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Saving the man of the forest from mankind: protecting the orangutan means restoring its habitat. And with only two populations of this most human-like great ape left, there's not a moment to waste.

There are places in Southeast Asia where more than 700 species of trees coexist in patches of tropical forest as small as 25 acres. There are also places in Southeast Asia where every minute of every day a piece of these forests the size of six football fields disappears.


Our world's forests are vanishing; this is no secret. Illegal logging of tropical forests is rampant, often to supply countries like the United States, China, and Japan, countries fueled by economic growth and hungry for cheap lumber.

With those trees go countless species known to most of us only in books or zoos. According to the World Conservation Union, after Ecuador and the U.S., Malaysia and Indonesia have more endangered species than any other country. Among those is the orangutan, a primate at times so human-like it's not surprising when Sumatran Orangutan Society director Cindy Bowen explains that its name translates to man of the forest.

Orangutans are a keystone species in the forest ecosystem because they help regenerate trees through the fruits and seeds in their diet. It is a mutual dependency; the great apes, which can live 40 to 50 years, spend their lives above the forest floor, even drinking from pools of rainwater made among the tree canopy.

Up to six times stronger than man, their long arms and hands have adapted to make swinging through the trees seem effortless. In an average day orangutans are known to weave two to three nests as they move throughout the treetops.

Orangutans once ranged from Southeast Asia to southern China, but have disappeared from much of their historic habitat and are found now only on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo.

AMERICAN FORESTS, with support from The Shared Earth Foundation, has teamed with local groups the Sumatran Orangutan Society (SOS) and the Batu Puteh Community Cooperative (MESCOT) to restore habitat for these last two populations of orangutans, both endangered. Some 7,300 Sumatran orangutans (Pongo pygmaeus var. abelii) remain, found only on Sumatra, one of Indonesia's 18,108 islands. Borneo, an island where Indonesia and Malaysia's borders find common ground, is home to 20,000 Borneon orangutans (Pongo pygmaeus).


The species are dying out at a rate of 1,000 a year, experts say, compounded by a slow birth rate; the primates produce only one offspring every seven or eight years.

Both Global ReLeaf projects will restore forest-land for orangutan habitat and work with local communities to educate them on proper forest management, eco-tourism, and conservation principles, ensuring the future of these areas for the great apes.

Over the next two years 72,000 trees will be planted, which will aid in the survival of other endangered wildlife as well, including the storms stork, Borneon bristlehead, and rare endemic species such as the proboscis monkey and Borneon gibbon.



Tropical forests historically have been a threatened habitat. Nearly half of the planet's original 4 billion acres of tropical forests have been felled, and one estimate suggests 35 million acres continue to be cut annually.

At that rate, the Borneo Tropical Rainforest Foundation warns, we will lose 1 to 10 percent of the world's species in the next 25 years. And that means the orangutan could well be the next of Southeast Asia's 4,000 endangered species to go the way of the already extinct Javan rhinoceros and tiger.

How did the tropical forests of Southeast Asia get to this point? Consisting of a 3,100-mile-long chain of 20,000 islands, Southeast Asia is second only to the Amazon in biodiversity. During times of lower sea levels, Malaysia, Indonesia, and their islands were all part of the same land mass.

As waters rose after the last ice age, they separated, creating distinctive separate species and an amazing array of biodiversity. Their isolation on separate islands not only played to individual species' diversity but served as a natural defense against threats.

That changed, though, when logging and clearing forestland for agriculture started in earnest in the mid-1900s. The tropical forests of Southeast Asia's island countries were seen as a bottomless resource and a sure livelihood. In some cases--Sumatra is one--lowland areas have been completely stripped of their forest cover.

In the last 20 years alone, SOS director Bowen says, more than 80 percent of Sumatran orangutan habitat has disappeared. A 2001 report by the World Bank suggests that unless something is done by 2010, all lowland forest on Borneo will be gone as well.



For the orangutan, this deforestation both puts pressure on its habitat and gives exotic pet hunters deeper access to its remaining populations.

Perhaps some of the fascination with orangutans comes from their similarity to humans. The largest tree-dwelling mammal, and the only great ape living on the Asian continent, orangutans share 96.4 percent of our genes. These highly intelligent great apes use tools to hunt for food, and shelter themselves from sun and rain. Experts say that by age 10, most have learned to identify more than 200 different plants that provide food.

