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Illegal Logging May Hasten Orangutans' Extinction, say Researchers - 2003-09-30

Researchers say one of the human being's closest animal cousins, the orangutan, faces extinction in our lifetime if illegal logging in Indonesia continues to remove its jungle habitat.

A Harvard University anthropologist is appealing to the world to pressure the governments of Indonesia and Malaysia to better protect the imperiled orangutans.

Cheryl Knott studies the apes at Gunung Palung National Park in Borneo, one of the orangutans last strongholds. She says that about 2,500 live there, an estimated one-tenth of the world's wild orangutan population, found only in Borneo and Sumatra. But with the illegal plunder of trees, the animal's habitat, Ms. Knott says this ape species may soon become extinct.

"Orangutans are almost totally arboreal. They are in the trees 99 percent of the time," she said. "Eighty percent of their rainforest habitat has been destroyed and estimates are that they may go extinct in 10 to 20 years."

Logging has been increasing steadily at Gunung Palung National Park. In January, loggers moved into Cheryl Knott's study site with chain saws. In response, some of the study orangutans behaved erratically, eating little, and refusing to move among trees in search of food.

Furthermore, loggers have often shot orangutan mothers and kidnapped their babies for the illegal pet trade.

Because a female bears young only about once every eight years, the longest period for any mammal, Ms. Knott says orangutan populations have trouble recovering from killing and deforestation.

"Apes in Africa are also threatened as well, but orangutans are even further along on that trajectory," she said. "They may be the first of the great apes to go extinct in the wild unless we do something."

Ms. Knott has collaborated with other scientists to document orangutan culture. Early this year, they reported that different orangutan populations, like chimpanzees, display behaviors unique to each group - behaviors like primitive tool use that could be transmitted only socially, not genetically.

One of the researchers, Duke University primate specialist Carel van Schaik, says the work has helped explain the ancestral background for human culture.

"We have taken culture to a completely unprecedented level in the animal kingdom," he said. "It has always been an interesting question for scientists where that came from. What we see now is that the human lineage was building our own unique culture on a very solid foundation where skills and signals were already culturally transmitted."

Cheryl Knott says similar insights would be lost if orangutans become extinct.

Although the Indonesian government officially protects the animals, the Harvard anthropologist says the national police are underfunded, their enforcement is irregular, and local tree cutters return when the police leave. She suggests that some illegal logging occurs with the complicity of local officials.

To stem the problem, The National Geographic Society in Washington has provided money to help Ms. Knott lead an awareness campaign in Borneo among schoolchildren, teachers, and the public. One program takes students to the forest, often for their first glimpse of an orangutan. She has also mediated an agreement under which local authorities provided a nearby village with a new irrigation system and road repairs in exchange for a signed promise that villagers would no longer fell trees in the national park. But Ms. Knott says she wants the international community to know of the orangutans' plight.

"I guess I am seeking awareness so people will support whatever efforts are going on to protect orangutans, as well as put pressure on the Indonesian government that this is really a high priority," she said.