Arxiu d'etiquetes: palm oil

Discovered a new species of orangutan on the verge of extinction

A few days ago the discovery of a new species of orangutan was announced. Unfortunately, it is critically endangered. How is it possible that it has not been discovered until now? What other species of orangutans exist? What threats do they face? Can we do something to protect them? Keep reading to fin d out!

KNOWING THE ORANGUTANS

We know a lot about orangutans because of the work of Biruté Galdikas, the biggest expert in behavior of orangutans, as well as Jane Goodall is from chimpanzees and Dian Fossey was from the mountain gorillas. The orangutan is an hominid, from the same family as humans, gorillas, chimpanzees and bonobos.

Orangutans are the most distant hominids from us. Despite this, we share 97% of the DNA and the oldest ancestor between orangutans and humans lived about 14 million years ago. If you want to learn more about who the hominids are and how primates are classified, you can read this post.

Until now, two orangutan species were known: the Sumatran orangutan (Pongo abelii) and the Bornean orangutan (Pongo pygmaeus). A recent research  from November 2017 adds a new species: the Tapanuli orangutan (Pongo tapanuilensis). Since 1929 a new species of great ape had not been discovered, despite being one of the most studied groups in the world.

Bornean, Sumatran and Tapanuli male orangutans. Photo: Eric Kilby Aiwok Tim Laman 

MORPHOLOGY

The orangutan (from the Malay orang hután, ‘person from the forest’) is distinguished from the other hominids by its orange fur. It feeds, sleeps and reproduces in the trees, although it occasionally goes down to the ground to drink from the rivers. Its long arms (up to 2.2 m) and prehensile feet are perfectly adapted to the arboreal life. The flexibility of the hip and other joints allows them to adopt impossible positions for other primates.

Sumatran female orangutan with her baby. Photo: Thomas Marent

They have sexual dimorphism (difference between males and females): the males have bulging structures on the face that increase in size as the animal grows, a long beard and mustache, the hair of the arms longer and they have a bag hanging in the throat. This bag is used as an amplifier of their calls, which can be heard two kilometers away. They use it to defend their territory and attract females. The males are also larger than the females, weighing a hundred kilos or more and they measure 1,5 m (females weigh about 40 kg and measure 1.1 m in height).

Bornean male orangutans (Pongo pygmaeus) in which the mandibular bag and cheeks are shown. Source

FEEDING AND BEHAVIOUR

Orangutans are solitary and nomadic, moving through the treetops in search of fruit. They can also feed on other parts of the plants, honey and small animals such as termites, chicks, eggs and lizards.

Although they have solitary habits, their social interaction is very complex when they meet, and adolescent females can travel together for 2-3 days. Orangutans use tools and have behaviors that they learn by imitation and vary according to the region (culture).

REPRODUCTION

Females give birth in a nest at the top of the trees. After 9 months of gestation, a single baby is born and will stay close to the mother until its maturity, about 8 years. The male does not cooperate in the breeding.

One week old orangutan hitched to her mother. Photo: ARNO BURGI/AFP/Getty Images

The reproduction rate of orangutans is very low: females reach sexual maturity at 15 and give birth every 8-9 years, so they will only have about 3-4 babys throughout its life. This means that the recovery of the species is very complicated. They can live about 50-60 years.

DISTRIBUTION

It is the only great ape living in Asia, in the rainforests of the islands of Sumatra and Borneo. Its distribution is very small due to the destruction of their habitat .

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Distribution of the 3 species of orangutan. Source: batangtoru.org

 A NEW SPECIES: THE TAPANULI

Pongo tapanuliensis. Foto: Andrew Walmsley

In 2001 scientists defined the two orangutan species known, the Sumatran and Bornean orangutans. We will not delve much into their differences to focus on the latest discovery. Mainly, Sumatran orangutans have a flatter face than Bornean’s, (which have a concave face) and their fur is thicker, longer and clearer than Bornean’s.

Pongo tapanuliensis, the new species discovered, inhabits the Batang Toru region (North of Sumatra), an ecosystem with 85% of its forest  protected. How is it possible that a new species of such large animal has not been identified until now? Traditionally, species began to be classified according to their similarities and morphological differences, but nowadays many of these species are being redefined thanks to genetic studies.

