How to save orangutans: High-calorie forests

"If you want to increase the populations of this endangered species, you need to make sure that they are being reintroduced into suitable habitats," Erin Vogel says. (Credit: Gemma Llorensí Torrent/Flickr)

Habitat loss is the greatest threat to endangered orangutans, but conservationists say the key to saving them is to reintroduce them into forests that have enough high-energy food.

“If animals can’t obtain enough energy, reproductive output and population sizes will suffer,” says Erin Vogel, assistant professor of anthropology at Rutgers University.

A new study published in the journal PLOS ONE shows the density of Bornean orangutans is almost two times greater in an Indonesian peat-swamp forest—just 39 miles from similar surroundings where orangutans must survive on thousands of calories less each day for most of the year.

Orangutans could become extinct in the next decade if destruction to their habitats doesn’t stop.

“This study gives us a better understanding of how living in an unpredictable environment can influence the population density of large animals that spend the majority of their time in trees,” adds Vogel.

Orangutans living in the Tuanan Forest, located in Central Kalimantan, Indonesia, consumed almost 2,500 more calories each day when the availability of fruit was high and more than 800 calories in times of scarcity—compared to orangutans living in the nearby Sabangau Forest, which has a thicker layer of acidic peat that prevents fewer nutrients from reaching the vegetation from the soil.

“Walking through the forest you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference,” says Vogel. “The sites look the same, but one of the habitats appears to support a healthier population.”

Low-protein fruit

This is important because orangutans—closely related to humans, with 97 percent of DNA in common—could become extinct in the next decade if the destruction to their habitats does not stop. Rapid deforestation, mainly due to the oil palm industry and other agricultural plantations, the illegal pet trade, and poaching by killing mothers so their young can be taken, has resulted in the population in Borneo decreasing by more than 50 percent.

Many orangutans, forced from their forest homes, have been taken to rehabilitation centers and are now scheduled to be reintroduced into the wild.

[Crop fires are isolating rare monkeys in Africa]

If the orangutan population is to increase, conservationists must know which habitats will enable these great apes to thrive and reproduce successfully. The orangutan populations followed in the new study are two of the largest remaining populations of orangutans in Borneo.

“If you want to increase the populations of this endangered species, you need to make sure that they are being reintroduced into suitable habitats,” Vogel says. “It means looking at forests carefully, making sure they are productive, and that there is enough food to eat in terms of caloric gain.”

These long-haired, orange-colored, apes depend on low-protein fruit to survive and store fat when food is abundant, so they can survive on these fat reserves when food is scarce.

[Baboons with ‘boyfriends’ live longer]

Female orangutans give birth to one offspring only every seven to nine years. Reproductive success, Vogel says, is linked to the nutritional quality of orangutan diets and can have an impact on the density of the population.

“This work not only helps us understand why orangutan abundance varies between sites, but also suggests a mechanism through which forest degradation may reduce the number of orangutans that can be supported in an area because of the quality of foods available,” says Mark Harrison Harrison, managing director of the Orangutan Tropical Peatland Project and an honorary visiting fellow at the University of Leicester.

“Such considerations are likely to become increasingly important as orangutan habitat continues to be lost and damaged across Borneo and Sumatra, including by the dreadful forest fires currently blighting the region.”

Source: Rutgers University