Primates in Peril: Person of the Forest

You do not need to see an orangutan in the wild to be convinced that they have big personalities! Take a look at any photo and you’ll see an animal that, like humans, can be playful, soulful, and expressive. Given that they share nearly 97% of our genes, it is no surprise that we feel a type of kinship with them. 

There are three species of orangutan, which means “person of the forest” in the Malay language—Sumatran, Bornean and Tapanuli—and they all play a critical role in their tropical forest ecosystems. They are gardeners, or seed dispersers, which means that they ingest seeds of the fruits they eat and then effectively plant them through their feces, far from the parent tree. By dispersing seeds, they help maintain the forests that are so vital in sequestering and storing carbon in our fight against rising greenhouse gas levels and climate change.  

Animal handler Yanti Tarigan carrying Sumatran Orangutan babies to the forest school as part of the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Program. (Photo by Kike Arnal/Arcus Foundation)

But orangutans are in trouble and all three species are Critically Endangered. They are losing their forest because of logging and conversion to plantations,  mining, construction of hydroelectric dams, draining of peat swamps, and human-caused forest fires. This has left these primates with a mere 20% of their original habitat, which spans Indonesia and Malaysia. Historically there were more than 230,000 orangutans, but today the numbers pale in comparison. There’s only about 104,000 Bornean Orangutans, 7,500 Sumatran Orangutans, and a mere 800 Tapanuli Orangutans left in the wild. Our reddish-orange-furred friends need our help. 

The Re:wild Solution

In the peatlands of Indonesia’s Central Kalimantan, we are supporting the Borneo Nature Foundation and the government of Indonesia partners in preventing annual human-caused peat-swamp fires. These fires destroy habitat critical to the world’s largest protected population of orangutans, in addition to releasing more carbon stored in these peatlands than all of the fossil fuels emitted annually by the EU.

In Sumatra’s Leuser Ecosystem—the last place on Earth where Sumatran Orangutans, Sumatran Rhinos, and Asian Elephants still live together in the wild—we are supporting a network of grassroots organizations and the government of Indonesia’s partners. These groups are rehabilitating and releasing injured orangutans, reintroducing orangutans to native habitat, and protecting their forest home, including expansion of forests under protection.

An international team of scientists described the Tapanuli Orangutan in 2017, demonstrating that the Tapanuli Orangutan is genetically and morphologically distinct from the Sumatran Orangutan, and therefore a separate species. Tapanuli Orangutans live in a few forest patches in the Central, North and South districts of Tapanuli in the province of North Sumatra, in an area called the Batang Toru Ecosystem. Just two years after its historic identification, the Tapanuli Orangutan joined the list of the world’s most imperiled primates, published in the ‘Primates in Peril: The World’s 25 Most Endangered Primates, 2018-2020’ report. The main threat to the species is an ongoing hydroelectric dam project, which the IUCN SSC Primate Specialist Group Section on Great Apes has asked to be put on hold, as well as ongoing forest conversion and human-orangutan interactions that have led to orangutans being killed and wounded. 


Wild Facts

  • Adult male orangutans can weigh up to 200 pounds

  • In 2017, the Tapanuli Orangutan became the first great ape to be described since the Bonobo from the DRC in 1929

Here is the work related to this project:


There is no one-size-fits-all solution to the interrelated crises of wildlife extinctions, climate change and pandemics. Re:wild works with local and Indigenous communities, conservation partners, governments and others to solve some of the world’s most pressing environmental challenges. Our orangutan conservation approaches include any combination of the following solutions:

protected area management

Improving the way protected and conserved areas are managed—involving communities, Indigenous peoples, sociology, economics, business management, and wildlife crime prevention—to ensure a safer future for biodiversity and local communities.

wildlife crime prevention

Developing community-led and owned prevention strategies that take into account the societal and cultural drivers of wildlife crime, and implementing systems and technology to stop poachers before a crime is even committed.

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Ecosystem Restoration

Supporting extensive native habitat restoration, such as reforestation, that assists in the recovery of ecosystems that have been degraded or destroyed, but that can rebound and rewild with a little help.

The Plan

The Plan

Work with the Borneo Nature Foundation and the government of Indonesia partners to protect habitat critical to the world’s largest protected population of orangutans

# of species

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IUCN Red List Status

Critically Endangered

Approximate number of individuals:

104,000 Bornean; 7,500 Sumatran; 800 Tapanuli


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