November 27, 2020

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

orangutan mother and baby

Orangutans (Pongo pygmaeus)
There is a paradox in nature conservation, that the efforts taken to protect a species from extinction, may be the very cause of their eventual demise.

This can be seen clearly at the Tanjung Puting Rehabilitation Centre in Indonesian Borneo. Set out as a series of islands across the West coast, the centre uses a ‘step-by-step’ method of rehabilitating previously-captive orang-utans to the wild, moving individuals from one island to another as they progress. As more individuals arrive at the centre, they must survive in an increasingly crowded habitat. The Bornean Orang-hutan (or ‘man-of-the-forest’ in Bahasa Indonesia) is primarily a solitary animal, and fiercely territorial. Over-crowding initiates not only elevated levels of aggression between territorial individuals, but also an abnormally high rate of copulation and sexual interaction. As a result, the ratio of females with offspring to those without is unusually high.

Compounding this issue is the ever-decreasing availability of habitat in which the animals can be released. Until recently, the major cause of forest degradation was attributed to illegal logging. Whilst this practice has been largely eradicated, the corporate demand for palm oil plantations has superceded that for timber, and forest arson is now rife across the country. As orang-utans require totally uninhabited territory for release, the reduction of suitable habitat is posing severe problems to primate conservationists in the area.

This presents one of the most hotly-debated dilemmas in current conservation science – in this context, is it truly beneficial to re-introduce wildlife to an area where it can’t necessarily survive? If not, what future does this predict for conservation biology?

Photo by Philippa Dell