February 18, 2019 | 26° F

Rutgers student works with orangutan conservation as species continues to decline

Photo by Rutgers.edu |

Didik Prasetyo, a Rutgers doctoral student in the Ecology and Evolution Graduate Program, spent 15 years studying orangutans and has worked with non-government organizations in Indonesia on their conservation. He currently works with a community in Borneo, Asia. RUTGERS.EDU

Orangutan populations in Indonesia and Malaysia are declining at a rapid rate. 

Didik Prasetyo, a Rutgers doctoral student in the Ecology and Evolution Graduate Program, has been working with orangutans for 15 years.  

He said in an email that in ideal conditions like protected forests, female orangutans live for approximately 53 years while males live for approximately 58 years.  

Due to high deforestation, the land use changing and habitat loss in the last five years, both the orangutan-human conflict and the number of killed orangutans has increased, Prasetyo said.

The orangutan’s unique characteristics and behaviors are ignored in favor of fast economic development, he said. Demand for high crude palm oil and timber are primary causes of the increasing forest loss and land-use changes in Indonesia.

He said he finds their behavior interesting, and believes that studying them is beneficial to human understanding of the Indonesian and Malaysian rainforest ecosystems. 

“Orangutan is the actor for regenerating the forest, they could disperse the seeds from the fruit tree that they consumed, or they could open the forest canopy while build a nest and allow sunlights touch the forest ground, (sic)” Prasetyo said.

In the past, Prasetyo said he has worked with several non-government organizations in Indonesia on orangutan conservation. 

He said he now works closely with the community in Borneo, Asia to protect the orangutan habitat through research and community environmental education. 

“Tuanan Orangutan Research Program is the best example of collaborative management on orangutan conservation, we work together with ministry of forestry, Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation, and other Indonesian universities,” Prasetyo said.

He is currently working on behalf of a partnership between the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), Rutgers University and the Universitas Nasional in Jakarta. He has been a member of this team for four years. 

Funding for the research is secured for the next two years from the USAID Program to extend scholarships and training to achieve sustainable impacts, he said.

“However, I still need more funding for my sample analysis and hopefully Rutgers University could help,” Prasetyo said.

His current research centers on how environmental cues might affect the morphology of male orangutans.   

“By understanding (these) cues, we would understand how orangutan could adapt or maybe not with several environmental changes such as food availability, (sic)” Prasetyo said. 

Erin Vogel, a professor in the Department of Anthropology and advisor in Prasetyo's program, agreed with Prasetyo on the need for change in orangutan habitats. 

Orangutan populations are declining, Vogel said. This is happening rapidly due to human migration into forested areas for logging, palm oil, agriculture and hunting operations.

“ ... Orangutans are the only living great apes in Asia. Their populations are declining at an alarming rate, thus placing both species (of orangutan) on the IUCN Red List as Critically Endangered.”   

Vogel has been working with orangutans for 15 years. 

She has seen how rapidly the landscape is changing and has developed a personal attachment to securing its protection. 

She has developed an environmental education program at several schools along the Kapuas River in Indonesia, according to her website.   

“Rutgers has provided me with logistical and financial support to fund my research and the field station that I co-direct,” Vogel said.

Prasetyo said protecting the orangutan population and habitat is the most important action in minimizing how much the population decreases. He said collaborative management between the government, private sector, educational and research institutions is needed to implement a plan for conservation efforts.    

Both Prasetyo and Vogel said that public awareness is key to preserving the orangutan population. 

“I think that we can all contribute to making a difference,” Vogel said. “This may start as being a conscientious consumer, or promoting sustainable methods to growing palm oil.” 

Ryan McAuliffe

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