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The Orangutan's Plight

orangutan
Image: PERRY VAN DUYNHOVEN

Asia's secretive apes, the orangutans, may go extinct within the next 10 years if current logging and poaching practices continue, according to a new study. Reporting in the current issue of the journal Oryx, Carel van Schaik of Duke University and his colleagues have documented a precipitous decline in the largest orangutan population, which inhabits northern Sumatra's Leuser Ecosytem. Indeed, that population, which numbered 12,000 in 1993, dwindled to about half that size over a seven-year period.

Although the Leuser Ecosytem includes a large protected area, illegal logging is rampant. Many of the felled trees include the fruit and canopy trees that the orangutans need for food and travel. As a result, in those areas that have been stripped by logging, orangutan population densities have plummeted by as much as 90 percent.

Sadly, the situation in Borneo¿the only other island where the shy apes are found¿is no better, the authors report. The forest fires that swept across the island in 1997 and 1998 claimed the lives up to a third of the orangutans. Since then the remaining creatures have been subjected to the same habitat destruction inflicted on their Sumatran counterparts.

"The study of wild orangutans provides us with a unique window on the kinds of conditions that favored origins of human culture," van Schaik says. "Losing the wild orangutan would forever close that window. If we act now, we can still save populations from oblivion, but we cannot afford to waste any time."

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