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 face of Climate Change: the Polar bear

Classified as marine mammals, Polar bears spend most of their lives on the Atlantic Ocean’s sea ice.  Polar bears spend over 50% of their time hunting for food, however only 2% of their hunts are successful.  The biggest threat to the survival of Polar bears is the loss of sea ice habitat due to climate change.  Other important threats include over-harvesting, industrial impacts and human-polar bear conflicts.

Photo courtesy of WWF

Photo courtesy of WWF

The latest data from the IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group shows that Polar Bears face a high estimated risk of future decline, because of climate change.  Climate change leads to the ongoing loss of sea-ice habitat, which resulted in Polar Bears being enlisted as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act in May 2008.  Polar bears play a very important role in the overall health of the marine environments, as they are at the top of the food chain.  Their existence depends upon sea ice: they are then directly impacted by climate change. Polar bears therefore serve as an important indicator species.

Climate change forces polar bears to spend much more time onshore.  They then come into contact more regularly with Arctic communities.  Unfortunately, these interactions usually end in polar bear- human conflicts and sometimes end badly for both the bears and the humans.

Photo courtesy of news.sciencemag.org

Photo courtesy of news.sciencemag.org

In the Arctic, most industrial development has only been on fairly small pieces of land.  A new ocean is emerging with the retreating of the summer sea ice, this allows for more opportunities of industrial development at sea and on larger sections of land.  However, the retreating sea ice causes polar bears to spend longer periods on land for denning.  This all places industrial activities and polar bears on a potential collision course.  Offshore petroleum operations and installations are predicted to increase in number.  It is highly likely that this will affect polar bears and their habitats in several ways.  This includes polar bears coming into contact with spilled oil (which would be fatal), an oil spill affecting the entire food chain, and there would be disturbance from noise generated from onshore and offshore oil operations.  An increase in Arctic shipping would also represent a threat to polar bears.  If traffic by oil tankers, cargo ships and barges increase in Arctic waters, so would the risk of oil spills and human disturbance increase.

Climate change poses the biggest threat to polar bears.  Polar bears rely on the sea ice, on which they can rest, breed and hunt seals.  The shorter sea ice season has reduced the length of time the bears can hunt for their prey.  Polar bears end up spending the summer without enough feeding, so they have to rely on fat stores from the previous summer in order to survive.  Many polar bears face malnutrition and possible starvation, particularly females with cubs.

Photo courtesy of DS World's Lands

Photo courtesy of DS World’s Lands

In order to effectively address and mitigate the effects of climate change on polar bears, there must be a strong global response to address the challenges of global warming.  WWF has successful instigated the creation of a global management plan for polar bears.  For more information about what WWF is doing, please click Here.

Many Arctic areas have effective polar bear monitoring and management plans.  However, unsustainable hunting still seems to be happening in some places.  Scientists are presently monitoring the movement and weight of polar bears in the Arctic.  They are working towards understanding the impact of different threats, such as the expansion of Arctic industry and climate change, and the effects that they have on different polar bear populations.  By tracking polar bears, scientists are able to map their range and observe how habitat may change over time concurrent to changes in sea ice, and therefore examine how polar bears change and adapt to this.

It must be ensured that whatever industrial development takes place in the Arctic is sustainable, and that it does not further damage ecosystems and wildlife populations.  Fortunately, there is collaboration between conservationists, scientists and local people in opposing gas and oil development in regions that are too ecologically vulnerable to be exposed to possible spill risks.  There is also work in preparing Arctic sensitivity maps, to help maritime vessels stay clear of ecologically vulnerable places.

Photo courtesy of DS World's Lands

Photo courtesy of DS World’s Lands

This video shows the Umky Patrol: Sharing knowledge about polar bears across the Arctic.

The poster child for endangered species: The giant panda

 

 

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The majestic and peaceful giant panda, with its distinctive black and white coat, is considered to be a national treasure in China, and is adored throughout the world.  The giant panda is seen as a sort of ambassador for all endangered species, as it is a well-recognized symbol of international wildlife conservation.  It has been the famous WWF logo since its founding in 1961.

Photo courtesy of weblessons.com

Photo courtesy of weblessons.com

The panda is the rarest member of the bear family.  Wild pandas only live in isolated mountainous regions of central China, where the high bamboo forests are wet and cool.  They have an insatiable appetite for bamboo, and eat 9 to 12 kilograms of it every day.  Pandas play an important role in the forests where they live, as they spread seeds and facilitate growth of vegetation.  The pandas’ habitat is in the geographic and economic heart of China, which is home to millions of people.  In order to increase the quality of life for the local populations, this area needs to be more sustainable.  Pandas bring significant economic benefits to local communities through ecotourism.

 

The Yangtze Basin in China is the panda’s main habitat.  However, the habitat is the heart of booming China.  Railways and roads are increasingly fragmenting the forest, and this isolates panda populations and inhibits mating.  Forest destruction also reduces the bamboo resources which pandas need to survive.  The Chinese government has established over 50 reserves for the pandas, but only about 61% of China’s panda population is protected by the reserves.

 

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Photo courtesy of WWF

According to WWF, there are about 1600 giant pandas left in the world today, which categorize them as Endangered species.  By the end of 2006, there were 180 pandas reported in captivity in Mainland China, and about 20 in other countries.  Hunting continues to be an ever-present threat.  The poaching of pandas for their fur has been reduced due to strict regulations and greater public awareness of the pandas’ protected status.  However, there are hunters seeking to hunt other animals in panda habitats, and pandas are killed accidentally.

 

Working towards protecting the giant panda includes increasing the area of panda habitat under legal protection; patrolling against illegal logging, encroachment and poaching; creating green corridors to connect isolated pandas; continued monitoring, research and establishing local capacities for nature reserve management.  WWF has been assisting the Chinese government’s National Conservation Program for the giant panda and its habitat.  This has resulted in the reserves now covering over 3.8 million acres of forest.

Photo courtesy of China.org.cn

Photo courtesy of China.org.cn

 

For more information please see National Geographic  – the Giant Panda