One Of The World's Rarest Great Apes Could Be Extinct Just Years After Its Discovery

There are less than 800 Tapanuli orangutans left in the world. Maxime Aliaga

Researchers are worried that a recently discovered Great Ape, one of the world’s rarest, could be on the edge of extinction, and it was only discovered last year.

The Tapanuli orangutan (Pongo tapanuliensis) was found last year in Sumatra, Indonesia. Its numbers are thought to be less than 800, spread over an area a tenth the size of Sydney, which makes it among the rarest of the seven known species of Great Ape.

Now a team of researchers has published an article in the journal Current Biology about the challenges faced by the orangutan. And it’s not looking good, as it faces a battle for survival.

"In forty years of research, I don't think I've ever seen anything this dramatic," said Professor William Laurance from James Cook University in Australia, leader of the research team, in a statement.

The main threat is a planned mega-dam being built by Sinohydro, China’s state-owned hydroelectric corporation, intended to be finished in 2022. The $1.6 million Batang Toru project will flood parts of the ape’s habitat and damage the rest with new roads and powerlines.

In their paper the researchers argue the Batang Toru project “should be canceled”. They said that forest losses, flooding and more highlight the “extreme inadvisability of this proposed project.”

"This is just the seventh species of Great Ape ever discovered, and it could go extinct right before our eyes," said Professor Jatna Supriatna from the University of Indonesia, a co-author of the study, in the statement.

China's BRI could span 70 countries. Lommes/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 4.0

In a piece on The Conversation, Professor Laurance said the massive hydropower dam being built by China was part of their Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). This is an “ambitious but nightmarishly complicated venture,” he said, involving hundreds of projects across 70 nations. And this dam is one example of the impact the BRI is having.

“If the project proceeds as planned, it will flood the heart of the ape’s habitat and crisscross the remainder with many new roads and powerline clearings,” he wrote. “It’s a recipe for ecological Armageddon for one of our closest living relatives.”

The BRI has been coming under increasing scrutiny recently. UK Prime Minister Theresa May has raised concerns about the transparency of the project, while just last month 27 out of 28 EU ambassadors condemned the initiative.

While many of the concerns so far seem to stem from fairness and finances, the environmental issue certainly should be addressed, too. The Tapanuli orangutan may be one of many casualties if China is allowed to build its “new silk road” with little opposition.

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