Orangutans, Sun Bears, and Deforestation, Oh My!
The orangutan, from the Malay words “orang hutan,“ meaning “human of the forest,”
resides in the rain forests of the Southeast Asian islands of Borneo and Sumatra. Bornean orangutans are found in both Indonesia and Malaysia, meaning that Indonesia holds about 80 percent of the world’s wild orangutan population. Orangutans are the most intelligent beings on Earth after homosapiens, sharing 97% of our DNA. Bornean and Sumatran orangutans look almost identical, except that Sumatran orangutans are distinguished by their longer facial hair. In the wild, they spend their nearly 40-year lifespan swinging atop trees and building nests, making them the largest tree-dwelling mammal. Adult male orangutans can tip the scales at 140kg or more.
Young orangutans leave home much earlier than human children, and the bond they form is about as close-knit as it gets. Mothers sleep in the nest with their offspring every night until the next baby is born. Orangutans also have the longest birth interval of any mammal: Females give birth just once in eight years. This results in four or five babies in her lifetime—a factor which has made orangutans unfortunately prone to extinction.
Leave Me Be
Once the young orangutan has learned the necessary skills to survive on his or her own—around six or seven years of age—they’re sent off to obtain their forest education, the human equivalent of landing a job, procreating, and paying the mortgage. In this respect, orangutans are way ahead of humans in the maturity race. Unlike humans and other great apes such as gorillas and chimpanzees, who tend to live in social groups, however, orangutans prefer extended time alone. A male will howl menacingly as a warning to others to stay far away from his territory. When males do fight, they take a page from the Mike Tyson playbook; charging, grappling, and biting any and all facial protrusions. Their unique cheek-pads are a trait unique to males and serve as a symbol of dominance over other males and a feature of attraction to females.
Sumatran orangutans are said to be more social than the Bornean species, but as a rule, orangutans are generally antisocial in the wild and quite elusive. This could very well be an adaptive trait resulting from the mass degradation of forestland that sends them higher into the forest canopy. Rehabilitative programs that observe ex-captive orangutans in places with fertile land and abundant food sources report more social behavior among orangutans, as compared to places where their ecosystems are being destroyed.
And Then There Were None
Across southern China, Indochina, Java, and southern Sumatra, orangutans flourished 12,000 years ago. Sadly, they are now extinct in all those regions. Bornean orangutans make up just 54,000 of the orangutan population, a fact that classifies them as an endangered species. Critically endangered Sumatran orangutans number just 6,600. An even smaller population of a lesser-known but distinct third species—the Tapanuli orangutan—was discovered in on the island of Sumatra in Indonesia in November 2017. There are just 800 of the species on Earth.
Sun Bears Deserve Our Protection
There’s more. Another mammal, just as or more elusive than the orangutan. Sun bears, inhabit the tropical forests of southern China, Indochina and as far as eastern India. They are the smallest member of the bear family. Full-grown sun bears are typically just 130-138cm tall—half the size of the American Black Bear. White patches on their chests are said to represent the rising sun, and give rise to their sunny moniker. They also often ‘bear’ the name “dog bear” because of their canine-like stature, small ears, and short muzzles—or “honey bear” because of their ridiculously long tongues, which make it easy to scoop honey from bee nests.
Sun bears make sleeping nests from branches and leaves high up in the trees. This coverage and privacy is desirable, given the sun bears’ nocturnal nature. Both orangutans and sun bears feast on mainly fruits and insects, although orangutans consume more tree parts. Sun bears may also partake of ‘rodent a la carte’, thanks to their long claws and digging abilities. Their loose-fitting skin allows them to twist during a bite attack, enabling them to maneuver like any good martial artist and get a mouthful the aggressor.
Unlike male orangutans and North American bears, male sun bears—thought to be monogamous, bless their sunny little hearts—can be found sticking around home to help raise their cubs alongside the female. They have no need to hibernate because of the tropical climate and can mate throughout the year. They have a shorter lifespan than orangutans, living in the wild for around 25 years. No wonder they kick their cubs out even sooner compared to orangutans, after only 2 years of childrearing! Females have been seen to walk on their hind legs while cradling their cubs.
