The impact of climate change on the critically endangered orangutan

Climate change is a new threat to the orangutan population, putting decades of conservation efforts at risk. A changing climate, taken together with high levels of rainforest destruction, may push the orangutan population across it´s extinction threshold within our lifetime.

In addition to the eminent threats already imposed by humans on the diminishing orangutan population, climate change is an emerging threat, which can be considered as the greatest single driver of orangutan habitat destruction in the 21st century. According to a UNEP study from 2014, 49-69 per cent of current orangutan habitat on Borneo would become unsuitable by 2080´s due to changing climate conditions, depending on future trends in greenhouse gas emissions. Most of this reduction is expected to take place in lowland forests with dense orangutan populations and high biodiversity.

Loss of habitats

The loss of habitat is primarily due to an increase in temperature (up to +2°C) and a changing rainfall pattern, affecting the availability of food sources. Especially, the flowering stage is sensitive to an increased rainfall, as it requires a sufficient dry period to evolve into edible orangutan food. The reproduction rate of orangutans (among the lowest in the animal realm) could also be indirectly affected, as orangutan females are less likely to conceive during periods of low fruit abundance.

Increased risk of fire-spreading

Furthermore, climate change will increase the risk of fires spreading on Borneo, due to increasing temperature and less rainfall. Every day forest lands are burned for agricultural purposes and the fires spread easily, particular extraordinary in the dry-season, moving beyond the control of the fire-starters. As seen in the dry season of 2015 (El Nino year), more than 127.000 fires swept across Indonesia, burning more than 2.6 million hectares of forest in the process. On Borneo alone, the fires have eaten a forest area almost the size of Korsica, with more than 300,000 Ha of forest burning on peatlands. These forest fires are exacerbating climate change, making Indonesia one of the largest emitters of greenhouse gasses in 2015. Read more about peatlands and their vital role in preventing the global warming here >>

An underestimated driver of climate change

Not alone does the widespread above ground degradation and deforestation in Indonesia emit carbon, but when peatlands, home to the endangered orangutan, are deforested and drained, the carbon stored in the ground starts to decompose, potentially emitting 55 t CO2/year/Ha. Currently, Indonesia has the greatest area of tropical peatland (47 per cent) in the world, but it is in rapid decline. An area of peatland almost the size of Croatia (5.2 million Ha) had by 2016 been turned into plantations in Indonesia and Malaysia, emitting a total of 263 million tons CO2 each year and thereby exceeding the emission of Spain. Disturbingly, the trend is on going, as the expansion of industrial plantation on peatlands increased with 37 per cent over the last five years (235,000 Ha/year) (Global Forest Watch).

How can you help?

Save the Orangutan is working to reverse this trend by blocking the canals currently draining massive areas of peatlands, thereby not only restoring the home of the orangutans, but also making a very effective contribution in the fight against climate change. Read more about Save the Orangutans' work to save Borneo's rainforest here >>

You can become a SOS Borneo partner and support the restoration of Borneo's rainforest here >>