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Out on a Limb: Saving the Orangutan

A thousand years ago orangutans (oh RANG uh tans) lived in the forests of Southeast Asia and southern China, as well as on the Indonesian islands of Sumatra (soo MAH trah) and Borneo (BOHR nee oh). Today they live only in Borneo and a very small part of Sumatra. Scientists fear that the red-haired apes might die off within a few years.

“[Orangutans] are poised on the edge of extinction,” said Dr. Birute Gladikas (bee ROOT uh glah DEE kuhs), an orangutan expert. “It's that simple.”

Save the Apes

For decades, orangutans have been under assault, mostly by loggers who are destroying the animal's natural environment—the rain forests of Borneo and Sumatra.

Because humans are forcing orangutans out of their habitat, environmentalists have stepped up a program they hope will stop the apes from disappearing. Some of the apes are born in captivity; others are rescued in the wild.

Late last year, the Balikpapan (BAH leek PAH pahn) Orangutan Survival Foundation (BOSF) released 40 four-to-five-year-old orangutans in the jungle on Borneo. The release was the largest in 10 years. To date, the foundation has released 400 orangutans into the wild.

One of those animals was a female orangutan named Luna. Foundation officials found Luna caged in a hotel room on the Indonesian island of Bali (BAH lee). The agency rescued her in 1999. Before releasing Luna, the officials spent two years making sure Luna was healthy and could take care of herself. “Luna is now capable of climbing trees, making her own nests, and foraging for food,” said Dr. Willie Smits, of the BOSF.

Just Like Us

About 20,000 orangutans still live in the wild, a decrease of 50 percent in 10 years. Scientists say between 5,000 and 6,000 orangutans survive in the rain forests of Sumatra, and another 10,000 to 15,000 live in Borneo.

Unlike chimpanzees and gorillas, orangutans are the least studied of all the primates, although, scientists say, orangutans are our closest relatives.

“Orangutans are naturally the most intelligent of the great apes,” said Smits. “They're so close to us that we can learn a huge amount about [ourselves].”

Scientists say that, like humans, orangutans can be loving parents. Orangutan mothers generally spend eight years teaching their children what types of plants to eat.

They also teach their children how to use tools. For example, orangutans enjoy eating a tasty but hard-to-eat fruit known as “puwin.” Thick needles surround the fruit, making it hard for the apes to get at the juicy seeds. Scientists say the apes learned to use a thin stick to handle the prickly husk and extract the fruit. When orangutans are sick, they know how to make themselves feel better by eating the right forest plant.

Paradise Gone

Smits said that in order for orangutans to survive, the Indonesian government must protect the rain forests in Sumatra and Borneo, something it has not wanted to do.

Indonesia contains about 10 percent of the world's rain forests, but the country is losing millions of acres each year to logging. The orangutans are quickly running out of room.

“The destruction of the tropical rain forest is accelerating daily,” Galdikas said. “The consequences of this destruction for the orangutans will be final. And if orangutans go extinct in the wild, paradise is gone. And we'll never have it again.”