Bornean orangutans are among the most endangered species on the planet. With only about 100,000 of them left in the wild, they are high up on the critically endangered list. According to the World Wildlife Fund, more than half the population has disappeared over the past 60 years.
The greatest threats the orangutan faces is habitat loss from palm oil farming, illegal poaching, and now possibly the COVID-19 virus.
The health of the orangutan population has been a major concern. Since orangutans share nearly 97% of their DNA with humans, they could likely contract COVID-19 and endure the same life-threatening respiratory illnesses as humans.
“It may affect them less than humans, but it also may be even more deadly, and this is simply a risk we cannot take,” said the head of the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation, Jamartin Sihite, in announcing that its two rehabilitation centers in Indonesia would be closed to the public.
The major risk is if an orangutan from one of the conservation centers contracts COVID-19 from a human caretaker and then is released into the wild.
If this were to happen an entire population could potentially be wiped out from the virus.
Indonesia’s conservation groups have been working tirelessly for decades to preserve the species through rescue and rehabilitation efforts, but this past year has not been easy due to the countless setbacks the pandemic has brought about. “Efforts to help curb the spread of the COVID-19 virus have hampered many conservation-related activities,” said Handi Nasoka, acting head of Central Kalimantan’s conservation agency. Conservation funding has taken a hit due to the absence of tourism while poaching has risen. With fewer tourists, the land is being patrolled less making wildlife more vulnerable to poachers.
While scientists aren’t entirely sure what would happen to the orangutan population if they contracted COVID-19, they didn’t want to risk it.
Conservation agencies waited over a year to make any releases, and in February of this year, they successfully released 10 orangutans back into Indonesia’s jungle in Borneo.
To keep human contact with the orangutans to a minimum they airlifted the five males, a mother and her two babies, and two other females to their natural jungle habitat.
“Using a helicopter is the best way to transport orangutans during the pandemic,” Denny Kurniawan, BOSF program manager, told Reuters. Normally it would take three days to drive the orangutans to their drop-off area, adding to the risk of further exposure between humans and orangutans, Reuters noted.