Sharing 96.4% of human genes and Critically Endangered: the Orangutan

Orangutans are known to be highly intelligent creatures – they share 96.4% of human genes.  Orangutans, with their distinctive red fur, are the largest arboreal mammal and spend most of their time in trees.  Orangutans play a crucial role in seed dispersal in their tropical forests.  They have a very low reproduction rate, which makes their populations extremely vulnerable.  Females give birth to one baby at a time every 3 to 5 years.  Therefore their species take a very long time to regenerate after population declines.  As human pressures continue to increase, orangutans face an increasing threat of extinction.

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A baby orangutan. Photograph courtesy of http://www.orangutan.org

“Orangutan” means “man of the forest” in the Malay language.  They live solitary existences in lowland forests.  There are two species of orangutan: the Sumatran and the Bornean.  The two species differ slightly in behaviour and appearance, with both having shaggy red fur, but the Sumatran orangutans have longer facial hair, and Borneans reportedly have closer social bonds.  Both these species have experienced dramatic population declines.  There were over 230 000 orangutans in the world a century ago, but today the number of Bornean orangutans is estimated to be at about 41 000 (enlisted as Endangered), and the Sumatran orangutans at about 7 5000 (enlisted as Critically Endangered).

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The highly intelligent, piercing eyes of an orangutan. Photograph courtesy of http://www.orangutan.org

The orangutan is Asia’s only great ape.  Their habitats are rapidly disappearing in order to make way for agricultural plantations, such as oil palm plantations.  Deforestation is also a huge problem: there is illegal logging within protected areas, and unsustainable logging in orangutan habitats, which are major threats to their survival.  Today, over 50% of orangutans live in forests outside of the protected areas, where the forests are managed by palm oil, mining and timber companies.

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Deforestation in Borea, what is left of an orangutan habitat. Photograph courtesy of http://www.commercialpressuresonland.org.

Unfortunately, orangutans are large and slow targets, which makes them easy targets for hunters.  They are hunted for food, or they are killed when they enter into agricultural areas and destroy crops, which often occurs when orangutans cannot find sufficient food in the forest.  Females are more frequently hunted.  When a female is caught with offspring, the babies are often kept as pets, and the pet trade is a huge problem.  For each orangutan that enters Taiwan, it is thought that as many as 3-5 additional individuals die in the process.  There have been recent enforcements in the Taiwan law, which has reduced the importation of orangutans.  However, the trade continues to be a threat in Indonesia where there is still a large demand for orangutans as pets.  There is also trade in orangutan skulls in Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo).

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A baby orangutan – many of which are traded illegally on the pet trade. Photograph courtesy of http://www.orangutan.org

Efforts towards orangutan conservation include conserving and protecting orangutan habitat, promoting sustainable agriculture and forestry, anti-poaching, and ending the illegal pet trade.  WWF does work in Sumatra and Borneo to secure wider forest landscapes and to secure well-managed protected areas in order to connect sub-populations of orangutans.  Orangutan populations are monitored, and there is also work done on ecotourism and providing community based support for orangutan conservation.

This video is from http://www.orangutan.org.  It shares important, insightful information about orangutans, their major threats, and conservation work.

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The world’s rarest cat: The Amur leopard

In the Russian Far East, a rare subspecies of leopard, the Amur leopard, has adapted to life in the temperate forests and mountains.  It is also known as the Far East leopard or the Korean leopard.  The Amur leopard is teetering on the brink of extinction.  The species is threatened by poaching, encroaching civilisation and habitat loss due to forest exploitation.

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Photo courtesy of WWF

The Amur leopard is the rarest cat in the world.  According to WWF, there are only about 30 individuals in the world today.  As there is such a small population remaining, the loss of each leopard placing the species at a greater risk of extinction.

Amur leopards are critically endangered largely due to the illegal wildlife trade.  They are poached mainly for their remarkable spotted fur.  In 1999, an undercover investigation team found a female and male Amur leopard skin that were being sold for $500 and $1000 respectively in the village of Barabash, which was close to the Kedrovaya Pad Reserve in Russia.  Villages and agriculture surround the leopards’ natural habitat of forests.  Consequently, these forests are relatively accessible.  Amur leopards are most often killed by local Russians who live in small villages in and around the leopard habitat.  Most of the villagers hunt entirely illegally.  Poaching is therefore not only a problem for the leopards themselves, but also for important prey species, such as sika deer, roe deer and hare, as these are hunted by the villagers for cash and food.

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Photo courtesy of WWF

The prey base in the forest of the Amur Leopards’ habitat is insufficient for the leopards’ survival.  Prey populations could only recover if the use of their forests by local people is controlled and regulated.  Measures must also be taken to limit the poaching and hunting of hoofed prey species.  There are still large territories of suitable habitat for the Amur leopard both in Russia and China.  However, in China particularly, this significant shortage of prey cannot support large populations of leopards and tigers.  Efforts must be made to limit the poaching of prey species, and the logging of forests must be managed more sustainably, in order to make these large traits adequately habitable for the leopards.

Another acute concern for the Amur leopards is the problem of inbreeding.  This problem is further exasperated by the leopards having such a tiny population, as there are only about 20-25 leopards left in the wild today.  This remaining population could disappear as a result of genetic degeneration.  The levels of diversity are remarkably low, which indicates a history of inbreeding over several generations.  These levels of genetic reduction could impede health, survival and reproduction of some, but not all, genetically diminished small populations.

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Photo courtesy of WWF

The Amur Leopard and Tiger Alliance (ALTA) is an initiative, made up of Russian and western conservation organisations, that works toward the conservation and protection of Amur leopards and tigers.  It works towards securing a future for these species in the Russian Far East and Northeast China.  ALTA collaborates with local, regional and federal government, and non-government organisations to protect the area’s biological wealth through sustainable development, conservation and local community involvement.  In this way, the extraordinary Amur leopard can hopefully be brought back from the brink of extinction, and onto the road of recovery.

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These men form part of the anti-poaching brigade of the Lazovsky State Nature Reserve. The work towards protecting the Amur leopard from poachers. Photo courtesy of WWF

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Photo courtesy of WWF

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Photo courtesy of WWF