Orang-utans -- the "wise men" of the forest

by AFP, Sep 25, 2003 | Destinations: Indonesia / Malaysia / Brunei / Borneo

The big red primate of the forests of Borneo and Sumatra, the orang-utan, is a kind of wise man among apes and tends to look at the world from on high both in the literal and figurative sense, says French researcher Marc Ancrenaz. He speaks with respect and admiration of the creatures whose daily life he has shared for the last five years in Sabah, an area of Malysia located in the northeastern part of the island of Borneo.

"When he accepts our presence in his natural habitat," says Ancrenaz, "it's not because he's interested in us. At most, we're just part of his landscape. He lives high in the trees and doesn't give the impression of being interested in earthbound human cousins."

Old local legends say orang-utans, which 'people of the forest' in malay, were once upon a time humans who went off to live in the forests because they had had enough of quarrels in their villages. They were said to have climbed up into the trees to live above humankind. "When I contemplate an orang-utan, that's exactly the way I see him," said Ancrenaz: "I feel about him what I've never felt about any other animal."

Orang-utans are very much at home in the forest: and studies conducted by the Hutan research project in Sabah indicate the importance of their contribution to the environment. When an orang-utan moves about, builds himself a nest, or gets into a rage, he breaks branches, creating an aperture in the forest overhead canopy and thereby allowing sunlight to reach the undergrowth and foster plant growth.

Because of their size -- orang-utans are the biggest of all tree dwellers with a male weighing as much as 100 kilograms or 220 pounds -- they consume large fruits whose seeds they then spread through the forest in their excrement. The germinating power of these partly digested seeds is sometimes three times or even four times greater than seeds which simply fall to earth. So orang-utans actually boost the growth of the essential foodstuffs they consume.

But for how long will they remain the gardeners of the forest? Latest statistics estimate that there are some 13,000 orang-utans in Sabah. But there are no more than 30,000 to 40,000 of them in the whole of Borneo, and just 5,000 in Sumatra.

Although they are officially protected as a threatened species, orang-utans could become extinct without particularly strict measures, due to hunting and the destruction of their natural habitat. Their continued existence is directly linked to the habits of human beings as consumers. They say the collective pattern of human consumption is rapidly destroying the habitats in which orang-utans and other animals live.

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