The Tapanuli population was rediscovered in 1997, but it was not until 2013 that the study of a skull give researchers some clues about notable differences with other populations. The male skull was smaller than the other population’s skulls and also the fur was more cinnamon and curly in the Tapanuli. The morphological data were not enough, so the genome of this orangutan was sequenced and compared with the populations of Sumatran and Bornean oranguntans.

It was concluded that belonged to a new species, much older than the other two: it separated from the orangutan of Sumatra 3.38 million years ago. It is the oldest evolutionary line of Pongo (see image of the previous section) and has been isolated 10,000-20,000 years from other populations of Borneo. The research was also completed with observations of behavior (the call of the males is different, they consume other species of plants) and other facts that confirm the existence of this new species (less robust skull and jaws,  different size of the molar than fossils of the Pleistocene, males with flatter cheeks covered in fine blond hair).

THREATS

Orangutans are among the most threatened species in the world. The tendency of their populations is the decrease: since 1900, more than 91% of orangutans have disappeared. According to the IUCN , they are classified as “critically endangered” the previous step to  the extinction in the wild. It is estimated that there are 14,613 individuals of Sumatran orangutan, 11,000 Bornean orangutans and there are only 800 individuals of tapanuli orangutan left. Newly discovered, it has become the most threatened species of great apes. They could disappear in a few decades: only with the death of 8 individuals per year (1%) the extinction will be a fact.

Orangutan walking through the destroyed jungle. Photo: Hardi Baktiantoro

One of the dangers they face is the illegal trade of babys as pets. To do this, the poachers kill the mother and due to the strong bond between mothers and babys, the latter suffer traumas that mark them for life. If you want to know more about the physical and psychological consequences suffered by captive apes, do not miss reasons for NOT having captive primates. In addition, prostitution and sexual abuse of female orangutans is a common practice.

However, the main threat of the orangutan is the destruction of its habitat. The destruction of the forest for logging, mining and agriculture was reduced by 60% between 1985 and 2007. The Tapanuli only occupy an area of ​​1,000 km2.

Deforestation of Borneo from 1950 to 2020. Source: UNEP / GRID-Arendal Maps and Graphics Library

Unfortunately , orangutans have become the visible face of the loss of biodiversity due to the extensive cultivation of palm Elaeis guineensis. Its oil is used worldwide in all types of products, especially in bakery, snacks and prepared food, cocoa creams and even cosmetics and agrofuels. Without forgetting the implications for the health of this low quality oil and the contamination caused by the destruction of waste during the production, the uncontrolled clearing of trees and fires of large areas of forest to grow the palm is killing the orangutans (thousands die every year), among other species such as the Sumatran tiger. Orangutans are also killed directly, either by entering the crops and occasionally to be marketed as food (bushmeat).

Orangutan with burns victim of deforestation for the palm oil industry. Photo: unknown

To learn more about the ecological crisis of Southeast Asia, do not miss this interview that we did to Joana Aragay, a biologist who lived firsthand the fires of 2015 in Borneo.

WHAT CAN YOU DO?

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The ecological crisis from Southeast Asia firsthand explained – Joana Aragay

In October 2015 the world knew, late and wrong, about what would be later classified as the s. XXI biggest ecological crisis. Tropical rainforests and peatland forests of Southeast Asia in Indonesia burned for five long months causing the burn of two million hectares increasing the level of pollutant particles in the air up to 2,000 PSI (levels of more than 300 PSI are considered toxic). Forty-three million people were affected, 500,000 of them suffering respiratory diseases. The biodiversity of this region has been seriously compromised, affecting many endemic and endangered species, including one of the most emblematic and vulnerable primates in the world: orangutans; which only live on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo (Indonesia) of the most affected by the fires.

Because of this environmental crisis, we wanted to talk to Joana Aragay Soler, a biologist currently working in Kalimantan (the Indonesian part of Borneo) with the British NGO OuTrop (The Orangutan Tropical Peatland Project) to explain us what does she do in the association and also concerned by the terrible experience she lives in the summer of 2015. Through some questions we want to understand how did she lived that crisis in first person and get deeper into the reasons that provoked the fires and their ecological and social consequences.

