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Let’s not take everything for granted


By Susan Hofforth



Last week, scientists at Cardiff University confirmed and identified a new species of great ape, meaning that, at least for now, there is seven living species of ape on the planet, not six as was thought. So, in addition to the eastern gorillas, western gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos, Sumatran orangutans and Bornean orangutans, the ape-world has a third orangutan, Pongo tapanuliensis, the Tapanuli Orangutan. It’s wonderful that there are still some mysteries in the world to be discovered, to be learned from and which perhaps, we can benefit from, and in some way benefit if we can. But, perhaps not, because on the same day as the species was identified as being new, it went immediately onto the most endangered species list.


The Tapanuli Orangutan is the most endangered great ape of the seven. There are only 800 individuals and some scientists fear it could die out within the lifetime of the scientists who discovered it.


Although scientists were aware of the different orangutans, they were not sure until recently that it was a different It was then found to be an unidentified species of orangutan, due to several clearly identifiable differences. The Tapanuli Orangutan has more similarities to the Sumatran Orangutan, probably splitting from that species at least 20,000 years ago, than they have to the Bornean, but it still has many differences in its features, voice, and diet.


There is a slight difference in habitat as well. The 800 Tapanuli Orangutans all live in a small area of 1,000 square kilometres, separated from the range of the Sumatran orangutan by just 100 kilometres.  Because they live in a very small area, they are dependent on it, and this area is threatened by a proposed hydro-electric dam that could flood large parts of their habitat.


It is ironically sad that the species could not be recognized as new until one of the individuals was killed by a human hunter, and so could be taken to be studied. It’s sad because it is human interference that may cause the apes extinction. “It’s exciting to describe a new great ape species in the 21st century. However, with such low numbers, it is vital that we now work to protect them,” said Dr. Benoit Goossens from Cardiff University. “Mining, hunting, deforestation and human encroachment all risk the lives of these great apes.”


It is exciting, and satisfying also, to think that we can still discover new things on this planet. We don’t know everything; there is always more to find out. It is upsetting also to wonder how much humans may not have learned before it became too late to learn it. It is not yet too late for this ecosystem, and so perhaps not too late to learn better ways of working so that human and animal needs can complement each other.

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