Why is the Bornean Orangutan Endangered?

Instructor: Amanda Robb

Amanda holds a Masters in Science from Tufts Medical School in Cellular and Molecular Physiology. She has taught high school Biology and Physics for 8 years.

In this lesson, we'll be learning about the critically endangered Bornean orangutan. We'll cover four main reasons it's endangered including habitat loss and degradation, the illegal wildlife trade, human conflict, and poaching.

What Are Bornean Orangutans?

Deep in the isolated jungles of Borneo lives a critically endangered primate, the Bornean orangutan. These apes have a striking appearance with wide, flat, black faces and long orange coats. They have long arms that allow them to swing from tree to tree, finding fruit for their diet. These animals don't just have beauty, they also have brains. Orangutans are one of our closest relatives and display incredible intelligence and parental care.

Bornean orangutans have wide faces and orange fur

Unfortunately, these smart, gentle animals are on the verge of extinction. Scientists estimate their population has decreased by 62% since 1950 and predict it to decline by 86% by 2025 unless further conservation measures are taken. For context, if 86% of the human population died, we would lose nearly a billion people.

Reasons for Endangerment

So, what is the cause of this massive population decline? Today, we're going to look at four main reasons, habitat loss and degradation, the illegal wildlife trade, human conflict, and poaching.

1. Habitat Loss and Degradation

Imagine if you came home and your house was completely destroyed. Now imagine if your entire block or your entire city was destroyed. As you might be imagining, this would wreck havoc on your life and those around you. Unfortunately, this is life for the Bornean orangutan. In the past twenty years, the Bornean orangutans' habitat has been reduced to about 45% of its original size. This habitat destruction is one of the main causes of the critically endangered status of the Bornean orangutan.

So, why are humans wreaking such havoc on the ecosystem? The main reason is to farm palm oil. Palm oil is one of the most commonly used vegetable oils on the planet. It is in many packaged foods, baked goods, and even personal care products like soap, shampoo and body wash. Palm oil trees are native to Southeast Asia and are a natural part of the ecosystem. However, due to a high demand for palm oil, large areas of forest are being cleared to make room for palm oil plantations.

What was once lush, thick rainforest is now reduced to large areas of spiky palms with no forest cover to protect from the devastating jungle heat. For the Bornean orangutan this is a nightmare, but for humans looking to make a profit, the potential land in the rainforest is pure gold. But, that revenue comes with a price, the decline of Bornean orangutan populations.

Jungle cleared for a palm oil plantation in Malaysia
palm oil plantation

Even if the forest isn't entirely destroyed for palm plantations, forest degradation is still a problem for the Bornean orangutan. Illegal logging is a common problem in Borneo and with the island split between Malaysia and Indonesian ownership, the laws around logging can be fuzzy. Even light logging can remove important species that the Bornean orangutan depends on for food and shelter.

Fires can also be especially damaging to the Bornean orangutan. Some fires are man made during slash and burn clearing of forests, but fires are also a natural part of the Bornean ecology. Fires occur naturally nearly every year in Borneo and can destroy up to 90% of timber in one fire in an orangutans national park. With such little habitat, to begin with, these natural disasters are making life even harder for the Bornean orangutan.

2. Illegal Wildlife Trade

With their beautiful fur and intelligent demeanor, it's no surprise that young Bornean orangutans are victims of the illegal wildlife trade, where they are captured and sold as pets. Typically young orangutans, less than seven years old, are captured. To facilitate the process, often times the mother is killed. The young are forced into cages and taken to cities in nearby islands where they are sold for hundreds of dollars on the black market. However, without their mother, these orangutans will not live a healthy or happy life.

Young orangutans are taken from their mothers for illegal wildlife trading
orangutan family

Orangutans are not able to reproduce fast enough to counteract the deficit in their population from the pet trade. They only reproduce every seven or eight years, so the capture of young orangutans is severely decreasing their population. Some studies estimate that between 200 and 500 baby orangutans are captured every year for the pet trade.

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