Orangutans (and science) in trouble

Will the orangutan be saved?

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KEY MESSAGES:
  • For many threatened species the rate and drivers of population decline are difficult to assess accurately
  • We applied novel methods for integrating field and interview survey data for the Critically Endangered Bornean orangutan
  • Our analysis revealed that Bornean orangutan populations have declined at a rate of 25% over the last 10 years

Recently we published the first ever population trend analysis of the Bornean orangutan showing that the species has declined at a rate of 25% over the past 10 years. This rate of decline was sufficient for the IUCN to elevate the conservation status of this species to Critically Endangered last year. Dr Truly Santika, an Indonesian statistician and CEED researcher at UQ, led the paper published in Scientific Reports.

The study used advanced modelling techniques that allowed the combination of different survey methods (including helicopter surveys, traditional ground surveys, and interviews with local communities). This new approach enabled, for the first time, for the population trend of the species to be determined over its entire range. The study was conducted by a group of some 50 Indonesian, Malaysian, and international researchers, with the results building upon over two decades of collaborative research on the species, its habitats, and the perceptions of key stakeholders involved in its conservation management.

Ostensibly, our study should be a wake-up call for the orangutan conservation community and the Indonesian and Malaysian governments who have committed to saving the species. Indeed, every year some US$30-40 million is invested by governmental and non-governmental organisations to halt the decline of wild populations.

Has the new knowledge and updated endangerment status of the species led fundamentally rethinking of orangutan conservation strategies? Unfortunately, the answer is no. Indeed, the government response has been to cherry pick evidence that flies in the face of the best science.

Despite the early satisfaction that we have now an accurate measure of the population status and increased attention on this adaptable, yet slow breeding species the Indonesian government recently announced that orangutan populations in both Borneo and Sumatra have increased over the past 10 years and that the IUCN status change from Endangered to Critically Endangered was misguided!

These conclusions were drawn from a recent Population and Habitat Viability Assessment concluding that 10 years ago there were some 50,000 orangutans and now there are some 70,000. Unfortunately, the estimate of 10 years ago was likely very wrong. Such conclusions ignore the evidence of a reduction in population density of 50%, deny that several thousand orangutans are killed annually, and turn a blind eye to the extensive deforestation that has occurred.

Figure 1: A comparison between historical population estimates and the trend predicted by the model proposed by Santika et al, 2017. Historical population estimates show an increasing trend through time due to increasing availability of survey data.

Figure 1: A comparison between historical population estimates and the trend predicted by the model proposed by Santika et al, 2017. Historical population estimates show an increasing trend through time due to increasing availability of survey data.

What’s more, in a time when world news is dominated by terrorism, polarizing politics and historic hurricanes, the plight of the orangutan seems to have been forgotten. So far, Greenpeace has been the only organisation to push back on the government’s conclusions.

This indicates that despite quality (peer-reviewed) science telling us orangutans are in trouble, the government is not accepting this message. It means that the biggest threats to orangutans of habitat loss and killing will likely not be effectively addressed, and the focus of rescues and rehabilitation will likely continue.

The academic research community is increasingly called on to measure its impact and to up-skill our researchers to improve their science translation skills. This experience shows that all the obstacles to up-take also needs attention in impact evaluations to ensure all barriers are transparent – including those that are out of the researchers’ control.


More info:

Kerrie Wilson k.wilson2@uq.edu.au

Reference

Santika T, M Ancrenaz, KA Wilson, E Meijaard et al (2017). First integrative trend analysis for a great ape species in Borneo. Scientific Reports 7, http://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-017-04435-9

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