New Great Ape Species: the Tapanuli orangutan
“It is fascinating that this population of orangutans differs so much from the orangutans in the north of Sumatra, and that even in the 21st century a new species of great ape has been discovered” stated Dr. Ian Singleton, Director of the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme (SOCP), who have worked on improving protection of the Tapanuli orangutans and their habitat since 2005.
Tapanuli orangutans are now only found in the Batang Toru Ecosystem in the North, Central and Southern districts of Tapanuli, in the province of North Sumatra, south of Lake Toba. This small remnant population of Tapanuli orangutans survives in only about 1,100 square kilometres of remaining habitat. Mining concessions, a proposed hydrodam, encroachment, and illegal logging all continue to threaten the Tapanuli orangutan’s habitat, and hence the existence of the new species.
With less than 800 individuals left, and the population already divided over 3 forest blocks separated by roads and agricultural land, urgent conservation efforts are needed now to ensure the survival of the Tapanuli Orangutan. "Despite only just now being described, with so few individuals left, the Tapanuli orangutan is already the most endangered great ape species in the world" stated Matthew Nowak, co-author of a recently published ‘Population Habitat Viability Analysis for Orangutans’. "Orangutans reproduce extremely slowly, and if more than 1% of the population is lost annually this will spiral them to extinction", added Prof. Dr. Serge Wich, of the IUCN/SSC Primate Specialist Group’s Section on Great Apes. "We have worked with the local governments in Tapanuli since 2005 to socialise the various environmental services that the Batang Toru Ecosystem provides for local communities living near the forest, and their livelihoods, and in 2014 the Government finally granted protection status to most of the forest", stated Burhanuddin, who focuses on community awareness and local stakeholder relations for the SOCP.
"We now need to focus on reconnecting the 3 remaining key populations of the Tapanuli orangutan through corridor development. The most critical habitat area for the species, with the highest densities of orangutans, is not currently protected in any way, and in fact is actually scheduled for development of a large new hydrodam", emphasised Kusnadi, newly elected Chairman of the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Forum (FOKUS).
"For sure there's a lot of work to be done to make sure the Tapanuli orangutan does not go extinct in the same century in which it is first described, but I am confident that with close collaboration with the Indonesian Government, and especially with local stakeholders, we can make this joyful news a conservation success story", added Dr. Gabriella Fredriksson, who has coordinated the SOCP’s conservation efforts in Tapanuli since 2006.
Photos by James Askew & Jonas Landolt.