Conservation News: Primate Scientists Stress Urgency For Sumatran Orangutans Amid New Genetic Findings

Photo (c) Tim Laman/National Geographic.
Photo (c) Tim Laman/National Geographic.

posted by Tom for the Orangutan Conservancy

Over 900 primate scientists and conservationists from around the world gathered recently in Hanoi for the 25th biannual congress of the International Primatological Society (IPS). Numerous topics were raised and discussed pertaining to the conservation of the world’s primates in Asia, Africa and the Americas.

Indonesia was noted as a particularly important country in terms of its primates having 59 species and 77 types of primate, species and subspecies , with 35 species found nowhere else in the world. Concern was expressed due to the fact that 53 (68.8%) of Indonesia’s primate taxa are currently threatened with extinction, according to the World Conservation Union (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species.

Particular concern was expressed regarding the plight of the Sumatran orangutan, a separate and distinct species from its relative the Bornean orangutan. Due to a recent dramatic increase in the level of threat to Sumatra’s globally renowned Leuser Ecosystem, where around 85% of all remaining wild Sumatran orangutans are found, a motion was approved to place the Sumatran orangutan on the list of the World’s Top 25 Most Endangered Primates. The species’ survival is intrinsically linked to the protection of the Leuser Ecosystem, a National Strategic Area for its Environmental Function under Indonesian National Law No 26/2007 and Government regulation No 26/2008. Its protection is also mandated in Aceh Governance Law no 11/2006, which specifically states that no level of government is able to grant permits within the Leuser Ecosystem that damage its important environmental function. Nevertheless, a recent highly controversial new spatial planning law passed by the government of Aceh province completely ignores the Leuser Ecosystem’s existence, while a new Aceh Governor’s regulation signed on February 12th 2014 specifically outlines the procedures for obtaining concession permits within its boundaries.

“We are extremely concerned about this situation” stated Dr. Ian Singleton, Director of the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme, “with these new developments it seems crystal clear that the Aceh Government deliberately intends to open up and destroy huge tracts of the Leuser Ecosystem. This will be disastrous for Sumatra’s orangutans and also Sumatra’s other iconic megafauna, the Sumatran rhino, elephant, and tiger.”

In addition to concern over the future of the species in the Leuser Ecosystem, there was considerable discussion of the results of recent genomic studies of the wild Sumatran orangutan population. In particular, it appears that the most southern wild Sumatran orangutan population, known as the Batang Toru population in the Tapanuli region of North Sumatra, are genetically very distinct from orangutans further north in North Sumatra and Aceh, and could arguably be considered a distinct, unique species.

Dr. Michael Krützen of the University of Zurich explained “From a genetics point of view we were taken by surprise to see these stark differences of the Batang Toru population compared to other Sumatran orangutan populations further north. Our findings highlight the urgent need for special conservation status for the Batang Toru forests.”

Dr. Russell Mittermeier, Chairman of the IUCN SSC Primate Specialist Group reiterated “ We strongly urge the Ministry of Forestry to take immediate action to support the local governments in protecting the habitat of this genetically unique orangutan population. If found to be a separate species, this orangutan population would be one of the rarest primates, and the most endangered great ape, in the world!”

Dr. Ian Singleton concluded “Efforts to achieve protected status for the remaining primary forest where this genetically unique orangutan population lives in Tapanuli, North Sumatra, have been underway for close to a decade, but final approval is still required to rezone the area to protected forest from Indonesia’s Ministry of Forestry.“


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