Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Orangutans (and Science) Are in Trouble

By Kerrie Wilson

Robust science is telling us orangutan populations are in serious decline but the Indonesian government is disputing the finding.

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.

The research, published in Scientific Reports, 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 the population trend of the species to be determined over its entire range for the first time.

The study was led by Dr Truly Santika of the University of Queensland node of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Environmental Decisions and 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 government and non-governmental organisations to halt the decline of wild populations.

Has the new knowledge and updated endangerment status of the species led to a fundamental 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 now have 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, which concluded 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.

Furthermore, in a time when world news is dominated by terrorism, polarising 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 peer-reviewed science telling us that 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 on 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 uptake also need attention in impact evaluations to ensure that all barriers are transparent – including those that are out of the researchers’ control.

Kerrie Wilson is the Director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Environmental Decisions (CEED) and Erik Meijaard is the Co-Director of Borneo Futures. Both are based at The University of Queensland.