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The Good, The Bad, And Sumatran Orangutans: Newly Discovered Population Needs Protection

A new survey of Sumatran orangutan numbers has yielded some rare positive results — well, sort of positive. Researchers discovered 8,000 Sumatran orangutans in areas previously thought to be beyond their range, bringing total estimates up to 14,613 individuals, according to study published by Science Advances in March 2016.

This should come as a welcome relief to conservationists and orangutan enthusiasts; the Sumatran orangutan species, listed as “critically endangered” on the IUCN Red List, isn't as close to extinction as we thought. However, numbers are still dangerously low, even when compared to the “endangered” Bornean orangutan, which has a population of at least 45,000 as of 2003. And since the Sumatran orangutan's distribution area has also increased, (given no change in the human activities that harm orangutans) their projected population decline rate remains the same.

Sumatran orangutans spend most of their time in the trees, likely to avoid big cat predation — but tigers and clouded leopards aren't their greatest threat. Humans are the ones destroying massive amounts of orangutans' natural rainforest habitat.

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Things are especially bad in Indonesia — 2015 saw one of the country's worst forest fire seasons in nearly two decades. Despite existing laws that would protect orangutans and their habitat, Indonesia maintains the highest rate of deforestation in the world — and it's the only nation where orangutans have a natural home.

While current regulations should be able to protect orangutans, widespread corruption and apathy continue to fragment habitats, and force these arboreal apes out of their trees and into danger. Your donation and your signature can help the critically endangered Sumatran orangutans, but so can actions you take on a daily basis — through the food you buy, and the companies you support.

Learn more about this issue in our report on the 2015 Indonesian forest fires, and find out how you can make a difference for one of our closest animal relatives.

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Matthew M. Sullivan holds a bachelor's degree in creative writing from Grand Valley State University, with emphases in fiction and nonfiction. He lives smack-dab between some railroad tracks and Grand Rapids Michigan's third-busiest road, and spends his time studying film and literary fiction.