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World’s most threatened orangutan species ‘in more trouble than previously thought ©Andrew Walmsley, PA News

World’s most threatened orangutan species ‘in more trouble than previously thought’

Published: 05th January, 2021 at 15:22
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The rare primate was already classified as critically endangered when it was first identified in 2017.

The Tapanuli orangutan – the world’s most threatened great ape – is in greater danger of becoming extinct than previously thought, a study carried out at the University of Kent and Liverpool John Moores University has found.


The rare primate species was only recently identified in 2017, with a small population of around 800 individuals living in the forests of North Sumatra in Indonesia.

In a study published in the journal Plos One, researchers now believe that their current habitat of mountain territory only is not ideal for the creatures who live in disconnected groups.

“Some scientists have claimed that the Tapanuli orangutan is a species that is specifically adapted to living at high elevations, because it currently occurs at an average altitude of 834 metres above sea level,” said Prof Erik Meijaard, of the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology, University of Kent.

“Our study, however, indicates that the Tapanuli used to primarily inhabit in lowland forest areas, and that a combination of unsustainable hunting and forest fragmentation drove the species to extinction in those areas.”

The Tapanuli orangutan (Pongo tapanuliensis) currently occupies an area of about 1,000 square kilometres of upland forest.

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This is only 2.5 per cent of the 40,796 square kilometre range these great apes occupied 130 years ago, according to the researchers.

The team calculated the historic distribution range of the orangutan species by looking at records from journal and newspaper archives.

Documentation unearthed by the researchers revealed that large parts of the forests in northern Sumatra had already been converted to smallholder agriculture in the 1930s, long before industrial-scale plantation developments began in the 1970s.

They believe that a combination of deforestation and unsustainable hunting practices likely drove various populations to the south, east and west of the current population to extinction.

“The apes are in more trouble than we previously thought. Our historical analysis shows two important things,” said Prof Serge Wich at Liverpool John Moores University.

“First, the Tapanuli orangutan only retains a tiny part of its former range, where it likely became extinct because of a combination of unsustainable hunting and habitat fragmentation, and both these threats still affect the remaining populations.

“And second, the Tapanuli is not specifically adapted to highland conditions, and should occur in a full range of habitats such as peat-swamp and lowland-dryland forests for optimal likelihood of survival in the wild.


“The fact that this species has likely been driven to extinction in the peat-swamp forests of North Sumatra is therefore a major concern.”

Reader Q&A: Could an ape play rock, paper, scissor?

Asked by: Pad Scanlon

In 2017, researchers in Japan and China revealed that they’d taught five chimps the rudiments of rock, paper, scissors by showing them pairs of gestures on a touchscreen, and then giving them food treats when they picked the winning one. The chimps first learned that paper beats rock, then that rock beats scissors and finally that scissors beats paper.

Later, when the chimps were shown paired pictures randomly, they picked the winning sign 9 times out of 10, putting them on a par with a four-year-old child. The chimps weren’t making the gestures themselves, though, so we don’t know if they’d have the dexterity to actually play it.

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Jason Goodyer
Jason GoodyerCommissioning editor, BBC Science Focus

Jason is the commissioning editor for BBC Science Focus. He holds an MSc in physics and was named Section Editor of the Year by the British Society of Magazine Editors in 2019. He has been reporting on science and technology for more than a decade. During this time, he's walked the tunnels of the Large Hadron Collider, watched Stephen Hawking deliver his Reith Lecture on Black Holes and reported on everything from simulation universes to dancing cockatoos. He looks after the magazine’s and website’s news sections and makes regular appearances on the Science Focus Podcast.


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