All life is precious, but the demise of the orangutan hits especially close to home. One of our closest relatives — human and orangutan genomes are 97 percent identical, a study published last year in Nature found — their population has dwindled to somewhere around 50,000.

Their range, once spanning much of Southeast Asia, has shrunk to mainly just a couple of islands in Indonesia: Borneo, home to Pongo pygmaeus, and Sumatra, where its critically endangered counterpart, Pongo abelii, hangs on with a population of only around 7,000. All great apes are threatened, but the orangutan — in the Malay language, the word means “person of the forest” — is going extinct.

The main issue that orangutans face is the loss of their tropical rain forest habitat. In Indonesia, much of it has been erased by palm oil plantations. Illegal logging and gold and zircon mining are other threats. According to a study led by a researcher at South Dakota State University, Borneo and Sumatra lost 9.2 percent of their forest cover from 2000 to 2008.

Last summer Indonesia approved a two-year moratorium on granting new licenses for clearing peatlands and primary forests, the result of a $1 billion climate deal with Norway, but critics say the ban is riddled with exemptions and breaches.

Credit: Andy Isaacson

As their forest shrinks, orangutans are coming into closer contact with humans — a potentially perilous encounter. The Nature Conservancy and 19 other private organizations recently found the rate at which orangutans in Indonesian Borneo are being killed to be higher than previously thought. From 1,970 to 3,100 are killed annually, on average, enough to drive the species toward extinction in 10 to 15 years, their survey found. Orangutan populations do not recover quickly: the average interval between births is about eight years.

People are hunting orangutans for food or to protect their crops from orangutans that have already been pushed from the forest. In November, the Indonesian police arrested palm oil plantation workers in East Kalimantan in Indonesian Borneo who reported that their supervisor had paid a bounty of $110 for each orangutan they killed. Last month two Indonesian plantation companies — PT Smart, a major palm oil producer, and PT Lontar Papyrus, a wood-pulp supplier — pledged to train workers not to kill or injure orangutans.

But it is clear that enforcement remains lax, and the survey’s authors concluded that the only effective solution was likely to be cultural and social persuasion.

Credit: Andy Isaacson

The camp, a research and conservation center, was used throughout the 1980s to rehabilitate and then release orangutans that had been held captive. (Today orphaned orangutans are brought to a care center outside the park founded by Dr. Galdikas’s organization, Orangutan Foundation International, before being returned to the wild elsewhere.)

Camp Leakey draws about 2,000 international tourists a year. At a viewable feeding platform, the camp staff leaves bananas for the ex-captive orangutans and their offspring. The handouts provide these semi-wild orangutans with a supplemental diet and minimize competition with the wild orangutan population in the park. Longtime resident orangutans of the Camp Leakey area have become all too familiar with people — many have been given names by the staff — and pass through not just for the bananas but a bit of human company.

In Borneo, a Safe Place for Orangutans
Credit: Andy Isaacson

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In the Malay language, “orang” means “person” and “utan” is derived from “hutan,” which means “forest.” The name of the orangutan, Asia’s only great ape, literally means “person of the forest.” These animals once lived throughout much of Southeast Asia, but now 90 percent of the world’s orangutans live in Indonesia. The endangered Bornean orangutan (Pongo pygmaeus) numbers between 40,000 and 50,000, while the population of its critically endangered Sumatran counterpart (Pongo abelii) has dwindled to less than 7,000.

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