Climate change spells trouble for orangutans

Orangutan

A mother orangutan and her baby in Central Kalimantan, Indonesia. (© Will Turner)

Editor’s note: August 19 is World Orangutan Day.

The world’s orangutan population is dwindling. Native to only two islands — Sumatra and Borneo — orangutans are threatened by deforestation, fire and climate change. In Borneo, their numbers have fallen by 60 percent since 1950 — and experts project there will be fewer than 50,000 in less than a decade.

As this species faces the effects of climate change and encroaching humans, protecting them — and their habitats — has never been more important. Here are three of the greatest threats they face.

1. Shifting temperatures

Changing temperatures and rainfall patterns as a result of climate change affect where orangutans can find the tree fruits and leaves they eat. Orangutans are also less likely to reproduce when food is scarce.

Roaming into new territory in search of food can also spur human-orangutan conflict. Orangutan babies are illegally sold as pets, while an estimated 2,500 orangutans in Borneo alone are killed for their meat each year.

2. Deforestation

Orangutans spend 90 percent of their lives in trees. Cutting down tropical forests for palm oil plantations and illegal logging destroys critical orangutan habitat and releases carbon stored in trees, contributing to climate change. As palm oil plantations in Indonesia and Malaysia expand to meet rising consumer demand, unsustainably cultivated crops replace forests, and orangutans are occasionally killed as agricultural pests.

Making sure tropical forests remain standing helps protect orangutans and other wildlife while tackling climate change. To keep deforestation out of palm oil supply chains, CI is working with companies and governments in Indonesia, Brazil, and other key palm-oil-producing countries.

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3. Fires

Longer dry seasons are increasing the dangers of fire in Borneo. Fire fragments orangutan habitat and threatens their food sources by lowering the number of fruit-bearing trees on which they rely.

Aside from wildfires, burning to clear forests for agricultural land also burns underlying peatlands, an important carbon sink. Peatlands, whose soil consists of compressed and wet organic material, store twice the carbon of all the planet’s forests while accounting for only 3 percent of land area. Longer, hotter and drier fires across forests and peatlands will release even more carbon into the atmosphere while accelerating habitat loss for orangutans.

Protecting orangutans means protecting forests — and the climate they help to regulate.

Leah Duran is a staff writer for CI.

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