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Endangered Species: Orangutans, the intelligent primate

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Cheryl Santa Maria
Digital Reporter

Friday, July 26, 2013, 8:06 PM -

Endangered Species is a new series at theweathernetwork.com. We're taking an in-depth look at our changing planet and how it is affecting plants, mammals, reptiles and insects. Our first featured animal is the orangutan, one of the most intelligent primates. 

They live in the rain forests -- but their numbers are dwindling.

A century ago, experts say there were as many as 315,000 orangutans in the wild. Now, an estimated 7,000 remain in Sumatra and 50,000 in Borneo.

Approximately 97% of the orangutan's genetic makeup is the same as a human's, and this remarkable species is similar to man in so many ways.

The orangutan -- which means "person of the forest" in Malay -- is adept at using tools. Mothers form close bonds with their offspring and rear them for nearly a decade.

In captivity, the primates have demonstrated an ability to grasp basic technology.

Toronto Zoo caretakers have taught orangutans how to use iPads. It's part of an ongoing effort to educate and improve the animals' quality of life.

'Person of the forest': 97% of an orangutan's genetic make-up is similar to a human's (courtesy: Flickr/Chi King)

'Person of the forest': 97% of an orangutan's genetic make-up is similar to a human's (courtesy: Flickr/Chi King)

"They can actually hit the iPad themselves and select movies," says Maria Franke, curator of mammals at the Toronto Zoo.

"Funny enough, they actually like to watch videos of orangutans in the wild."

Unfortunately, life in the wild isn't what it used to be.

The rain forests of Borneo and Sumatra are shrinking at an astonishing rate. Between 2000 and 2009, Indonesia lost 15 million hectares of forest. This rapid decline is the fastest deforestation rate in the world.

A rising global demand for palm oil is leading the charge.

Nearly 100% of this lucrative oil is produced in Borneo, using unsustainable practices. About half of all commercial products -- from grocery store items, to cleaning supplies, to cosmetics and personal care goods -- contain it. 

Habitat destruction isn't the only reason orangutans are facing extinction: Females have become a prime target for poachers. They're hunted for their meat and babies are sold into the illegal pet trade.

This can have devastating effects on the population. Animal experts cited in National Geographic suggest that if more than 1 percent of the female population in a given community is killed in a year, that community could go extinct.

Advocacy groups -- like the WWF and Orangutan Foundation International -- are working with local authorities to protect what's left of the rain forests orangutans call home.

The Toronto Zoo is working on several global habitat preservation initiatives as well.

"A lot of people may not be aware, but we are a conservation, education and research facility," Franke says.

"Unfortunately there are a lot [of endangered animals at the Toronto Zoo], and it’s growing continuously, because the risk of habitat loss, disease introduction … climate change … are affecting species just so rapidly, and a lot of the animals are becoming threatened with the possibility of extinction. I think it’s our messaging here, as an education facility, to educate people about the plight of endangered species ... because I think it’s really important to preserve the biodiversity on this planet."

WHAT YOU CAN DO TO HELP

 • Say no to palm oil. A-Z Animals Palm Oil Campaign and a petition on change.org contain extensive information on palm oil and why it should be avoided.

 • Recycle your mobile devices. Coltan is an ore used to make cell phones and computer chips. While the vast majority is mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo, tantalum -- a mineral derived from coltan -- can also be mined in Borneo. Recycling old devices preserves habitat space and keeps toxic e-waste from seeping into the ground. Unwanted gadgets can be dropped off, or mailed to, the Toronto Zoo.

 • Donate to a trust-worthy cause. The Toronto Zoo Endangered Species Reserve Fund and the WWF are doing incredible things to help protect this remarkable species.





Next Wednesday, we'll be travelling to Africa to learn about the Serengeti lion, with images and an excerpt from the August issue of
National Geographic.


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