Kinabatangan region in eastern Sabah,
conducted by Hutan, a French non-governmental organization (NGO). The project
studies the impact of habitat alteration on orangutan socioecology, and aims at
finding ways to achieve long-term survival of orangutan populations in
exploited areas, especially within and around the proposed Kinabatangan Wildlife
Sanctuary. This implies the development of solid collaborations with the
various stakeholders in the region, namely the local communities and
agriculture, government agencies and Malaysian NGOs such as the World Wildlife
Fund-Malaysia (WWF-Malaysia). This also an opportunity of collaboration with
Malaysian conservation professionals to manage wildlife resources and develop
public awareness for orangutan preservation needs.

 

KINABATANGAN
TERRESTIAL CONDITIONS

 

Kinabatangan in eastern Sabah is one of
the few remaining wetlands in Southeast Asia. This condition is a patchwork of
different habitat types like riverine forest, flooded and swamp forest, estuary
nipa and mangrove. The whole Kinabatangan region harbors remarkably high
concentrations of Wildlife species. It is home to 10 primate species, including
one of the largest orangutan populations in Malaysia, proboscis monkeys,
elephants, estuarine crocodiles and many rare bird species. In 1980s, the total
orangutan population in the Lower Kinabatangan was estimated at around 1000
individuals. Because of their unique richness and biodiversity, the remaining
forests of the region are in the process of being gazette as wildlife
sanctuary. The Lower Kinabatangan region in eastern Sabah, harboring both
abundant wildlife and rapidly developing human activities, constitutes an
excellent model to study the relationship between orangutans and disturbed
habitat.

 

THE
FIVE PROJECT COMPONENTS

Orangutan Eco-Ethology in Degraded
Forests

Fine eco-ethological observations of habituated
orangutans are conducted at a 6-square-kilometers intensive study site setup in
logged-over mixed lowland dipterocarp forest, close to the village of Sukau.
Observations are carried out by a team of 10 local research assistants, who
will eventually be accompanied by university students. Orangutan individuals
are followed from dawn to dusk, seven days a week and data are collected on
diet composition, activity budgets, ranging patterns and social behavior. In
1999 only, a total of 20 individual orangutans have been identified within the
study site and over 2000 hectares were directly observed. The average
proportion of time spent observing wild orangutans compared to the total time
spent in the forest reaches 50%, which is very high compared to other orangutan
projects. In March 1999, a “botanical
team” was formed, consisting of five local field assistants with a good
knowledge of the local flora. They are intensively trained by the Forest
Research Center (Sabah Forestry Department). This botanical team assists the
orangutan team with plant identification and describes vegetation structure and
composition in the degraded forests of the Kinabatangan. This team started a
detailed study of seasonal orangutan food sources availability in the Sukau
study site. The orangutan eco-ethological data obtained so far only cover one
year, and longer term observations are needed to fully understand orangutan
ecology in degraded habitats, but a few interesting patterns have already
emerged. Unlike in primary forest where fruiting and leaf production are more
or less periodic, the abundance of pioneer and climber species within degraded
habitats results in a fairly constant food production and availability
throughout the year. Some tree species producing huge quantities of fruits
twice a year or throughout the year are more common in degraded habitat than in
primary forest. At the Sukau study site, orangutans ate mainly fruits which are
60% of their diet, 28.5% leaves and 12.5% bark. A total of 180 species of
plants eaten by orang-utans have been identified, which is much higher than
what has been described at primary forest sites. These findings suggest a high
dietary flexibility of the orang-utans, allowing them to live in heavily logged
forests by converting to a different diet dominated by a few keystones fruit
species, and substituting a variety of leaves and barks. Orang-utan densities
at site are much higher than in undisturbed habitat. This greatly contrasts to
what is known about the social structure of wild orangutan populations in
undisturbed forests, where adult males have distinct home ranges and are
totally intolerant of each other. The high density of orangutans at the Sukau
study site is probably partly due to recent habitat loss and consecutive
concentration in the remaining forests. On the other hand, all of studied
animals appeared in good physical health, and the proportions of infants and
juveniles was similar to those observed in primary forests. The normal breeding
rate of this population tends to indicate that the animals are not under
physiological stress in the degraded habitats of the Lower Kinabatangan. As
mentioned above, the distribution in space and in time of orangutan food
sources in degraded forests greatly differs from primary forests. This factor
is likely to affect orangutan seasonal movements and therefore impact the
social structure and organization. In 2000, the University of Cardiff, the
University Sabah, Malaysia, and the Sabah Wildlife Department will start a
detailed study of the genetic structure of the orangutan population in the
Sukau study site. This will greatly help to understand its social and mating
system.

