Conservation challenges
Conservation Challenges

Conservation Challenges

Orangutans Today

Fewer than 14,000 Sumatran orangutans and 800 Tapanuli orangutans remain in the wild. Both species are classified as Critically Endangered, with the Tapanuli orangutan considered the most endangered great ape in the world.

Orangutans can live for over 40 years, but an average female will have only three offspring in her lifetime. This makes them extremely vulnerable to disturbances and slow to recover from reduced population levels. They need large areas of connected habitat to find sufficient food throughout the year for a population big enough to maintain genetic diversity.

On Sumatra, orangutans face a range of constraints primarily involving restriction and fragmentation of their habitat. These limitations need to be addressed with innovative and locally-sensitive approaches to give these animals the opportunity to thrive in extensive areas of habitat, while providing forest-edge communities with a broad range of opportunities for socio-economic development.


At the start of the 21st Century, large scale habitat conversion in Sumatra for industrial plantations – for commodities like palm oil – was a major threat to orangutan habitat. More recently, however, advances in Indonesian government policies have been effective in addressing this issue.

Unfortunately land use change, now mostly driven by small-scale plantations, is still a serious concern. Oil palm is grown in smallholdings as well as huge plantations, and forested land may be cleared by local farmers for this and other crops such as coffee and cacao. Although the individual areas lost are not very large they can spread over a whole landscape, relentlessly eroding orangutan strongholds year after year.

Land is sometimes cleared by burning, which can run out of control and scorch large expanses of forest. Although these activities are generally illegal, strict enforcement is a logistic challenge and often not a reasonable option for disadvantaged groups in remote locations.

Long-term collaboration with local communities is essential to identify how standing forest benefits them and to support the development of sustainable livelihoods.

Learn more about how SOS works with forest-edge communities here.

Infrastructure Development

Sumatra has a substantial rural population that needs access to reliable services and infrastructure. Vital activities like road construction and other development projects (e.g. renewable energy plants) are hugely important for local communities.

However, they can also have disastrous ecological impacts if not undertaken sensitively, and disrupt valuable natural services. Opening up access to remote areas, disturbing critical habitat and separating orangutan populations are all issues that must be addressed to strike a balance between socio-economic development and preservation of natural capital.

Learn more about Sumatra here.

Conflict With People

With their habitat usually bounded by – and often replaced with – agricultural land, orangutans sometimes move into cultivated areas, from local fields and home gardens to huge oil palm plantations. Smallholders and plantation owners alike can lose crucial crops and income to wildlife incursions. Often they respond by chasing the animals, by shooting them, or even by capturing them for live trade.

Sometimes the animal may simply be making their way to another patch of forest or sampling some easily accessible food at the edge of their territory. Such conflict is not only harmful or lethal for that orangutan, it effectively reduces the amount of land available for the whole population and may sever connections with other habitat patches and populations.

Many techniques are available for avoiding these situations or resolving them non-violently. Working with local farmers and plantation owners to show how and why this is a better outcome can vastly reduce conflict.

Learn more about how we work with communities here.

Habitat Fragmentation

It is often not just the scale of habitat loss that has an impact on orangutans, but the pattern of forest degradation. Farmlands, energy infrastructure, roads and other human-made barriers can cut through natural landscapes and hamper connectivity between populations, leading to orangutans being trapped in isolated pockets of forest. 

Unless these fragmented habitats are protected and reconnected, there is a risk that some of these populations might disappear– either rapidly due to a natural disaster, disease or human intervention, or gradually through the genetic effects of in-breeding.  Small populations in isolated forest patches are often labelled ‘functionally extinct’ – surviving for now but heading towards extinction in the longer term.

Learn more about SOS’ conservation strategy towards a future for wild orangutans thriving in resilient forests.

An adult sumatran orangutan

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