KOTA KINABALU – The world has less than 20 years left to save the orang utan, according to conservationists who predict the charismatic red ape will become extinct if no action is taken to protect its jungle habitat.
There are thought to be some 60,000 orang utan still living in the wild in Malaysia and Indonesia but deforestation and the expansion of palm oil plantations have taken a heavy toll.
“The orang utan habitat is fragmented and isolated by plantations, they can’t migrate, they can’t find mates to produce babies,” said Tsubouchi Toshinori from the Borneo Conservation Trust.
Environmentalists are calling for the creation of wildlife “corridors” in Malaysia to link the scraps of jungle where the orang utan has become trapped by decades of encroachment by loggers and oil palm companies.
Tsubouchi said that although studies had predicted that the orang utan would disappear within 50 years if their habitat continues to vanish, action needed to be taken within the next two decades to stall that process.
“We have to establish the corridors in 10 or 20 years, otherwise we won’t be able to do anything later,” he said.
Some 80% of the world’s orang utans live in Borneo, which is split between Malaysia and Indonesia, and the rest are found in Indonesia’s Sumatra province.
“What we have left today is maybe only 10% of what we used to have before,” said Marc Ancrenaz from the environmental group Hutan which focuses on conserving the 11,000 orang utans in Sabah.
An aerial survey carried out by wildlife authorities last year revealed some 1,000 orang utan treetop “nests” located in 100 small patches of forest completely surrounded by palm oil plantations.
“Unlike the rhinoceros whose numbers are so few, we still have a decent size population for the orang utan. If they are going to become extinct, it will not be in the next 10 years,” Ancrenaz said.
There are only about 250 Sumatran Rhinoceros left in Malaysia and Indonesia, making it the most highly endangered rhino species in the world.
Ecologist Eric Meijaard, who studies the orang utan in Indonesia, said the situation was even worse there and that deforestation was responsible for the loss of up to 3,000 orang utans a year in Borneo.