National Geographic : 2016 Dec
64 national geographic • December 2016 driven by habitat destruction from logging and the rapid spread of vast plantations of oil palm, the fruit of which is sold to make oil used in cook- ing and in many food products. There’s another factor at work as well. A 2013 report by several top researchers said that as many as 65,000 of the apes may have been killed on Borneo alone in recent decades. Some were killed for bush meat by people struggling to sur- vive. Others were shot because they were raiding crops—or protecting their young. The expressive, heart-melting faces of baby orangutans make them highly valuable in the black-market pet trade, within Indonesia as well as smuggled out of Borneo or Sumatra to foreign destinations. The ferocious protectiveness of female orangutans means that the easiest way to obtain a baby is to kill the mother—a compounded tragedy that not only removes two animals from the wild but also “It makes a lot of sense,” Knott says. “ They’re putting on weight during these high-fruit peri- ods, and then they live off that during the low- fruit periods. During these high-fruit periods, females are more likely to conceive.” it’S an eXciting time for Knott and other orangutan researchers, as advances in technol- ogy (including the possibility of using drones to find and follow orangutans in rugged terrain) mean that the pace of discovery, already far more rapid than it was just two decades ago, will al- most certainly increase. This assumes, of course, that there will still be orangutans left to study in the forests of Borneo and Sumatra. In the 1980s and ’90s, some conservationists predicted that orangutans would go extinct in the wild within 20 or 30 years. Fortunately that didn’t happen. Many thousands more orangutans are now known to exist than were recognized at the turn of the millennium. This doesn’t mean that all is well in the orang- utans’ world. The higher figures come thanks to improved survey methods and the discovery of previously unknown populations, not because the actual numbers have increased. In fact, the overall population of orangutans has fallen by at least 80 percent in the past 75 years. It’s indica- tive of the difficulty of orangutan research that scientist Erik Meijaard, who has long studied the species’ population trends, is willing to say only that between 40,000 and 100,000 live on Borneo. Conservationists on Sumatra estimate that only 14,000 survive there. Much of this loss has been The expressive, heart- melting faces of baby orangutans make them highly valuable in the black-market pet trade. n Society Grant Your membership helped support the fieldwork and research behind this story.