The word “orangutan” comes from the Malay and Indonesian words meaning “person of the forest.” Unfortunately, soon there may be no forest and no “person,” either. The encroachment of palm oil companies into orangutans’ natural habitat and the illicit trade in baby orangutans have all but wiped out the entire species of Sumatran orangutan. They may be entirely gone before the year is over, according to the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Program.

The Tripa forest on the coast of Aceh Province has long been the site of conflict between conservationist nongovernment organizations (NGOs) working to protect the orangutans and the palm oil companies that turn logged forests into vast plantations. Recently, land-clearing fires have accelerated the destruction of the rainforest and its biodiversity.

Only 12,000 hectares of Tripa’s original 60,000 hectares of forest remain. Throughout Sumatra, half of the forest has been lost in 25 years. Two orangutan species, the Sumatran and the Bornean — the only great apes found outside Africa — have long been on the critically endangered list of the World Conservation Union, but the Sumatran has been pushed the furthest to the brink.

Economic difficulties have worsened the danger. Since the 2004 earthquake and tsunami, in which 170,000 people were killed and half a million others were left homeless, Aceh province, some 160 km east of the epicenter of the quake, has struggled and priorities have been placed on humans.

Now, however, the Sumatran orangutan could be the first species of great apes to become extinct. Urgent intervention is essential to prevent their disappearance. Ecotourism may help to protect the orangutans, but before that industry can be established, the orangutans may be gone.

Reforestation efforts have begun in some areas of Sumatra, but progress has been too slow to offer real hope. Orangutans breed more slowly than almost all other primates. Most females produce three offspring in a lifetime, making recovery difficult, especially with no rainforest left to live in.

International support to stop the conversion of logged forests into palm oil plantations would help ensure that legally designated sanctuaries are maintained. It is also important to help the economy become based on viable, long-term industries that do not destroy biodiversity.

Indonesia’s government and nongovernmental organizations are working to control the illicit international trade in orangutans and other primates. Such efforts should be increased to end this destructive practice as quickly as possible.

As Japan struggles to recover from its own earthquake and tsunami, it can offer its help, sympathy and action to another country recovering from a similar tragedy, one that may soon lose one of its greatest treasures — the orangutan.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.