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Why are the Sumatran Orangutan Endangered? - Population & Conservation

Instructor: Lauren Posey

Lauren has taught intermediate reading in an English Language Institute, and she has her Master's degree in Linguistics.

In this lesson, you'll learn about the major reasons the Sumatran orangutan is endangered. We'll also look at their current population, and some much-needed conservation efforts.

The Responsible Parties

When you think about the people that threaten endangered species, who comes to mind? Probably your first thought was of poachers, since harming endangered species is illegal. But what about governments? This is the problem the Sumatran orangutan (Pongo abelii) is facing. The majority of the population is located in the Aceh province, at the northern tip of Sumatra. Currently, the Aceh government are trying to implement a plan to increase logging and clear-cutting for plantations.

The area in question, known as the Leuser ecosystem, is nationally protected, and the government has even admitted that they know the plan is illegal! Yet there has been no effort made to get rid of the plan, or even alter it so the Leuser ecosystem remains unharmed. Sumatran orangutans are critically endangered, which is only one step from being extinct in the wild. If this plan went through, it would be devastating to the remaining population and cause thousands of more orangutans to die.

The Sumatran orangutan is listed as critically endangered
Sumatran orangutan

Population

There are around 14,600 Sumatran orangutans left in the wild. Not all of these live in viable, or self-sustaining, communities. This means there are several sub-populations of orangutans that will most likely die out over the next several years because they do not have a high enough number of individuals to sustain themselves as a community. Between 1985 and 2007 the total Sumatran orangutan population dropped more than 60%, and it is still declining steadily.

The Reasons

So why are Sumatran orangutans endangered? The short answer is because of humans. Habitat loss and hunting are both significant problems for Sumatran orangutans.

Habitat Loss

Habitat destruction is the biggest reason Sumatran orangutans are endangered. They have a small geographic range, to begin with, and it has been restricted significantly over the past decades. Now they are only found in northern Sumatra.

Huge sections of their habitat have been cleared for oil palm plantations. Oil palms are a major cash crop because palm oil is used in nearly half of the products you find in a typical supermarket, including everything from makeup to bars of chocolate. Sometimes fire is used as a way to clear large areas at once, and if it gets out of control this can cause even more habitat destruction.

Logging is also an issue, and sometimes areas are cleared for roads or for smaller farms. Even small clearings or selective logging, where only certain trees are cut, are a huge issue for Sumatran orangutans. They have a very low tolerance for habitat disturbances, and even selectively logged areas can cause their population to drop by more than half.

Large areas of forest are cleared for oil palm plantations
Oil palm plantation

Hunting

Hunting is also an issue for this species. It is illegal to trap or kill a Sumatran orangutan, but it still happens. There is a demand for baby orangutans in the illegal exotic pet trade, and often orangutan mothers are killed so the babies can be taken and sold. In addition, they sometimes eat crops off of local farms, and the farmers will kill them. They are also often killed if they are found in an area that is being cleared, such as for a plantation. Finally, in some areas, they are still hunted for food.

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