This week, countries around the world are observing Orangutan Caring Week.
I remember my fascination the first time I saw one of these amazing animals as a child at the Philadelphia zoo. It was an adult male and his cheek pads made him stand out from the rest of the apes. A crowd of children gathered to watch him swing from the branches. I thought perhaps he was called an orangutan because of his orange fur. In fact, orangutan comes from the Malay and Indonesian languages, meaning person of the forest.
And they do have a lot in common with people. Like people, the two species of orangutans — the Bornean orangutan and the Sumatran orangutan — are two of a small number of species known to use tools. They use sticks to probe termite mounds for the tasty insects or to deseed the neesia fruit. Also like humans, orangutans have a relatively long infancy. An infant is carried by its mother for two to three years, and even after that will stay by her side for at least another three. Orangutans are the slowest breeding mammal — with an interval of eight years between offspring. This allows the mother to devote as much time to her young as she does, but it’s also part of what makes these apes so vulnerable. Classified as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, orangutans can’t reproduce fast enough in the face of increasing threats to their survival.
Though they have been an easy target for poachers, the single biggest threat to orangutans is loss of the lowland tropical rainforests and swamps they call home. Fossil evidence shows that orangutans were once widespread throughout Southeast Asia, but today they live only in Borneo and Sumatra. In the last 20 years, a whopping 80 percent of their habitat has been lost due to gold mining, conversion of forest to palm oil plantations and the increase in illegal logging brought about by political instability in the area. The effects are staggering. Between 1992 and 1999, the orangutan population decreased by nearly half. In 2007, after a study found that the forests were disappearing 30 percent faster than had previously been believed, the UN Environmental Program declared the loss of rainforest in Borneo and Sumatra an emergency.
Orangutans are not the only people of the forest. Humans also rely on these lush rainforests for their water quality, climate moderation, erosion control and biodiversity — a diversity that includes the potential for undiscovered medical cures.