The Orang-utan Conservation Genetics Project

To conduct a range of genetic studies to facilitate conservation of orang-utans globally


The orang-utan (Pongo spp.) is the only living great ape outside of Africa. Orang-utans could once be found across much of South-East Asia, ranging as far north as southern China. By the Pleistocene epoch, physical geography and hunting pressure had reduced the population to a vastly restricted range. Today, wild orang-utans are found exclusively on the island of Borneo – home to around 54,000 individuals (Pongo pygmaeus) – and on the neighbouring island of Sumatra – where fewer than 7,000 remain (Pongo abelii).


Undoubtedly, these populations are a shadow of their former selves. Wild orang-utan numbers have diminished rapidly in recent years: of the Bornean orang-utan population in 1900, no more than 7% survive; of the Sumatran population, no more than 14% remain. Orang-utan population decline is partly due to hunting, which is thought to account for the loss of around 1,000 orang-utans annually. The pet trade is also a key problem, despite various laws prohibiting this since 1997. Nonetheless, orang-utan population decline can be largely attributed to habitat loss: by 2004, more than 90% of original orang-utan habitat had already been destroyed. What little remains is under continued threat, driven largely by global demand for palm oil. Recently, Tanjung Puting National Park, where I have studied wild orang-utans for more than six years, was de-gazetted in places to make way for new plantations: even "protected" areas are no longer safe. In the face of such threats to wild populations, the fate of more than a thousand orang-utans housed internationally in zoos is becoming increasingly important.


At the dawn of managed breeding programmes, karyotypes and Mean Kinship values were used to determine the relatedness of different pairs, thus facilitating breeding recommendations. These values rely on the assumption that all founders were unrelated. In the case of orang-utans – and indeed for many studbooks – this assumption is highly unlikely. Studbook records show that most orang-utans were exported from the wild in the 1920s: it is highly probable that many of these individuals were captured at the same time and in the same place, and that they may have been closely related. To date, there have been few advances in the way we determine breeding pairs: Mean Kinship is still the standard. Given that genetic techniques are becoming increasingly advanced, and the costs of analyses are exponentially declining, a genetic revolution in managed breeding is now an achievable vision.


The principal aim of The Orang-utan Conservation Genetics Project is to generate genetic data for every individual in managed orang-utan breeding programmes, beginning with the North American Species Survival Plan. To date, more than 35 zoos have signed up to provide genetic samples from their orang-utans: using these, we aim to develop the most informed captive management programme for any species worldwide. These data will be used in collaboration with WAZA – and, in particular, with the International Studbook Keeper (Megan Elder of Como Park Zoo and Conservatory) – to heighten and maintain the long-term genetic diversity of orang-utans in zoos. We hope to learn how closely related orang-utans are to one another, based on their DNA, and identify genetically under-represented orang-utans or those pairs that may be subject to inbreeding. More serious conditions –such as air sacculitis – may also have genetic correlates, meaning that we could "outbreed" them in the long term. This project is a complex international effort between multiple scientific and zoological institutions. We hope that it will be the first of many such projects for other endangered species.


WAZA Conservation Project 14002 is implemented by Dr Graham L. Banes, who is affiliated with Henry Vilas Zoo in Madison, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Shanghai. Other stakeholders involved in this project include the participating zoos as well as rehabilitation centres in Borneo and Sumatra.


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