Researchers have even recorded behaviors unique to the two remaining species. A report published in 2003 by an orangutan behavior study group states: "In parts of Borneo, orangutans use handfuls of leaves as napkins, wiping leftover food from their chins. Orangutans in parts of Sumatra, conversely, use leaves as gloves, helping them handle spiny fruits and branches, or as seat cushions in spiny trees."


At the Bohorok Orangutan Center in Northern Sumatra, the first center of its kind working towards the preservation of the Sumatran orangutan and its habitat, staff and volunteers care for formerly captive orangutans, reintroducing many into the wild. A visit in 1987 by Bowen spurred her to volunteer in 1989 and later continue her work toward protecting orangutans as president of SOS.

Through its partnership with AMERICAN FORESTS, SOS works with local indigenous community members to replant thousands of seedlings in deforested areas. A total of 42,000 mangrove and hardwood seedlings will be planted to restore forests as well as coastal mangrove forests in the wake of the 2004 tsunami.

Since orangutans spend most of their lives in trees, these reforestation efforts are crucial to their survival. The SOS-OIC Nursery and Replanting Project is the first major tree-planting program in the region.

First, nursery houses are built from bamboo and netting screens to allow seedlings to propagate and grow. Community members then are taught to maintain the nurseries and seedlings; they also learn important environmental education and conservation principles. Once the seedlings are ready, community members will plant and maintain them.

On Borneo, where one of the largest remaining areas of forestland and orangutan habitat in Southeast Asia exists, a two-year reforestation project in the Supu Forest Reserve will focus on reforesting the Lower Kinabatangan River of Sabah, Malaysia, restoring the reserve's forest and wildlife resources.

Over the last 30 years, 90 percent of the land along the Lower Kinabatangan has been logged and used for agriculture, primarily for palm oil plantations. Palm oil is found in many everyday products such as chocolate, margarine, ice cream, toothpaste and soap. Indonesia and Malaysia are both major exporters of palm oil, and the current climate in both countries favors expanding land for this agricultural commodity over properly managing and preserving remaining forestland.


This internationally traded vegetable oil also is being used with the development of biofuels. A report from SOS states; "Since 1995 there has been more than a 90 percent increase in palm oil use ... while this cleaner-burning renewable energy source is looked upon by some as an environmentally sensitive solution to the looming crash in the supply of crude oil, it is likely to be catastrophic for the remaining rainforests in Indonesia and Malaysia," increasing both demand and the incentive for increased production.

The Supu Forest Reserve has seen this forest fragmentation firsthand. Some of the reserve's most degraded areas are slated for restoration as a Global ReLeaf Forest; some 30,000 trees are to be planted.

Similar to SOS, MESCOT--with support from AMERICAN FORESTS' Global ReLeaf, The Shared Earth Foundation, and The Abraham Foundation--will work within the local community by growing the seedlings from its local nursery and encouraging conservation at the local level. Eco-tourism and education at the community level will ensure the longevity of this project and future initiatives.

Organizations and individuals across the globe have come to realize the threat deforestation puts on orangutans and other endangered species that make their homes in Southeast Asia's tropical forests.


While demand for forest and agricultural products from Indonesia and Malaysia increases worldwide, orangutan conservation groups have sprung up throughout the United States, Canada, Australia, and Europe. Research initiatives and reforestation projects are taking steps to protect and restore both Sumatran and Borneon orangutans and their habitat.

By working with local communities, AMERICAN FORESTS' partners MESCOT and the Sumatran Orangutan Society help create sustainable forest management, ecotourism opportunities, and secure the future of the orangutan through planting trees. Someday soon, we hope, this "man of the forest" will be safe from the other men--and women--who share its habitat.

Ethan Kearns directs AMERICAN FORESTS' Global ReLeaf and Big Tree programs.

To support either of these projects--to protect the Borneon orangutan (Pongo pygmaeus) or the Sumatran orangutan (Pongo pygmaeus var. abelii)--please visit AMERICAN FORESTS' website, There you also can learn more about other Global ReLeaf Forests projects.

Photos by Minden Pictures.
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Author:Kearns, Ethan
Publication:American Forests
Geographic Code:90ASI
Date:Jun 22, 2006
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