Newly discovered orang utan species is 'most endangered'

Researchers say species living in forest in Sumatra numbers only about 800 in total

The Tapanuli orang utans at the Batang Toru Ecosystem in North Sumatra. Their tiny population is under severe threat.
The Tapanuli orang utans at the Batang Toru Ecosystem in North Sumatra. Their tiny population is under severe threat.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

JAKARTA • A new species of orang utan just discovered in the remote jungles of Indonesia has immediately become the world's most endangered great ape, according to researchers.

"It's the first declaration of a new great ape species in about 100 years," Mr Ian Singleton, co-author of the study and director of the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme, said on Thursday.

The species, called Tapanuli orang utan, lives in the Batang Toru forest on Sumatra island, and numbers only about 800 in total, making it the most endangered great ape in the world, Mr Singleton added.

Outwardly, the Tapanuli orang utan bears a closer resemblance to its Bornean counterpart, with cinnamon-coloured fur that is frizzier than its Sumatran relative. It also has a "prominent moustache", according to the findings published in the journal, Current Biology. Its skull and bone structure are slightly different from its relatives and so is its mating behaviour.

Scientists believe the three types of orang utans share a common ancestor but began to diverge into different species about 3.4 million years ago. The Tapanuli orang utan species became isolated from its Sumatran relatives about 10,000 to 20,000 years ago, eventually settling in the Batang Toru forest.

But its tiny population is under severe threat from mining, agricultural encroachment, illegal logging and a proposed hydroelectric dam, which would flood up to 8 per cent of its habitat. The authors of the study said conservation measures need to be urgently implemented. "Orang utans reproduce extremely slowly, and if more than 1 per cent of the population is lost annually, this will spiral them to extinction," said co-author Serge Wich of Liverpool John Moores University.

Both Sumatran and Bornean orang utans are listed as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. The Sumatran orang utan population is estimated to be just under 15,000, while about 54,000 orang utans are thought to live in Borneo.

Rampant logging and the rapid expansion of palm oil plantations have been blamed for destroying their jungle habitat. The primates have also been attacked by villagers, who view them as pests, and targeted by poachers to be sold as pets.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 04, 2017, with the headline 'Newly discovered orang utan species is 'most endangered''. Subscribe