Many threats such as land loss and degradation, poaching, and deforestation have turned orangutans into a critically endangered species over the years, with 80% of them living outside protected areas. Now, a new potentially deadly threat has been added to the list, coronavirus.
No cases of transmissions from humans to orangutans have been confirmed yet, but chances are high as they share 97% of our DNA. That has made authorities in Indonesia, home to many orangutans in the islands of Sumatra and Borneo, to take measures to protect them.
The Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation, a rehabilitation center for orangutans in Borneo, closed its doors to all visitors and asked the caretakers to take precautions against passing on any infections, such as wearing masks and protective gloves — gear that is burned after the working day is over.
“There haven’t been any confirmed cases of direct transmission, but it’s caused other issues like a shortage of masks and disinfectant supplies for our orangutan caretakers,” said foundation veterinarian Agus Irwanto in a statement, asking for donations due to markups in pricing.
For the apes, however, there hasn’t been much change in their daily jungle jaunts. Their routine has not changed; they still depart for the forest early in the morning and return in the late afternoon after a day of discovery and learning. The feeding schedule continues the same, twice a day, as well as the cleaning of their enclosures.
“Our dedicated veterinarians, surrogate mothers, and technicians are working tirelessly to ensure that the orangutans in our centres remain safe and healthy,” the foundation said in a statement. “Every one of our team members is doing their best to make sure they stay in good health and follow all safety procedures, both to protect the orangutans in their care and their own loving families waiting for them at home.”
Similar protection measures are being taken in zoos that host orangutans across the globe, such as in France, with caretakers keeping their distance from them. At the same time, last month the forest-covered African nation of Gabon said it would stop allowing tourists to see apes over fears that humans could give them the virus.
The word orangutan means ‘person of the forest’ and orangutans are perfectly adapted to their habitat. Their long arms and palm-like- feet allow them to grasp branches and travel with ease through the forest canopy. Orangutans open up the forest canopy by breaking off branches and creating gaps, allowing light to reach the forest floor.
There are three species: the Bornean orangutan (Pongo pygmaeus), the Sumatran orangutan (Pongo abelii), and the Tapanuli orangutan (Pongo tapanuliensis). The orangutan’s preferred habitat is a low-lying peat-swamp forest. Their distribution is influenced by fruit availability and is rarely found above 500m.
According to the Population and Habitat Viability Assessment (PHVA) in May 2017 there are an estimated 57,000 Bornean orangutans, 13,000 Sumatran orangutans, and 800 Tapanuli orangutan in the wild. By 2080, if current trends continue, it has been projected that the Bornean orangutan will lose 70-80% of its forest habitat.
Indonesia is the world’s largest palm oil producer. Palm oil is a type of vegetable oil produced from the kernels of oil palm trees. The local orangutan population is threatened because their habitat, low-lying tropical rainforest, has been cleared and converted to oil-palm plantations. In recent years, fires have been used to clear land for the development of oil-palm plantations. Fires have been traditionally used for slash and burn to clear areas for farmland. However, when the fires coincide with an El Nino year (which results in a longer than a normal dry season) they can burn out of control.
Mining in recent years has caused irreversible damage to Indonesia’s forests. Illegal open cast mining for gold and zircon in protected areas has turned the lush primary rainforest into a barren and lifeless desert. Mercury, used in the mining process, contaminates the river systems, killing fish and other wildlife.