Rare Tapanuli Orangutan to be extinct soon, thanks to China’s mega dam

A Tapanuli orangutan (Pongo tapanuliensis) in northern Sumatra, Indonesia. Credit: Maxime Aliaga

The rare Tapanuli Orangutan, discovered last year in Sumatra, Indonesia, and one of the rarest animals on the planet could become an extinct species soon unless urgent action is invoked to reign in on a mega dam in China, said a team of global scientists.

Besides the usual deforestation, the researchers have pointed out that the Batang Toru project being constructed by Chinese state-owned corporation Sinohydro as the major threat to the survival of the rare orangutan.

“This is just the seventh species of Great Ape ever discovered, and it could go extinct right before our eyes,” said Prof. Jatna Supriatna from the University of Indonesia. Echoing similar view, William Laurance from James Cook University in Australia, co-author of the study said, “In 40 years of research, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything this dramatic.”

A baby Tapanuli orangutan (Pongo tapanuliensis) in northern Sumatra, Indonesia. Credit: Maxime Aliaga

Currently, fewer than 800 of the apes are surviving facing assault from mega-projects, deforestation, road building, and poaching, explained Sean Sloan, lead author of the article in Current Biology. “Their entire remaining habitat is unbelievably small, less than a tenth the size of Sydney, Australia,” said Sloan.

The authors are vehemently zeroing in on the culprit — the planned $1.6 billion Batang Toru mega dam that would go into construction phase soon, relegating the available forest cover for the Tapanuli orangutan, driving them to extinction.

“If it proceeds, the dam will flood crucial parts of the ape’s habitat, while chopping up its remaining habitat with new roads and powerlines,” said Supriatna.

Since the rare ape survives only in areas with virtually no roads, the project will stifle their livelihood, said researchers. “This is a critical test for China and Indonesia. They say they want sustainable development–but words are cheap,” said Laurance. “This could be ecological Armageddon for one of our closest living relatives,” he quickly added.

A Tapanuli orangutan (Pongo tapanuliensis) in northern Sumatra, Indonesia. Credit: Maxime Aliaga

A Tapanuli orangutan (Pongo tapanuliensis) in northern Sumatra, Indonesia. Credit: Maxime Aliaga

What IUCN says?

The newly described Tapanuli orangutan (Pongo tapanuliensis) exists in an isolated area in around 1100 km2 of forests in the Central, North and South districts of Tapanuli, in the province of North Sumatra.

Until recently, it was thought that only two species of orangutan existed; the Bornean (Pongo pygmaeus) and Sumatran (Pongo abelii). Orangutans are found only in Indonesia and Malaysia and are listed as Critically Endangered on The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

“It is rather amazing that this population of orangutans differs so much from the orangutans in the north of Sumatra and that even today, after many decades of intensive research on Great Apes, a new species of this primate family can still be discovered” stated Dr. Ian Singleton, Director of the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme (SOCP), who has worked on improving protection of the Tapanuli orangutans and their habitat since 2005.

The Tapanuli orangutan was initially found by scientists in 1997, but was not confirmed as a separate species until 2017. To reach that conclusion, researchers needed to closely examine the genetic, morphological and behavioural traits which differed from the other two known orangutan species.

“Despite only just now being described, with less than 800 left, the Tapanuli orangutan is already the most endangered great ape species in the world” stated Matthew Nowak, co-author of the recently published ‘Population Habitat Viability Analysis for Orangutans’ and Director of Research at the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme. ”

The Red List status of this new orangutan is currently being assessed, but conservation concerns for the species are high. This is due to a small population, slow reproduction levels, concerns over local habitat destruction, and killing.

Researchers involved in the definition of this new species included experts from the IUCN Species Survival Commission (SSC) Primate Specialist Group (including Ian Singleton, Matthew Nowak and Serge Wich).

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