Endangered Bornean Orangutans Threatened Further By Wildfires, Both Natural And Human-Made
rangutans are among the closest relatives of Homo sapiens, and their three known species are part of the seven great apes — chimpanzees, bonobos and the eastern and western gorillas being the other four — that have survived the onslaught of time and human activity. The latter, particularly land clearing for agriculture and felling trees for logging, are considered as the main factors that have brought orangutans close to the edge of extinction, but a new threat has been brought to light — wildfires.
All three species of orangutans — Bornean, Sumatran and the recently discovered Tapanuli — are found in a small part of Southeast Asia, mostly in Indonesia, and are already listed as critically endangered in the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species. Indonesia is also infamous for its annual forest fires, which sometimes blanket the entire region in smoke and haze for months.
Wendy Erb, a researcher from Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, was studying male orangutans in Indonesian Borneo when the fires started (often done by small farmers to clear forest land) in 2015. A few weeks later, Erb noticed a change in the male orangutans’ vocalizations, specifically in the call scientists think males use to attract females and to warn other males.
“I thought they sounded raggedy, a little like humans who smoke a lot,” Erb said in a statement Tuesday, and that prompted her to investigate the effects of inhaling smoke on the orangutans’ health.