A New Great Ape Discovered

Filed in Articles, In the Press on Nov.02, 2017

Fascinating news released today from Sumatra, a new Great Ape Species has been discovered on the Indonesia island of Sumatra named  – The Tapanuli Orangutan Pongo tapanuliensis.  A team of Indonesian and international scientists have demonstrated that the Tapanuli orangutan, Pongo tapanuliensis, is genetically and morphologically distinct from both Bornean (Pongo pygmaeus) and Sumatran orangutans (Pongo abelii), and is therefore a separate species.

The Batang Toru Ecosystem, totaling close to 150,000 ha in North Sumatra, Indonesia, is home to the southern-most naturally occurring viable population of orangutans in Sumatra– in fact this population is genetically distinct from those found further north in and around the Leuser Ecosystem. The Batang Toru Ecosystem in Tapanuli is now the last home to the Tapanuli orangutans, and there are thought to be only about 800 individuals remaining.

Research has revealed that the orangutans in the Batang Toru Ecosystem are the last surviving remnants of an ancestral wild orangutan population that once stretched from Lake Toba in the north all the way to the south of Sumatra. This research suggests that all orangutans further to the north in Sumatra and all those in neighbouring Borneo may well be descended from this now largely extinct ancestral population, of which only the Batang Toru orangutans remain.

Tapanuli orangutans are now only found in the Batang Toru Ecosystem in the North, Central and Southern districts of Tapanuli, in the province of North Sumatra, south of Lake Toba. This small remnant population of Tapanuli orangutans survives in only about 1,100 square kilometers of remaining habitat. Mining concessions, a proposed hydrodam, encroachment, and illegal logging all continue to threaten the Tapanuli orangutans’ habitat, and hence the existence of the new species.

With less than 800 individuals left, and the population already divided over 3 forest blocks separated by roads and agricultural land, urgent conservation efforts are needed now to ensure the survival of the Tapanuli Orangutan. “Despite only just now being described, with so few individuals left, the Tapanuli orangutan is already the most endangered great ape species in the world” stated Matthew Nowak, co-author of a recently published ‘Population Habitat Viability Analysis for Orangutans’. “Orangutans reproduce extremely slowly, and if more than 1% of the population is lost annually this will spiral them to extinction”, added Prof. Dr. Serge Wich, of the IUCN/SSC Primate Specialist Group’s Section on Great Apes.

I visited Northern Sumatra a few years ago for PanEco and SOCP and saw for myself some of there amazing fieldwork to save the critically endangered Sumatran orangutans. Now this third and most endangered Orangutan has been found I really hope all the press, publicity will help to save this wonderful island and all of its wildlife before its too late. Nature has a funny way of always surprising us and this new species is a great example of this.

On a recent filmed discussion I took part in The Week UK teamed up with Nat Geo Wild UK to discuss and explore the astonishing wildlife found on the tropical islands between Asia and Australia. Paradise Islands is a three-part series exploring the fascinating diversity of life that has developed over millions of years on these islands.  I chose the beautiful Indonesian island of Sumatra to save. Its home to four of the worlds rarest animals; Sumatran Tiger, Sumatran Rhino, Sumatran Elephant and Sumatran Orangutan. They live in one of the worlds must beautiful and diverse rainforest regions on the planet that is sadly being razed to the ground at an alarming rate for palm oil.

Sumatra is amazing island full of such diverse wildlife and this latest find is a prime example of we just don’t really know what is out there as we flattered and kill off these amazing places for human greed. Orangutans are incredibly creatures and one that touches deep into my sole as does all of nature but once you’ve seen one of these great apes you will understand. I’m heading back to this unique place soon to carry on my work there and I cant wait.

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