The news that a new species of orangutan has been discovered — if “discovered” is quite the right word — is both wondrous and troubling.
Wondrous, because it reminds us that, even in 2017, seeming miracles can and do happen. It’s a reminder of both the resilience of nature and the fallibility of science and humankind, in that such a large mammal — and a primate species at that — can elude detection for so long.
Troubling, though, because yet another creature has been added to the IUCN list of Critically Endangered species, the official designation for animals that are not just in trouble but in serious trouble. Just 800 remain of the Tapanuli orangutan, as it’s being called. Tapanuli is the central rainforest region in Sumatra where those remaining apes cling to life, even as Indonesian developers — legal and illegal — are hidebound determined to burn their forest to the ground, all in the name of palm oil plantations.
But wait, it gets worse. Acting on the notion that what the world really needs is more hydroelectric power dams, Indonesia is in the process of constructing a monster dam that will finish the job the land developers have started, if they have their way.
Naturally, conservation groups, advocates for nature and assorted NGO’s are scrambling to save the rainforest by any means possible, but as the Amazon Basin has shown, petitions and public protests are no match for armed militias willing to burn, loot and murder to do their paymasters’ bidding. Corrupt politicians and land developers get their way every time, and so the Tapanuli orangutan faces uphill odds, even though it’s only now been identified as a separate species.
What constitutes a specific species, as opposed to a subspecies or distant cousin, is a technical branch of zoology, ably explained by National Geographic’s Jason Goldman in a story posted earlier this week. (https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2017/11/new-orangutan-species-sumatra-borneo-indonesia-animals/)
The accompanying photos, by the way — a couple of which appear here — were taken by veteran primate photographer Tim Laman for National Geographic Creative, a digital branch of the National Geographic Society’s tree-of-life. Laman is not new to this: He won last year’s Wildlife Photographer of the Year Award for his image of an orangutan climbing a tree towards his remote-controlled camera placed high in the sky, the rainforest spreading out below.
Scientists are cautious by nature. They’re not inclined to jump to conclusions until a new find has been subjected to peer review. The “discovery” is not technically new; the orangutans in question where first reported to exist following an expedition into the remote mountain forests of Sumatra in 1997. A research project devoted the intervening years to unlocking the apes’ genetic code, to determine whether or not the species was genetically different from the two species already known to exist, the Sumatran and Bornean orangutan.
This is unglamorous work, involving long hours of poring over electron microscopes and DNA-testing computers — not like tramping through virgin jungle in person, like a latter-day Professor Challenger in a post-modern update on Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lord World. The discovery is only coming to light now because the study, authored by researchers from University of Zurich and Liverpool John Moores University in the UK, in conjunction with the wildlife NGO Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme (https://sumatranorangutan.org), published their work in the latest issue of the scientific journal Current Biology.
If the find is still determined to be true years and decades from now, the Tapanuli orangutan will go down in history as the first new great ape to be identified as such in nearly a century.
In the shorter term, though, the Tapanuli orangutan’s greatest contribution to conservation and the fight to preserve what remains of nature, will be that it has forced the plight of Indonesia’s rainforest — and rainforests in general — into the mainstream media, however briefly, from BBC World News to USA Today, from Radio New Zealand to the Hindustan Times, from The Independent to India Today.
In this case, all publicity is good publicity, where survival of a species is concerned.
As the study’s co-author, Serge Wich, a professor of primate biology at Liverpool’s John Moores University since 2012, told the BBC: “It’s . . . worrying, to discover something new and then immediately also realize that we have to focus all our efforts before we lose it.”