  • Hi Joana! How are you? From AYNIB (All You Need Is Biology), we think that your experience as a biologist at OuTrop can be of great interest to our readers. What is your job in the NGO?

Hello, thank you very much for giving me the opportunity to share with you my experience in Borneo.I have two very different roles in OuTrop, but complementary at the same time. That makes my job very diverse and enriching. On the one hand, I am Head of the Biodiversity program (Biodiversity Scientist) and on the other I coordinate the Education program (Education Manager). As a Biodiversity scientist, I coordinate the fieldwork of all biodiversity research projects (other than primates). Outrop research began in 1999 monitoring only the orangutan populations and studying their behavior. A few years later, we began to establish the gibbons and red langurs project. Finally, the arrival of new researchers promoted the development of other projects, such as butterflies, ants, birds, frogs or spiders sampling in order to monitor the status of the forest through quality indicators species. Also we have a project with trap cameras with a motion sensor that allows monitoring elusive spices such as bears or clouded leopards.As the Education manager, I am developing the education project that has just started this year as we believe that a very important part to make conservation is education. For now, we have started to conduct environmental education in schools, but we also have an education project for non-solarized children, which consists on teaching them to read, write, etc., through of nature-related activities.

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Environmental workshop made by OuTrop (Photo: Carlota Collazos, OuTrop)

Finally, we also invite local and international schools to spend a few days in the jungle to experience firsthand how scientists work.

  • How is your routine work in Borneo ?

My daily routine is very different depending on the project. When I am coordinating the biodiversity projects, I live in the camp OuTrop has in the jungle. Every day in the jungle is different, even when walking through the same transects, you never know what you’ll find: termites eating orangutans, bears perched on trees, oddly shaped insects or acrobats like gibbons swinging above your head.

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Tropical gecko from Borneo rainforest (Photo: Bernat Ripoll Capilla, OuTrop)

When working at the education project I am in the city office in Palangkaraya. There I meet Riethma, an Indonesian girl also part of the education team. With this program the activities, visit schools and conduct workshops for children out of school. When I’m in town I also took time to catch up with the email because we don’t have internet access in the jungle.

  • What experience from your work as a biologist would you highlight?

There are many exciting aspects of my job and even more when you work immersed in a culture different from yours. Living surrounded by jungle and being constant contact with nature is a privilege, especially in the area of Borneo where we work. Sabangau, is the largest south of Borneo rainforest and contains the largest orangutan population in the world (about 7,000 individuals). Investigating the biodiversity of these forests and working with local people to protect these habitats is very professionally satisfying.

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Aerial view of the Borneo rainforest (Photo: Bernat Ripoll Capilla, OuTrop).
  • Now that we can imagine your routine, we would love you to share with us your vision of the fire of 2015. How you lived on a professional and personal level? 

First of all let’s get in situation. From June to October 2015, more than 125,000 fires broke out in Indonesia burning more than two million hectares (which would represent 2/3 of the Catalonia surface or three million football fields). Kalimantan, the Indonesian part of Borneo suffered the worst effects, at all levels: ecological, economic and social. There was so much smoke that some days he saw nothing more than 20 meters away. Fires and the effects of the smoke affected everything: the airport, shops and schools closed during several weeks; agriculture losses were enormous; thousands of people have had or will have health problems in the medium or long term; ecological damage is of unimaginable dimensions and still needs to be evaluated. The fires emitted 1.6 billion tons of carbon into the atmosphere (equivalent to the Spain, Germany, United Kingdom and France together annual carbon emissions sum), substantially contributing to climate change.

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Fire extinguishing works (Photo: Bernat Ripoll Capilla, OuTrop).

Those were difficult and emotionally intense months. Many research projects of the NGO were reduced to a minimum in order to devote every effort to firefighting.Personally, I decided to leave Kalimantan during a few days because I felt that my health was compromised. I spent the days conducting divulgation, awareness and seeking fundraising to subsidize equipment for firefighting. Thanks to the collaboration of many people and organizations we were able to buy a lot of stuff: water pumps, hoses, masks, etc. that we deliver to different firefighting teams and communities. We also try to visualize the problem, contacting media to give impact to the problem.

  • Were those arson or natural fires? Which were the causes? 

