by Rita Goldner
Sometimes local populations are surprised by a sudden natural cataclysm, like a volcano, tidal wave, flood, or fire, which changes the environment either temporarily or permanently. We agree that it’s impossible to do anything, because we get no warning, and we hope that the debacle doesn’t strike close to home. But the specific calamity I’m addressing in this post is coming at us from a distance in the future, so we DO have a warning. It is also possible to do something, since it’s manmade. We all share an incentive to do something because this disaster affects the population of the world, not just the locals in Borneo and Sumatra.
I’m referring to the plight of the wild orangutan. The International Union for Conservation of Nature declared in July that the orangutan species in Borneo is now “critically endangered.”* The population in Sumatra was declared critically endangered in 2008. This label is the step before being considered extinct in the wild.
These animals share with humans about 97 percent of their DNA makeup and are considered one of the most intelligent primates. They can use tools, and some have learned sign language to communicate with humans. There are two evolutionary traits that have made them very vulnerable. First, they spend about 95 percent of their time in trees, including eating and nesting. This makes them seriously impacted by logging, clearing the rainforest for palm oil plantations, farming, and encroaching civilization.
The other problem is that they are slow breeders. The offspring are dependent on the mothers for about 6 to 8 years, the longest of any land mammal. So the mothers wait that long to breed again, and almost always have only one baby at a time. An average mother will only have three or four offspring in her lifetime, so it’s very difficult for the species to bounce back from being trapped by farmers as “pests” for raiding crops, tracked by hunters, killed by pet traders stealing the babies, or starved to death by loss of habitat.
In the midst of this gloomy outlook, Andrew Marshall, one of the authors of the recent assessment, said that orangutans were more resilient than originally thought, and could still pull out of this downward spiral. He said “Although I think things will likely get worse before they get better, it’s not too late for orangutans.”
The island of Borneo is shared by Brunei, Indonesia, and Malaysia. All three governments have declared most of the rainforest protected areas. Illegal logging and forest burning still continue, however, as well as hunting and the pet trade, but Mr. Marshall believes that if enforcement of the laws improves, the numbers of orangutans will increase.
I feel that education is an important part of the solution, too, which is why I wrote and illustrated Orangutan: A Day in the Rainforest Canopy. My hope is that young children, and the adults reading to them, will learn to love orangutans. One of my mentors, Dr. Gary Shapiro, who helped me fact-check the book, founded the Orang Utan Republik Foundation. Its mission is to rescue and rehabilitate orphaned and injured orangutans, educate the public, and protect the forest with ranger units. August 19 is International Orangutan Day, celebrated every year. If your heart has been won over by the orangutans, please celebrate this year by visiting the OURF website and check out the Adopt-a-Tree program, or choose to sponsor an orangutan.
Rita Goldner is the author and illustrator of the children’s picture book, Orangutan: A Day in the Rainforest Canopy. Rita has also written and illustrated two eBooks, Jackson’s History Adventure and Jackson’s Aviation Adventure, in the Jackson’s Adventure series. For orangutan facts and images and to purchase the book (also available as an ebook), visit OrangutanDay.com. To view additional illustrations and other books in progress, visit Rita’s website. Contact Rita here. Follow Rita on Facebook.