Are the orangutans going extinct?
Latest studies show that they are not going extinct. If we are to believe what the studies tell us, the population of orangutans, a great ape found only in the Southeast Asian countries of Malaysia and Indonesia, are actually increasing.
So why is it so widely believed that they are going extinct? Sensational headlines and wild statements attract more advertising revenue. Few would read a report that says something like “ Orangutans are safe in spite of habitat loss” and news media knows this.
Blame it on faulty science
The latest study on orangutans which was published this year, made headlines all over the world with alarm calls of extinction and finger pointing at the palm oil industry. None of the publications noted that the study estimate of 70-100,000 orangutans contradicts earlier findings which makes it a worthwhile endeavor to find out what is causing this false alarm on orangutan extinction.
Back in 2008, a report actually claimed that orangutans in Malaysia face extinction by 2011 and provided an estimate of 56,000 orangutans distributed between Borneo and Sumatra, where orangutans are found. Quoting the article:
"Serge Wich, a scientist at the Great Ape Trust in Iowa (United States) says that there are 6,600 on the island of Sumatra (Indonesia), a 14% decline compared with 2004, while there are no longer any in the province of Aceh. "
However, an updated report published in October 2017 on the IUCN Redlist indicated that
“Today the majority of Sumatran Orangutans (82.5%) are found in Aceh Province at the northernmost tip of the island. “
Did thousands of orangutans migrate to Aceh province between 2004 to 2017 and caused the earlier report to look silly? Or was it superficial studies that used models and yet made definitive claims on entire populations? These guesstimates on orangutan populations have to be questioned because their findings have a direct impact on conservation needs on the ground. The happy discovery of a new population of Bornean orangutans in 2009 highlights the need for complete studies to be done before conclusive statements should be made.
“False news?” on orangutans
We are now in 2018 and the latest report on orangutans shows how media can distort the findings of studies. These are just a few examples of media distortion from publications where orangutans sell the news.
BBC headline '100,000 orangutans' killed in 16 years
The Guardian UK headline“Dramatic decline in Borneo's orangutan population as 150,000 lost in 16 years
ABC Australia headline:Orangutan numbers in Borneo plummet by more than 100,000 in just 16 years
One of the researchers was quoted as saying:
"We used a very broad compilation of orangutan survey data to model their distribution and found that they had declined by more than 100,000 individuals,"
Based on their data, Ms Voigt said there were "around 70,000 to 100,000" orangutans left in the wild in Borneo.”
It is mind boggling to try and figure out what these scientific studies are saying. If it was true that only 50-60,000 orangutans were left in 2004 and that 100-150,000 were killed in the last 16 years, leaving behind a population of 70-100,000 orangutans in 2018, does that mean the orangutans tripled in population despite their slow reproduction rate? How else to explain starting with 50,000 animals and ending up with 70,000 when 100,000 had been reportedly killed? Does the net gain of 20,000 orangutans indicate that they can actually thrive in depleted habitats?
It is possible that new technology is allowing researchers to come up with better estimates but these guesstimates clearly show that the orangutans are not going extinct. The wildlife department in Sabah,which is home to an estimated 9-11,000 orangutans was quick to rubbish the report saying that it was “based on research findings without hard facts and evidence produced by the twp scientists based in Sabah.”
Using models and crunching numbers to create sensational reports may serve well as an alert to conservation authorities of the need for action and which areas to focus on but when it's being used to sell the news that orangutans are going extinct, then it must be said once and for all, the orangutans are not going extinct.
Relevant news updates April 26,2018
ScienceDirect: fieldwork-based publications decreased by 20% in comparison to a rise of 600% and 800% in modelling and data analysis studies, respectively.
The Guardian on gorillas in Africa: New ground survey shows gorilla populations double that of previous estimates