THE $80 MILLION QUESTION
BBC Wildlife|April 2021
The world spends a huge amount of money on orangutan conservation every year but their numbers are still declining. What’s going on, why isn’t palm oil to blame and what can we do to arrest the downward curve?
James Fair

According to Erik Meijaard, a conservation scientist who has been working for almost 30 years in South-East Asia, the world spends $80 million (about £60 million) a year on orangutan conservation. Erik and a number of colleagues are currently trying to determine exactly where this money goes. “We are looking at who is spending it – governments, NGOs, research organisations, sanctuaries, oil and timber companies, where the money comes from and what it is being invested in, and whether we can link that spending to local orangutan population trends,” he tells me during a video call from Brunei, where he lives for much of the year.

Though Erik’s research is unfinished, there’s one thing he can say with certainty. “What is clear is that we are spending all that money but we are still losing orangutans.” In other words, it’s not working.

Orangutans live on the Indonesian islands of Borneo and Sumatra, and are correspondingly separate species. There is also a third species, the Tapanuli orangutan, also found on Sumatra (see p55). Here are the broad-brush figures: in 2016, the IUCN estimated Bornean orangutan numbers at just over 100,000 (a figure forecast to drop to 47,000 by 2025), with about 15.5 million hectares of available habitat. Sumatran orangutans, in contrast, are considerably rarer, with an estimated 14,000 individuals contained within a much smaller area, mainly the Leuser Ecosystem, a 2.6 million hectare swathe (that’s 1.3 times the size of Wales) of rainforest in the island’s north.

Borneo and Sumatra may be very different in terms of the status and conservation of their resident orangutans, but they do have one thing in common: neither are having much success in safeguarding these apes.

Uncomfortable truth

So, what’s going wrong? “If you go on Twitter, the solution to orangutan conservation is to stop palm oil, and I can guarantee you that won’t work,” Erik tells me. “The plantations are already there – do you think they will be turned back into tropical rainforest tomorrow?”

Looking at Borneo, the uncomfortable truth is that, while vast amounts of habitat have been lost in the past to palm-oil plantations – and deforestation is continuing – the biggest threat to its orangutans today is illegal killing. In 2011, Erik and other scientists published a landmark piece of research based on surveys involving 7,000 people from 700 villages. From this, they estimated the rate of killing of orangutans in Kalimantan (the Indonesian part of Borneo) at between 2,000 and 3,000 individuals every year over the past 40 years. The level of slaughter exceeded the species’ reproductive rate, suggesting that “unless it can be reduced, most Kalimantan populations will go extinct.”

“We have just repeated the survey to see whether the rate of killing has changed,” Erik says. “It hasn’t. If anything, it may have increased, so killing is still the key factor that is driving down orangutan populations.”

But why are people killing orangutans? Well, about half of it can be attributed to increased displacement of animals caused by habitat loss, of which some – but not all – will be down to palm oil plantations. But the other half is people hunting in the forest and opportunistically shooting the orangutans they encounter.

The fact is that humans have probably been killing orangutans for tens of thousands of years. They were once found as far north as Vietnam and Yunnan in China, but no longer. “I’m pretty certain they disappeared because humans walked into their territory some 80,000 years ago and found they were very tasty and easy to hunt,” says Erik.

In case you are wondering, it is illegal to kill orangutans, but in the remote areas they inhabit, enforcement of this law is neither a priority nor largely effective.

The third orangutan

Until 2017, the Tapanuli orangutan Pongo tapanuliensis was considered to be the same species as the Sumatran, but studies have shown both morphological and genomic difference, and that the two have been separated from each other for between 10,000 and 20,000 years.

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