Botanic’s scientist aims to protect ape’s habitat

A baby Orangutan. Picture: Paula Bronstein/Getty Images
A baby Orangutan. Picture: Paula Bronstein/Getty Images
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A SCIENTIST from Edinburgh is helping to save the orangutan – by studying plants.

Tropical botanist Dr Peter Wilkie, of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE), is carrying out conservation research in the “biodiversity hotspot” of Sarawak on Borneo. From there, teams will be able to protect the food sources of the iconic apes.

He said: “When most people look at an orangutan, they don’t tend to focus on what it is hanging from or the fruit it is eating. But if we want to ensure the survival of these amazing animals, we need to ensure the survival of the plants they depend upon.

“Orangutans rely on the trees, and one of the big things scientists are trying to get across is that if you want orangutans, you need the forests.

“We need to understand what they eat, how they disperse the fruit and how the orangutans interact with the forest at all different levels.

“We will go there and identify the trees, and work with other researchers to figure out what the orangutans are ­eating and why, and how that helps develop and maintain the forest.”

The orangutan is only found in parts of Borneo and parts of Sumatra. On both islands their habitats are severely threatened by the increase of human activities including logging, mining, forest fires and the ongoing creation of palm oil plantations.

Currently the orangutans of Sumatra are regarded as being critically endangered, with only a few thousand left. On Borneo, there are thought to be fewer than 50,000.

A new multi-discipline approach has been created thanks to the Malaysian state opening up its Totally Protected Areas (TPAs) to foreign researchers.

As part of the initiative, four field sites have been selected for an intensified research programme. The project will be led by a group of eminent international and regional scientists, including Dr Wilkie.

He said: “The richness of Sarawak’s plant and animal life is internationally renowned. However, while Sarawak’s landscape has changed ­rapidly as development has 
progressed in recent decades, our understanding of the impact of changes such as deforestation to natural areas has lagged behind.

“This new initiative is an important step forward in looking at how scientific research can help refine the management of Sarawak’s forests, especially its biologically rich TPAs, in the interests of conservation.”

He added: “The biggest threat to the orangutan is the loss of their habitat. As the forest becomes smaller and smaller, there is a critical mass where they cannot sustain themselves because there is not enough food. They then start to venture in to oil palm plantations or urban areas where they are threatened.

“The areas we will be working in are protected areas, trying to understand the forest so that we can best understand and protect the orangutans and other species.”

The RBGE will be joined by organisations including the US Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, the Lee Kong Chian Museum of Natural History, Singapore, and the Wildlife Conservation Society.