UN Report Warns Borneo’s Orangutans Face Severe Threats from Land Cover and Climate Change

Over 80 percent of the orangutan’s remaining habitat in Borneo could be lost by the year 2080 if the island’s current land-use policies remain intact, according to a new United Nations report.

The Future of the Bornean Orangutan: Impacts of Change in Land Cover and Climate (Download), which was published by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and Liverpool John Moores University, in collaboration with the Great Apes Survival Partnership (GRASP), states that the massive conversion of Borneo’s forests for agricultural development – primarily oil palm – will leave the endangered orangutans fragmented and facing extinction in a number of areas.

In addition, the environmental impact of climate change exacerbated by the deforestation of Borneo could result in severe floods, temperature rises, reduced agricultural productivity and other negative effects.

The report was presented at the GRASP Regional Meeting – Southeast Asia, which is being held 27-28 July on Borneo in Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia.

“The current policies for land conversion on Borneo are simply unsustainable,” said Dr. Serge Wich, lead author of the report. “Our models show that the effects will worsen over time, leading to greater and greater loss of suitable land, not just for orangutans, but for the human population as well.”

Borneo is Asia’s largest island and is jointly ruled by three nations: Malaysia and Brunei in the north, and Indonesia in the south. Borneo’s deforestation rate has been among the world’s highest for over two decades, and 56 percent of the protected tropical lowland forests – an area roughly the size of Belgium – was lost between 1985 and 2001.

The Future of the Bornean Orangutan uses different climate and land-cover scenarios for the years 2020, 2050 and 2080 and models the individual and combined effect of both factors on the orangutan habitat. In each, dramatic rises in temperature brought on by deforestation and the loss of land cover cause serious damage to the island’s biodiversity, with the combined model showing an even more pronounced impact than either factor alone.

UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner urged adoption of programmes that measure the natural capital of a region and offer payment for ecosystem services to mitigate these threats. “Now, it is time to utilize these approaches and divert from an unsustainable pathway to development,” he wrote in the report’s foreword. “It is clear that a future without sustainable development will be a future with a different climate and, eventually, without orangutans, one of our closest relatives.”
An estimated 55,000 Bornean orangutans remain in the wild, split into three distinct subspecies. But orangutans’ solitary nature and slow reproductive rates leave them particularly vulnerable to forest loss. Models incorporating projected changes to climate and to land cover indicate that 68-81% of the current orangutan habitat might be lost by 2080.

Among the report’s recommendations to curb the impact of agricultural conversion are: 1.) Immediate identification and protection of priority orangutan populations and habitats, 2.) Connection of key orangutan sites through the creation of corridors, so as to ensure the species’ mobility and viability, 3.) conversion to more sustainable methods of agricultural use for palm oil and other crops, and 4.) support for REDD+ and other forest protection programmes.

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