To Save the Orangutans Trees Are Our Only Hope

Georgette Kilgore headshot, wearing 8 Billion Trees shirt with forest in the background.Written by Georgette Kilgore

Eco-News | February 22, 2024

A sad looking Orangutan holds a branch while loggers, miners and forest fires continue to destroy their habitats

Intelligent, tenacious, and surprisingly human-like, orangutans have won the hearts of everyone from scientists to conservationists. They’re the heroes of myths and the poster creature for primate intellect. They communicate, they feel and understand emotion, and they’ve even been known to help humans in need.

And sadly, they’re coming closer and closer to extinction. In the past few decades, industry and climate change have taken a heavy toll on ape populations. Now it’s up to us to help save the orangutans.

Every year, thousands of orangutans are killed, many from wildfire and deforestation. Their habitats are destroyed by flames fueled by extreme weather, palm oil plantation owners clearing land for profit, and illegal logging operations. Many orangutans lose their habitats and face heartbreaking deaths, starving from lack of food or wandering into nearby villages only to be poached or hunted.

And the destruction is not slowing down. Every day, more and more of the forests that orangutans call home are disappearing. The trees that these creatures nest in and forage fruit from are vanishing—and so are the orangutans. In fact, we’re on track to lose another 45,000 Bornean orangutans alone by 2050.

But not all hope is lost. We can still make a difference. By planting the right kinds of trees in vulnerable places and helping the communities and ecosystems surrounding orangutan habitats, we can fight to help these endangered species avoid extinction.

In this post, we’ll tell you what makes orangutans so unique, what’s destroying the places they call home, and what you can do to help save the orangutans.

In order to see why losing our orangutan population is so devastating, you first need to understand why orangutans are so magnificent.

Not Quite Human—But Close

Orangutans share 97% of their DNA with humans, making them one of our closest relatives. From the earliest times, they’ve been recognized for their eerie similarities to humans: the word “orangutan” literally means “person of the forest,” and indigenous people often left orangutans unharmed, believing that they were just people hiding in the trees to avoid work or being brought into slavery.

Some scientists and conservationists believe that orangutans are the smartest of the great apes. Their reasons are truly fascinating: orangutans show levels of perseverance and tenacity unseen in any other primate. They approach tasks slowly and methodically, with thought, care, and complete patience.

It’s not just their smarts and looks that mimic human behavior. Orangutans have emotions, and they show them. They squeak to express excitement or fear, and use gestures and expressions to show aggression. Babies cry, whimper, and even smile at their mothers. Some zookeepers have told stories of orangutans displaying emotions towards each other—and comprehending each other’s emotions in turn.

Some locals in areas where orangutans are native will even tell stories about these super intelligent primates helping humans by showing them the way when they’re lost or pointing them towards food to forage when they’re starving.

At Home in the Trees

For orangutans, trees are home. About 90% of their time is spent in nests or swinging from branch to branch. These apes hardly ever spend time on the ground: they sleep, eat, and live high in the canopy.

Nearly everything an orangutan needs can be found in the trees. They gather fruits and leaves to eat and use vegetation to build nests to sleep in. High in the sky, away from predators, orangutans live well: they often survive up to 50 years in the wild.

And their existence preserves the forest in turn. Nicknamed the gardeners of the forest, orangutans distribute seeds throughout their travels, proliferating and sustaining the habitats they call home.

Mother Orangutans

The bond between mother and baby orangutans is as heartwarming as any in nature. Little ones share a nest with their mothers for up to eight years, during which time she single-handedly teaches them to find food, build nests, and avoid predators. This early phase is crucial for orangutans to learn how to survive—and having a safe and stable habitat to nest in with their mothers is a necessity.

The connection between mother and child is so strong, grown orangutans up to 16 years old are known to stop by to pay their mom a visit long after they’ve left her nest. Separating a mother and baby can have extremely distressing effects not just on the young orangutan, but on their mother as well.

