The Evolution Of The Orangutan

The Evolution Of The Orangutan

Posted by Adam Smith on 19th Sep 2017

Every animal has an evolutionary story and the orangutan’s is both compelling and tragic.

The great apes belong to the taxonomic family Hominidae, and most scientists recognise two different species. These are pongo pygmaeus (Bornean) and pongo abelii (Sumatran), which are only found on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra respectively.

Genetically, the Sumatran orangutans have a narrower face and longer beard, while their Sumatran counterparts have wider cheeks and are a darker colour. It is believed the two species co-existed before they were separated from each other by the Java Sea around 40,000 years ago.

Despite their large size, both species live primarily in trees and are the largest animals in the world to do so. Their preferred food sources include fruit, bark, flowers, and leaves. Sumatran orangutans rely on the canopies to hide their young from tigers. The big cats often share habitats with the apes and are known to target babies.

When did orangutans originate?

Fossil research suggests that around 11,500-1.8 million years ago during the Pleistocene era, orangutans lived in many areas of Southeast Asia, including Java, Laos and Southern China. However, after the Pleistocene age, the habitat of orangutans was reduced to just Borneo and Sumatra following climate change over the subsequent 1.8 million years.

What is the situation today?

Hunting and forest loss have had a destructive impact on both of the species.

Palm oil plantations, in particular, have caused devastation to orangutans. As demand for the product has increased significantly in recent years, the apes have been pushed closer to extinction. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) estimates that 39 percent of Bornean forests were destroyed between 1973 and 2010, with much of this due to the rising production of palm oil.

According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), there are around 104,700 Bornean orangutans left in the wild. Their populations have been reduced by more than 50 percent over the last 60 years, and they are now considered critically endangered by the IUCN.

The situation for Sumatran orangutans is even worse - the WWF believes just 14,600 remain in the forests of Sumatra. They have also been categorised as critically endangered by the IUCN. Previously, the great apes lived all across Sumatra, but now are limited to the Aceh and North Sumatra regions.

While there are protected areas for orangutans, the rules have not stopped hunters and palm oil companies from illegally entering these zones, and many apes still live in unprotected territories.

More work needs to be done by governments to protect orangutans and ensure the beautiful apes can continue to live in the wild. Consumers can also help by contacting businesses that use palm oil, to highlight the devastating impact deforestation is having on orangutans, as well as other tropical animals.

Of course, more help is needed in-country too. Palm oil has lead to the destruction of countless orangutan habitats, and more money/manpower is needed to replenish the foliage which has now been lost. By becoming a volunteer with The Great Projects, you may be able to take part in reforestation activities (such as on The Great Orangutan And Pygmy Elephant Project and possibly on the IAR Orangutan Project); but by volunteering on any of our orangutan projects, a portion of the funds raised via your involvement will go towards protecting the orangutans in many different ways. Finally, by helping out on an orangutan project, your assistance (be that through enrichment, construction, or any other such activities) will bring this magnificent creature closer to the possibility of release, hopefully allowing populations to improve and thrive over the years.

If you are thinking of becoming an orangutan volunteer, now is a great time to consider booking your place. The Samboja Lestari Orangutan Volunteer Project is currently available with 15% off, and you have until midnight on the 30th of September to make the most of this great offer. Visit the Samboja Lestari project page now to get involved.


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