Conservation data on sun bears is limited, due to their elusive personality and remote habitat. Sadly, however, it’s been estimated that sun bear populations have declined by at least 30 percent over the past 30 years, due to large-scale deforestation occurring throughout Southeast Asia. As a result, sun bears have been listed as “vulnerable” on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species since 2007, although many researchers fear that sun bears are actually an endangered species.
Deforestation and Poaching
Sun bears share much of the same forestland as orangutans and it’s no secret that deforestation in these areas is a huge and rapidly growing problem. Both orangutans and sun bears are being poached for their body parts to be used as souvenirs or in medicinal products. It’s estimated that about half of traditional medicine shops in Malaysia sell bear bile and that hundreds, if not thousands, of bears are slaughtered every year to keep up with the demand.
Deforestation is big business in the areas where these species—sun bears and orangutans flourish—or used to. According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), over the past 40 years “the total land area planted with oil palm in Indonesia has grown some 30-fold to over three million hectares, while in Malaysia, oil palm agriculture has increased 12-fold to 3.5 million hectares.” Orangutans are being forced out of their habitats while newly farmed acreage abounds with foods that sun bears and orangutans find tempting. Small farmers cut paths in rainforests to plant their crops while large palm oil plantations spring up and expand to hundreds of thousands of acres. Both orangutans and sun bears are often killed on sight by farmers for eating oil palm, coconuts and bananas.
Don’t Fence Me In
Orangutan and sun bear mothers are also often killed so that their offspring can be taken as pets in the illegal exotic trade. Estimates as to the number of pet orangutans in Taipei alone are staggering. It’s predicted that there are more orangutan pets in the capital of Taiwan per square mile than currently living in the wild. These normally peaceable and charming species have received an unearned reputation for bad behavior when they grow from being cute to uncontrollable when confined.
The bushmeat trade gives way for further killing of orangutans and sun bears by poachers. Since many logging companies do not provide food for their workers, “they have to find food for themselves,” according to the Orangutan Conservancy. But on-the-job hunger isn’t the only reason for bushmeat consumption of sun bears and orangutans––it’s also a recreational activity driven by peer pressure––a way to climb the social ladder.
The conversion of rainforest land to unsustainable forms of agriculture, including the production of palm oil and pulp paper, can only be regarded as economical if by “economical” one actually means by passing on the costs of production to native species, as well as to indigenous and local communities that are powerless to stop the so-called march of progress. The reality is this: Relentless conversion without regard for the health of the ecosystems being impacted is unethical and prevents a sustainable economy from taking root in Indonesia, Malaysia, and other areas—not just for the present, but for generations to come. Case in point: Continued destruction of the rainforest causes more global warming than all the transport systems in the world combined.
So far, the dwindling numbers of orangutans and sun bears testify to a system that is working—not for the benefit of all, but to the detriment of the defenseless. What is manifestly true—if we open our eyes and roll up our sleeves—is that the protection of the rainforest can benefit not only sun bears and orangutans, but all manner of wildlife that live alongside them in some of the most biodiverse ecosystems in the world. The rainforest also benefits indigenous communities and local communities that rely on sustainable agriculture based on an understanding of climate regulation, natural hazard regulation, water purification and waste management, pollination, pest control, and the study of relationships between organisms and their environment.
When sustainable agriculture is managed properly, everybody—human and animal— wins for generations to come.
It will take work to get there. Read on to learn how you can help.
The Work Continues
Eco Companion is honored to be cooperating with some amazing organizations in Indonesia and Malaysia that serve to rehabilitate orangutans and sun bears and help to restore some of the deforested areas. The following offer you the opportunity to work firsthand to protect these species and to experience life and culture in Indonesia and Malaysia.
Under the Protected Wildlife Law, confiscated, injured or orphaned orangutans are thankfully rescued. Help rehabilitate these rescued orangutans and contribute to the welfare of around 200 animals at the Wildlife Rescue Centre in Java. Efforts made by volunteers also aid in helping the community within Java—which include assisting a club for children and teaching English classes for local people. Click the link below for more details.
