One billion dollars insufficient to halt orangutan decline

Olivia Miller
Picture by Unsplash

A new study led by Kent’s Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology (DICE) and University of Greenwich shows that orangutans are still rapidly declining despite more than one billion US dollars invested in their conservation between 2000 and 2020.

Researchers urge that the orangutan may need a better investment strategy, as they face imminent extinction unless they are better protected. All three species of orangutan, which occur only in Indonesia and Malaysia, are classified as Critically Endangered.

The study published in Current Biology involved a large network of orangutan conservationists and researchers who sourced data on orangutan conservation investments to assess how much was spent on forest protection and management, patrolling and law enforcement, rescue and rehabilitation, and other strategies. The researchers estimated how much each of these activities benefitted local orangutan populations compared to doing nothing at all.

What the study makes clear is that certain activities are more cost effective and better at saving orangutans than others. Over the last 20 years habitat protection, patrolling, and community engagement strategies had the greatest return-on-investment for maintaining orangutan populations. Restoration of orangutan habitat through reforestation was especially expensive compared to forest protection and management. Rescue and release of previously captured orangutans had low-cost effectiveness because it had little deterrent effect on illegal orangutan killing and trade, and it did not increase wild populations within current species ranges.

Dr Matthew Struebig, one of the contributing researchers and a Reader in Conservation Science at Kent’s Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology (DICE), said: ‘This study shows us that what we are investing in might not be particularly good for orangutan survival. If we want to save the orangutan from extinction, we need to invest in the basics of nature conservation, which is the protection of species habitats and working with local communities to reduce threats such as killing and capture.’

Dr Truly Santika, lead author of the paper and a Senior Fellow in Biostatistics in the University of Greenwich’s Natural Resources Institute, said: ‘To our knowledge, no one has ever fully analysed the costs and benefits of different conservation activities for the likelihood of survival of this protected species.’

Similar analyses could be applied to many rare species. Considering the urgent need to conserve the world’s biodiversity, it is important such cost-effectiveness analyses are developed to optimise the investment of limited conservation funding.

Julie Sherman, one of the contributing researchers, said: ‘Rehabilitation and release is an important tool to recover species that have few individuals left in the wild. If we act now, we can protect wild orangutans in their natural habitats, which is much more cost-effective than trying to restore their populations once they have been killed, captured, or displaced from their homes.’

The research paper titled ‘Effectiveness of 20 years of conservation investments in protecting orangutans’ is published by Current Biology. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2022.02.051