Their expressive eyes and thoughtful gazes reflect so many human characteristics that it’s no wonder the word orangutan roughly translates in Indonesian to “person of the forest.” And while orangutans and humans are similar in both appearance and intelligence, human endeavors into the orangutans’ native forests have also posed a serious threat to the species.
Although most people will never encounter an orangutan in the wild, the effort to save wild populations begins at home with awareness, which is the focus of Orangutan Caring Week each November.
Orangutans live exclusively in the wild in the Asian rainforests of Borneo and Sumatra, for which the two sub-species are named. In total, only about 40,000 of these great apes survive there — the Bornean orangutan is listed as endangered while the Sumatran orangutan is critically endangered.
Orangutans are the largest tree-dwelling primate in the world, so the problem of deforestation on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra is a major threat to this species. According to the Orangutan Conservancy, an organization that works to protect the species’ natural habitat, orangutans have lost more than 80 percent of their forest habitat in the past 20 years. The deforestation rate has accelerated considerably since 1998 and, at the current rate, orangutans are projected to disappear from the wild in only a decade.
The deforestation is driven by both the logging and palm oil industries, and the products of these industries can be seen on store shelves throughout the United States. Although some of these items are produced through sustainable means, many are not, and differentiating can be very difficult. So the Orangutan Conservancy has put together a list of items to avoid to help consumers understand where their dollars are best spent.
The illegal pet trade also significantly impacts wild populations of orangutans. After the mothers are killed, orangutan babies are sold off as pets or into the entertainment industry.
Educating visitors about the struggles orangutans face in the wild will be a major role of the International Orangutan Center, which is scheduled to open at the Indianapolis Zoo in May 2014. Find out more about the project and how you can support its mission.