Disappearing Habitats

Right now, the future for orangutans is not-so-bright.

Since 1999, 150,000 Bornean orangutans—about half the total population—have been lost. Without any action, the planet could lose another 45,000 Bornean orangutans by 2050.

Unfortunately, the outlook isn’t any better for Sumatran orangutans. Only 7,500 of these critically endangered animals are left in the wild.

What’s causing these intelligent apes to disappear? For many of them, the answer is deforestation. Because orangutans make their home in the trees, deforestation is the biggest threat to their continued survival.

Much of the deforestation that’s plaguing the places that orangutans call home is a result of the booming palm oil industry. Palm oil can be found in everything from cookies to soaps—it’s in half of all products in the grocery store—and acres upon acres of forest are being cleared for palm oil plantations.

In the last two decades, 3.5 million hectares of forest in orangutan’s native countries have been cleared to make way for plantations. Every minute, 300 football fields worth of forest is destroyed in Southeast Asia.

Fires—some created as part of slash-and-burn farming, others started or worsened by extreme weather—are also ravaging acres of orangutan habitat. One Bornean province alone has over 800 wildfire hotspots. These vulnerable places, and the precious resources and wildlife within them, are at extreme risk of going up in smoke.

When an orangutan’s habitat is destroyed, their chances of survival are not promising. With their natural resources and food sources depleted, many starve. Some sadly perish in fire, unable to escape the flames while trapped in the treetops. Others survive the destruction and wander into nearby villages or plantations, only to be hunted as pests or poached for illegal pets.

How Can We Save the Orangutans?

Every person is capable of taking action to help save the orangutans—whether it’s restricting purchases of products that use palm oil, buying sustainably sourced alternatives, or doing your part to combat the climate change that fuels destructive forest fires.

Another way we can help is by conserving the forest that’s left and replenishing habitats with trees that help foster orangutans’ survival. We need to protect the places that these creatures call home, and provide them with more places to live long and healthy lives in the wild.

By finding your emissions with an ecological footprint calculator, and then partnering with one of the best carbon offset providers who employ tree planting offset programs, you can help save orangutans.

8 Billion Trees is Working to Save the Orangutans—and You Can Join Us.

At 8 Billion Trees, we’re fighting deforestation by planting trees in vulnerable places across the globe. As part of our efforts, we’ve placed special focus on protecting and strengthening the habitats of orangutans.

We support organizations that protect and repopulate forests in the places that orangutans live. We’ve partnered with Eden Projects to plant thousands of trees all across Africa and Asia—including Indonesia, the country that both Borneo and Sumatran orangutans call home.

In addition to saving the orangutans, these projects help regulate local climate challenges, foster sustainable farming and increase crop yields, combat poverty, and reduce the risk of slavery. We believe that healthy communities lead to healthy ecosystems. When locals aren’t driven to unsustainable farming and illegal trades to provide for themselves and their families, forests and the animals that call them home have better chances of survival.

That’s why our effort to save the orangutans is multifaceted. Yes, we help conserve existing habitats and create new ones. But we also focus efforts on employing and educating the local community about the benefits of these new forests so that they have the chance to thrive long after the seeds have been planted.

The Bracelet that Saves Orangutans

Want to help 8 Billion Trees save the orangutans? When you buy our Rainbow Glass Orangutan Bracelet, you save 100 trees that orangutans call home and plant ten more.

Two specific trees are especially important for orangutan survival: dipterocarp trees, which soar through the forest canopy and provide ideal habitats, and fig trees, whose flowering fruit is a favorite among orangutans. When you purchase the Rainbow Glass Orangutan Bracelet, these are the exact types of trees you’ll be protecting and planting.

Just ten trees can provide a habitat for up to a dozen orangutans. That means one bracelet provides over 100 orangutans with a chance at survival.

Check out our Rainbow Glass Orangutan Bracelet to make your purchase and help us save the orangutans by conserving and rebuilding their habitats.