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Genetic study shows humans have pushed orangutans to the brink of extinction

A new study published in the open-access journal PLoS Biology shows strong genetic evidence of a catastrophic collapse in orangutan populations living in the fragmented forests of the Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary in Sabah, Malaysia. Benoit Goossens, Louns Chikhi,

Michael Bruford, and their colleagues report that the collapse occurred within the past hundred years, and most likely within the past decades--coinciding with massive deforestation, which began in the region in the 1890s and accelerated in the 1950s and 1970s.

"This is the first time that a recent and alarming decline of a great ape population--brought about by man--has been demonstrated, dated, and quantified using genetic information," says Goossens, a wildlife geneticist at Cardiff University who conducted the genetic study. "Developing effective conservation and recovery programs depends on determining when the decline of a population began, its trajectory, and the original population size."

For their study, the researchers collected hair from tree nests and feces found under nests or near orangutans encountered along the Kinabatangan River. Two hundred orangutans were identified using genetic markers called microsatellites. "We used the DNA information to simulate population history and detect evidence of a population decline," Goossens explains.

"The genetic study shows that there is a high risk of extinction of the orangutan in Sabah in the near future if this decline goes on unabated," says Marc Ancrenaz, who also participated in the study. "The major threat to the long-term survival of orangutans in Sabah is linked with oil palm plantation development and forest destruction. Illegal killing also contributes to this decline."

Sixty percent of orangutans found in Sabah are living outside the network of protected areas. "The largest population of the East Bornean orangutan subspecies existing on Earth occurs in the forests of the Sabah Foundation conces
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Contact: Paul Ocampo
press@plos.org
415-624-1224
Public Library of Science
23-Jan-2006


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