A New Conservation Conundrum: The Tapanuli Orangutan

Josh Wright

17 Nov 2017

asia's newest primate species is already fighting extinction

For the first time since 1929 when the bonobo was described by German anatomist Ernst Schwarz, a new species of great ape has been discovered, adding another branch to the human family tree. Although not exactly hiding in plain sight, the members of the newly described Pongo tapanuliensis - the Tapanuli orangutan – were known to scientists, but were not thought to constitute a distinct species. This was until a detailed genetic study revealed significant differences between the Bornean orangutan (Pongo pygmaeus) and Sumatran orangutan (Pongo abelii) – the two previously known species of orangutan - and an individual from the Batang Toru region in northern Sumatra.

But it’s not just its genes which separates the Tapanuli orangutan from the two existing species. The Tapanuli’s skull and jaw bones are less robust than those of their cousins, while their hair is thicker and curlier. Males can be identified by their distinctive moustache and protruding beard, as well as their noticeably flatter cheek pads which are covered in fine blonde hair.

Their “long call” – used to communicate with other orangutans when it is time to mate - is also noticeably distinct, as is their diet. 

The Tapanuli consumes a number of plant species that have never been seen to be eaten by Borneans and Sumatrans. The Tapanuli orangutan has also demonstrated the ability to use tools, which has previously only been observed in high-density orangutan populations living in lowland swamp forest. The Tapanuli’s high-altitude habitat – living some 900-1,100 metres above sea level – sets them apart in this regard.

The celebration that would normally accompany a scientific discovery of this magnitude has been tempered by the Tapanuli orangutan’s immediate assumption of a particularly unwanted title: that of the world’s rarest great ape. 

Fewer than 800 individuals are thought to exist in the wild, all restricted to an area of about 400 square miles in Sumatra’s Batang Toru ecosystem. 

The Tapanuli population have supplanted the mountain gorilla, who were estimated to number around 880 individuals in September 2016. In contrast, there are an estimated 100,000 Bornean orangutans still extant, and around 15,000 Sumatran orangutans.

As close cousins of this newly discovered species, we must make sure that the international attention brought about by the emergence of the Tapanuli orangutan is not allowed to simply peter out to be replaced by whatever arises in the next news cycle. The extinction of any species is a tragedy – particularly those in which we played a part – but to allow such a close relative to fade into history would serve as a real indictment of the value we place on our part in the earth’s wider ecosystem.

All one need do is look into the eyes of any primate to get a sense of our place on the continuum of life on this planet. Millions of years ago, we all shared a common ancestor – human, orangutan, gorilla, lemur – and these charismatic creatures that we now share the planet with are reminders of the essential fact that everyone and everything on earth is part of a whole. Would the human race survive without the Tapanuli orangutan, the golden-faced capuchin or the red-eyed tree frog? Absolutely. From the cave lion to the dodo, we have shown ourselves eminently capable of eradicating animals by virtue of our immensely superior brains, with no ill effect to us. We can’t blame our cave-dwelling ancestors for their survival methods. Perhaps not even those 16th- and 17th-century sailors who wanted nothing more than a good meal after months at sea. But there is no excuse for ignorance or indifference to the plight of life on earth today.

Some consider the earth to now be experiencing its sixth mass extinction. To put this into context, the last of these occurred 66 million years ago when an asteroid impact wiped out the dinosaurs. We are now losing species at a rate that is thought to be 100 to 1,000 times higher than natural background rates. The damage we have already done to our planet means we will not be able to stem this tide completely, but we can all at least do our part to protect our fellow living organisms who still have a fighting chance. Although 85% of the Tapanuli orangutan’s Batang Toru ecosystem is listed as protected forest, the species is still under threat from hunting, deforestation, gold mining, illegal logging and a planned hydroelectric power plant. Donations and frontline conservation work help, but the value of changing the way we think about who we share our home with – our only home – will be priceless in our fight to save them.

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