 

Management of the Kinabatangan Orang-utan
Population

This project component aims at
assisting the Sabah Wildlife Department in their effort to develop a management
strategy for orangutan populations outside of pristine reserves. There are
actually only two such reserves in Sabah with possibly viable wild populations
and the vast majority of orangutans are found in exploited areas and
multiple-use forests. This project in the Kinabatangan area will serve as a
model for these populations subject to habitat degradation and fragmentation.
With this objective, three main issues have been addressed:

Assess the current orang-utan
abundance, distribution and status. Assess orang-utan/human conflicts and
experiment with realistic solution. Assist the Sabah Wildlife Department to
clearly identify major conservation priorities for the Kinabatangan orang-utan
population and to design and implement sound management measures.

 

Awareness Campaign for Orang-utan Preservation
Needs.

Although unique, the
orang-utan is a surprisingly little-known animal in Malaysia. Eastern Sabah,
which is home to the orang-utan, is wrongly still viewed as a wild region with
endless pristine jungles. Among most representatives of government agencies,
local industries, communities, and the general public, no one seems to have the
idea that the orang-utan is a seriously endangered species, and that the
Kinabatangan orang-utan population is certainly one of the most significant in
the world. Various activities to raise awareness on orangutan preservation
needs are strongly needed. A series of lectures and seminars involving
government agencies, local industries and communities, and the general public
are regularly organized, as are dialogue sessions in all the villages of the
Kinabatangan. Finally, an education programme for all the schools of the
Kinabatangan region may start soon, involving classroom and field activities.

 

Capacity Building for Sabahan Conservation
Professionals

Training includes field
research techniques (etho-ecology and botany), interview survey techniques,
English language, use of computer preparing reports, project administration and
management, photography, and lectures by visiting scientists and conservation
professionals. Students will become much more aware of the current
environmental and political problems, and will eager to participate in the
design and implementation of efficient solutions. Moreover, they can act as
ambassadors for environmental and wildlife preservation in other villages of
the Kinabatangan.

Local Community Development Compatible with
Habitat and Wildlife Conservation

Local communities in the
Kinabatangan are now faced with the challenge of finding innovative ways of
adapting to deep changes. Indeed, people who live in the area traditionally
rely on local natural resources. However increasing pollution of the river
through the use of pesticides and fertilizers and clearing of the forests
deprive local communities of their main means of subsistence. Moreover, these
important land-use changes have forced displaced wildlife to increasingly rely
on human food sources. Throughout the whole region, orang-utans seem more and more
often regarded as pests, and are directly threatened by drastic crop protection
measures from crop owners. A recurrent question among villagers regarding the
gazettement of the Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary is “Why give land to the
monkeys, while we do not have enough forests ourselves to find the wood to
build our houses and hunt our food?” This is innovative solutions was searched
to restore more harmonious relationships between the local communities and the
orang-utans, and to find ways in which tangible, sustainable benefits to local
communities can be associated with wildlife conservation. A special team has
been created within our project to work with the Kinabatangan communities with
three main types of activities. Firstly, this team works to solve orang-utan
conflicts with local communities, notably with the pilot project to integrate
agriculture and orangutan conservation in the village of Sukau. Another
objective is to act as a facilitator to initiate community-based enterprises
sustainably using natural resources to produce marketable products. This
includes creation of a village cooperative to farm freshwater fish and raise
cattle in the pilot project of the Sukau orchard, development of a vegetable
planting program for the village women, development of community-based
ecotourism, use of forest produces for handicrafts and use of other nonwood
products. The community team is trying to create a network of partners to
initiate and develop the following activities: assist in fund raising (from national
caritative institutions, international organizations, and government
subventions); arrange professional training opportunities; and explore
marketing opportunities. The third objective of the community team is to
facilitate the involvement of the Kinabatangan communities in the
decision-making process for the management of the region’s natural resources.
The Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary is in the process of being gazetted under
the Sabah Wildlife Department with the objective of including local communities
in the design and the implementation of its management. Management will be
composed of local villagers with a solid experience in wildlife management
issues and communities’ needs and views. Our team is in an excellent position
to help strengthen the cooperation between the two parties.