This project offers the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to help rehabilitate orangutans and sun bears. Observe orangutan behavior on six natural areas established for orangutans unable to return to the wild. Care for crops, construct and repair nests, and get to know the breathtaking scenery with a sunset cruise on the Black River.
The first few nights are spent aboard a houseboat—offering a unique perspective of the wildlife from the water. Hike through the rainforest, sleep one night there and observe the orangutans at a rehabilitation center. Plant a tree in the National Park, “adopt” an orangutan for a year, and contribute to the reforestation program that’s in place because of illegal logging. Guides are locals from the community which contributes to their economy as well as providing an immersive experience.
If you’re looking to spend some time in Malaysia, Eco Companion also offers numerous opportunities to help with conservation of the orangutans, sun bears and other endangered wildlife….
Participate in ‘Educational, Conservation and Observation (ECO) Walks’ in the ancient jungle of Taman Negara—home of tigers, elephants, leopards and sun bears to name a few—–and learn to recognize signs of poachers and animal tracks. Just the presence of volunteers is a deterrent for poachers. You’ll also explore caves and work alongside the indigenous Batek people to forage materials, fish and maybe even hunt rats. Delicious!
Trek through the dense Bornean rainforest and visit the Matang Wildlife Centre to learn about rehabilitation efforts and observe orangutans that have been introduced back into their natural habitat. This effort serves in promoting wildlife conservation and improving relations between orangutans and the indigenous Iban tribe.
Come help with the conservation of orangutans and pygmy elephants in the biologically rich Corridor of Life situated within the Lower Kinabatangan Floodplain Rainforest in Sabah. Activities include boat trips and rainforest treks, as well as in-depth experiences learning hands-on. The community B&B where you’ll be staying offers insight into the locals’ way of life and provides an opportunity to educate the population and encourage their conservation efforts. Plant trees and help rebuild so the animals have a place to flourish.
Give the whole fam a taste of traditional village life. Also located in the ‘Corridor of Life’, you’ll stay in a wildlife sanctuary in the village of Sukau, next to the Kinabatangan River. You’ll spend most of your time interacting with the local Orang Sungai (‘people of the river’) villagers, joining them in their homes for mealtimes and assisting in various community projects, including habitat restoration. At the end of your tour, you’ll visit the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center for a chance to see orangutans on their road to recovery.
Help the Matang Wildlife Centre nurse orphaned and injured orangutans back to health so they can eventually be released back into their natural habitats. Feed the animals, clean cages and enclosures, and construct projects to house more animals in need. This organization aims to work with the Sarawak Forestry Corporation to help orangutan populations become self-sufficient and independent.
Here’s another opportunity to Participate in ‘Educational, Conservation and Observation (ECO) Walks’ in the ancient jungle of Taman Negara. Trek through thick jungle, helping to deter poachers and spot traps. Explore caves and join the indigenous Batek women on foraging walks—even teach an English session for the local village children. You’ll then head to the Perhentian Islands for two more weeks, where you’ll be on night duty to help guard the eggs of nesting turtles from poachers. During the day you’ll swim and snorkel, taking non-intrusive pictures of these adorable shelled creatures that contribute to important identification research. Dive into everything that the natural world has to offer with this unforgettable adventure.
The Malaysian state of Sabah, nicknamed The Land of the Gold, is home to orangutans, sun bears, pygmy elephants and many more endangered species. For 12 days, you’ll work with local communities on conservation and reforestation. Travel up to the northernmost part of the island to try out incredible local cuisines. Even go on a Nocturnal Safari and visit to the Sun Bear Conservation Centre. While you’re at it, stop by the Poring Hot Springs, or the Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary.
This Pioneer Expeditions tour includes trekking through tropical rainforest, white water rafting, mountain climbing and getting up close with monkeys at the Sepilok Orangutan Sanctuary. Meet locals from indigenous villages, who will introduce you to their culture and make memories that will last a lifetime. Everything is structured with the commitment to maximize the benefits to the local community and environment.