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New hope for Borneo's orangutans despite climate change and deforestation threats

January 06, 2015

New conservation research has discovered that up to 74% of current orang-utan habitat in Borneo could become unsuitable for this endangered species due to 21st century climate or land-cover changes.

However, the research has also identified up to 42,000km2 of land that could serve as potential orang-utan refuges on the island, and could be relatively safe new habitats for the great ape to reside.

Published as 'Anticipated climate and land-cover changes reveal refuge areas for Borneo's orang-utans' by Global Change Biology, the research was conducted by Dr Matthew Struebig from the University of Kent's Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology (DICE), alongside colleagues from Liverpool John Moores University and the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research (IZW). Further contributions were made by conservation scientists from Australia and Indonesia, in consultation with leading orang-utan experts based in the Malaysian and Indonesian parts of Borneo.

Part of the work, conducted by the Centre for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) in Indonesia, used satellite images to map deforestation and estimate areas of forest change expected in the future. The researchers also mapped land unsuitable for oil palm agriculture, one of the major threats to orang-utans, and used this alongside information on orang-utan ecology and climate to identify environmentally stable habitats for the species this century.

The research demonstrates that continued efforts to halt deforestation could mediate some orang-utan habitat loss, and this is particularly important in Borneo's peat swamps, which are a home to large number of orang-utans and are vital for climate change mitigation. Focusing conservation actions on these remote areas now would help to minimise orang-utan losses in the future.

It is hoped that, since the relocation of endangered species is an expensive process, this research will contribute to conservationists' understanding of how to identify appropriate areas which are safe from development as well as the effects of climate change.

University of Kent

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