Sumatran Orangutan Count Higher than Thought, But Threats Loom

A new survey of the island great apes by an international team showed they have been sharply undercounted but are still under threat going forward.

A recent count by an international team showed about 14,600 orangutans in the Sumatran wild –- some 8,000 more than previously thought.

That's the good news from a new study that appears in the journal Science Advances.

The bad news is that the study is titled "Land-cover changes predict steep declines for the Sumatran orangutan," so there's considerable downside to the up.

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According to the researchers, the increased estimate for the orangutans is not because of some unexpected population boom. Rather, the scientists say, the increase is due to their having taken a more thorough count than those of previous surveys.

The team found, for example, orangutans living at elevations previously thought too high, which meant nobody looked for them there. Furthermore, they found orangutans more widely distributed in logging areas than expected. And, finally, the great apes turned up in places that simply went unexplored in prior counts.

The animals, then, were there all along. But, they're no less safe now as a species, the scientists say.

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The researchers forecast a loss of about 4,500 individuals of the species by 2030, using current land-use plans as the basis for computer models that projected orangutan populations against future deforestation scenarios.

"It was very exciting to find out that there are more Sumatran orangutans than we thought, but this does not mean that we can be complacent," said study lead author Serge Wich, of Liverpool John Moores University, in a statement.

"Numerous development projects are planned in the area that, if they are not stopped, could sharply reduce the number of orangutans over the coming years," he warned.

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Sumatran orangutans (Pongo abelii) are exclusive to the island and one of only two species of orangutan (the other being Bornean orangutans, Pongo pygmaeus, from Borneo). Their habitat has been under threat from forest clearing that has driven them from their homes and put their lives at risk.

Wich said conservation experts will continue working with the Indonesian government to push for building plans that either steer clear of orangutan ranges or disrupt to a minimum the animal's habitat.

"A difficult task," he said, "but we all hope that we can turn the tide for the Sumatran orangutan."

In recent months, man-caused

fires in Indonesia

have destroyed an enormous amount of land. Orangutans have suffered greatly, having been driven from their homes in desperate escapes - if they're able to escape at all. This week we learned of

the story behind the photo

above. For animal lovers, it's hard to look at, but at least there's a happy ending. The photo depicts rescue workers trying to help a mother orangutan and her tiny baby, who were forced out of their forest home as a result of the fires. Escaping the flames, however, brought them face to face with villagers who attacked them with stones and tried to tie them up. Fortunately, mom and child were rescued by animal conservationists who had raced to the scene to save the great apes. In honor of this brave mother-child combo, let's learn a few tidbits about orangutans and appreciate them in less harrowing settings.

Watch "

Racing Extinction

" on Discovery Channel, Dec. 2, at 9 PM ET/PT.

There are two species of orangutan: Sumatran and Bornean. The former hails, of course, from Sumatra and the latter from Borneo. Sumatrans have longer hair and are a bit lighter in color, while the Borneans are usually heavier, with shinier hair. Sumatran males and females usually grow beards as they get older. In most cases, only Bornean males sport beards.

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Unlike other great apes that socialize frequently in groups, such as gorillas, orangutans, while they will hang out together, tend to have generally more solitary natures. Perhaps that explains the often philosophical look in their eyes. Maybe they are pondering great things only they know about.

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Orangutans get the most out of their childhood, compared to other great apes. They stay close to mom for their first 8 years or so. They get around fine on their own during their wonder years, but they'll keep an eye out for mother nonetheless.

Orangutans Use Hands To Help Create Fake Voices

Orangutans spend most of their lives in trees, swinging among branches, using leaves as shelter. They have long fingers and toes, and their arms are about as long as their legs -- almost touching the ankles when these ruddy primates stand up. They build new nests most nights, although they've been known to use the same one more than once.

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See those giant cheek pads on either side of this fella's face? They're called flanges, a feature seen on some adult males, usually the dominant ones. Flanges are larger on Bornean orangutans than on the Sumatran edition.

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Younger orangutans on Sumatra need to keep a sharp lookout for attackers, if they leave the trees. They can be prey for tigers, leopards, crocodiles and snakes. Bornean orangutans don't have to worry quite so much about taking ground trips: Those predators aren't part of their habitat.

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Female orangutans will stand about 45 inches tall, the males 54 inches. The guys, at about 190 pounds, far outweigh the ladies, who are comparatively petite, at about 80 pounds. When they're born, they'll weigh around 3.5 to 4.5 pounds.

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It's estimated that more than half of an orangutan's diet consists of fruit. Figs are a particular favorite. But when there's no fruit to be had, they'll also eat leaves, honey, bark, and insects. Bird eggs, too.

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See what we mean about that faraway, philosopher's gaze? And see those thumbs? Opposable -- just like ours. Unlike us, though, their big toes also do the opposable thing.

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Here's hoping these shaggy red wonders are able to keep hanging on. Sadly, that's not an ironclad-safe bet. The Sumatran orangutan (

Pongo abelii

) is listed as Critically Endangered on the IUCN "red list" of threatened species. That's thanks to loss of habitat to logging concerns. Bornean orangutans (

Pongo pygmaeus

), meanwhile, are listed as Endangered, due to loss of habitat to agriculture and to fires,

as we have seen


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