The single biggest threat to orangutans in both Borneo and Sumatra is the loss of their rainforest habitat. However, young orangutans are also still highly valued as pets, although its illegal to capture or keep them. Orangutan mothers are invariably killed to obtain their infants.
Orangutan populations have declined drastically in the last century and especially in recent decades. The most recent survey results suggest only around 14,000 Sumatran orangutans remain on the island (Wich et al. 2016). Due to its rate of decline the species is listed on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species as Critically Endangered, and was recently recognized once again as one of the ‘World’s Top 25 Most Endangered Primates’ (Singleton et al., 2015).
This is due to number of ongoing, persistent threats, such as:
The most significant immediate threats are the wholesale conversion and increasing fragmentation of forests. Between 1950-2013, nearly half of Indonesia's forests were cleared, reducing overall forest cover in the country from 162 million to 82 million hectares. In Sumatra alone forest cover was reduced by 55% between 1985 and 2014.
Often the forests are cleared altogether, e.g. for timber or for monoculture palm oil or pulp and paper concessions, or by smaller scale farmers to gain extra agricultural land (known as encroachment). Forests are also degraded and damaged, e.g. by illegal logging, by fires and by drainage of adjacent areas, which is a particular problem in the peat swamp forests.
In the northernmost provinces of North Sumatra and Aceh where the world’s remaining Sumatran orangutans reside, large scale conversion is almost exclusively for expansion of palm oil plantations, but to a lesser degree also for mining, logging and smaller-scale agriculture settlements.
Habitat fragmentation is another ever-present threat to orangutans. Simply cutting a road through the forest can cut an orangutan population in half, even if the forest on either side is largely left in tact, because orangutans are very reluctant to leave the trees and cross open areas on the ground. This can render viable populations (those likely to survive in the long-term) into two or more much smaller populations that are not likely to survive more than a few decades.
Hunting and killing of orangutans also still occurs. In some cases the orangutans are even eaten, such as in parts of Borneo, and a few areas of North Sumatra, but most of the orangutans that are killed die as their forests are being cleared, due to malnutrition and eventual starvation, due to fires used to clear the forest and understory, or killed deliberately (by machetes, fires, beaten with clubs, or simply shot) by farmers (when they steal fruit crops at the forest edge) or plantation workers as they clear the forests and orangutans become trapped and isolated in any small fragments or stands of just a few trees that remain.
Despite it being illegal to kill, capture, keep or trade orangutans in Indonesia, many do still find their way to people’s homes as pets or into the black market animal trade. Some people in Indonesia and overseas are still willing to pay high prices to purchase young orangutans. In some cases they may not realise that by buying an infant they are themselves perpetuating this horrific trade and further depleting the wild orangutan population. Often, however, they do know full well that it is illegal, but still flout the law. Particularly worrying is the large number of high ranking officials, including members of the police, the armed forces, and even government politicians, who in their arrogance take pleasure in keeping endangered wildlife as a sign of their perceived ‘superior status’, demonstrating to others that they are above the law.
When capturing young orangutans it is not only the infants themselves that suffer. No orangutan mother will give up her offspring without a fight. On the contrary, she will defend her infant to the death, and that is invariably exactly what happens: the mothers frequently being clubbed and beaten unconscious with sticks, stones and machetes until the infant can be snatched from their bodies. Attacks like this are extremely brutal and almost always end in the mother’s death. There are even cases of adult orangutans being burned alive, including occasions where they have been first doused in petrol and then set alight. Ironically, the infant is often killed during the capture process as well, either in the initial fall from the trees, still clinging onto its mother’s abdomen, during the beating that ensues, or in the filthy and insanitary conditions that such pets are subsequently kept in. Even the lucky few infants that do survive the initial days or weeks of captivity, the process of capture, transport and trade is extremely traumatic, and many still eventually succumb and die from the stress.
A very conservative estimate suggests that probably only one out of every three infants captured ever survives the experience, meaning that for every one that does survive long enough to become someone’s pet, at least 5 others (2 infants and 3 mothers) have probably died in the process. SOCP’s Dr Ian Singleton often describes illegal pet orangutans as the “lucky” survivors of forest conversion. Dr Singleton also often refers to illegal pets as ‘refugees’ whose forest habitat no longer exists.