The fires were arson. Most started to thin out land and associated with the economic development of the region for requalify land to plant monocultures (mainly palm oil). During the dry season there are usually many fires but this year, due to El Niño, they were intensified. It’s a combination of factors, there’s not a single reason that explains the problem. We have to look back to understand the complexity of the problem and the vulnerability of ecosystems. Over the past 20 years, in the lowlands of Borneo thousands of channels were built, both for timber production and the agriculture development. Normally, tropical peatlands do not burn because they are like sponges that hold moisture but the channels disturbed the natural hydrology of tropical peatlands, draining the water into the rivers and disturbing the natural water levels on the ground; which caused the augmentation of fire risk.

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Tropical rainforest devastated by fires (Photo: Bernat Ripoll Capilla, OuTrop).

Another structural problem is the lack of resources to fight the fires, there were so many that fire men were overwhelmed, and didn’t have the necessary resources to put them off.

  • What were the ecological consequences?

The ecological consequences were terrible and will take years to quantify: it was estimated that nearly a million hectares of forest were lost and consequently the species that inhabit it. The fire increased pressure on primary forests and endangered species such as orangutans. The fire also burned forest areas where the greatest orangutan populations remain, and these are expected to experience a substantial decrease in the coming years.

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Aerial view of Borneo’s fires (Photo: OuTrop).

The peatland forests, though little known, are one of the most important ecosystems in the planet. They represent only 3% of the world forest area, acting as carbon reservoirs as they contain a third of the world carbon, and playing an important role in preventing global warming. Its biodiversity is huge and contains several iconic and endangered species such as the Southern Borneo gibbon, orangutans, clouded leopards or Storm’s storks.

  • What about the social consequences? How did the fires affected the Borneo people?

One of the most immediate effects suffered was due to smoke. During September and October it was recommended to wear charcoal filtered masks 24 hours a day, but these masks were only found in some local within big cities and were very expensive. Most people wore only paper masks that were not able to filter smoke particles, they only minimized the risk perception. Many people got sick and the health consequences in the long term are unpredictable. Indonesia will have to face economic losses of about 30 billion dollars.

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Smoke generated by fires in Borneo (Photo: Bernat Ripoll Capilla, OuTrop).

The loss of environmental resources is implicitly linked to the local economy. Many communities depend on the services that ecosystems provide. If the forest disappears resources that keep many families are also put at risk.

  • Why do you think foreign media reacted so late?

The international media reacted slowly and the truth is that the Spanish and Catalan hardly mentioned the problem. From OuTrop, we send press releases and some were published, but the media exceptionally reports environmental issues and when they do it is always secondarily. Day after day we read irrelevant news published in national newspapers, while in Indonesia we were living one of the most important ecological and social crisis of recent decades. We cannot ignore that the media reports on what “sells” and not on what is really happening.

  •  How could we prevent this disaster never happen again?

Legislation and land management are key elements to prevent that forest areas are easily converted into farmland items. The hydrology of disturbed areas should also have to be restored. Population awareness, sustainable development and especially informing and educating people are basic to understand that the use of the slash and burn method is very dangerous and harmful to everybody.

  • Now that you have returned a few months ago the rains, do you think that the environment can recover? Were you able to go to the countryside to meet the affected area?

Now that the fires are extinguished we have begun monitoring the primates populations and mapping the burned area. We don’t know how the fire consequences as it will take years to manifest. In OuTrop we are developing research projects associated with burned areas, that will provide answers in the future; patience is the mother of science, they say.

We have also stepped up efforts in reforestation programs, starting to replant trees in burned areas. We are doing various experiments to discover the best way to accelerate forest regeneration in these areas.

Baby orangutan named as Iis in Sabangau Forest_Bernat Ripoll Capilla_OuTrop 2015 (11)
Young orangutan in Borneo (Photo: Bernat Ripoll Capilla, OuTrop).

But most of all we hope that this experience has make people react and disasters like this won’t be repeated. Prevention is the best answer, but … we must be prepared!

Well Joana, thank you very much for sharing this experience and helping us to understand the origins of the Southeast Asia fires phenomenon. Hopefully your work, along with others foundations working there, will prevent the reoccurrence of disasters like this and that the population is increasingly aware of the effects of burning forest.

Joana leaves us some links with photos and a documentary for those who want to go in depth into the subject:

Laia-anglès