Orangutans of Kota Kinabalu

by AFP/Beh Lih Yi, Jan 7, 2010 | Destinations: Malaysia / Kota Kinabalu

KOTA KINABALU - The world has less than 20 years left to save the orangutan, 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 50-60,000 orangutans still living in the wild in Malaysia and Indonesia, but deforestation and the expansion of palm oil plantations have taken a heavy toll.

"The orangutans' 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 (BCT).

Environmentalists are calling for the creation of wildlife "corridors" in Malaysia to link the scraps of jungle where orangutans have become trapped by decades of encroachment by loggers and oil palm firms.

Tsubouchi said that although studies have predicted orangutans will disappear within 50 years if their habitat continues to vanish, action needs 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 percent of the world's orangutans 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 percent of what we used to have before," said Marc Ancrenaz from the environmental group Hutan which focuses on conserving the 11,000 orangutans in Malaysia's Sabah state in Borneo.

An aerial survey carried out by Hutan and wildlife authorities in Sabah last year revealed some 1,000 orangutan treetop "nests" located in 100 small patches of forest completely surrounded by palm oil plantations.

"If we are not able to establish connectivity in the next 10 or 20 years, there is a risk that this population will reach a stage which will make it impossible for us to enable them to survive," Ancrenaz warned.

But he said that if immediate action is taken, there is still a good chance of ensuring the long-term survival of the primate as there is still enough genetic diversity for it to thrive.

"Unlike the rhinoceros whose numbers are so few, we still have a decent size population for the orangutan. If they are going to become extinct, it will not be in the next 10 years," he said.

There are only about 250 Sumatran Rhinoceros left in Malaysia and Indonesia, making it the most highly endangered rhino species in the world.

Experts say that wildlife corridors would enable orangutans to move across the fragmented landscape and alongside rivers to seek food and mates.

The corridors could be used by other endangered species such as the pygmy elephant and rhinoceros, but progress on the initiative has been slow.

The Malaysian palm oil industry, often criticised for its poor environmental performance, pledged to fund the corridors at an October conference but nothing has yet been done.

Malaysian Palm Oil Council (MPOC) chief executive Yusof Basiron said he was waiting for environmentalists to advise how much land would be needed, and denied that lack of action was threatening the species' future.

"Last time they said the orangutans will go extinct in 2012, now they say in 15 or 20 years -- why keep on shifting the goal posts?" he asked AFP.

Some in the industry have accused Western lobby groups of trying to smear palm oil -- used extensively for biofuel and processed food like margarine -- to boost rival products from developed countries.

Malaysia is the world's second-largest exporter of palm oil after Indonesia, and the industry is the country's third largest export earner, raking in 65.2 billion ringgit (19 billion dollars) last year.

Eric Meijaard, who studies orangutans in Indonesia, said the situation was even worse there and that deforestation was responsible for the loss of up to 3,000 orangutans a year in Borneo.

"If we are losing them at the rate that we are losing now, they are going to be pretty much gone in 15 to 20 years," said the ecologist from the Indonesia-based People and Nature Consulting International.

"In Indonesia, the whole process of conversion is still very rampant and the land use changes very fast -- what is still a natural forest concession today may be a plantation tomorrow."

Ancrenaz said he is "not convinced" that the the battle to save Asia's only great ape is a lost cause.

"There are still ways to rectify the issues and to find solutions, but we have to act very fast, we can't afford to wait too long."

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Malaysia tracks orangutans with implants

Malaysian wildlife authorities are using electronic implants to keep track of orangutans in a bid to protect the endangered apes after they are freed into the wild, an official said Tuesday.

Laurentius Ambu, wildlife department head in Sabah state on Borneo island, said three orangutans had coin-sized transmitters implanted in their necks in September.

"These are rescued orangutans. Eventually they will be reintroduced into the wild and we would like to monitor their movement, to know how they are doing in the forests," he told AFP.

"We would like to ensure the orangutans are safe."

The three chosen orangutans now live in a sanctuary in Sabah that houses about 250 orangutans in all.

Laurentius said the department aims to gradually install the transmitter on more orangutans in the state, which has about 11,000 of the primates.

Experts say there are about 50,000 to 60,000 orangutans left in the wild, 80 percent of them in Indonesia and the rest in Malaysian's eastern states of Sabah and Sarawak on Borneo island.

A 2007 assessment by the United Nations Environment Program warned that orangutans would be virtually eliminated in the wild within two decades if current rates of deforestation continue.

Orangutan habitats in Malaysia and Indonesia are disappearing as their jungle homes are cleared for logging and to make way for plantations.

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