Let us hope we don’t kill off our newfound relative
Earlier this month it was announced that a discrete population of Sumatra’s orangutans, separated by a large lake to the north, is a unique species with its own calls (more booming), hairstyles (more frizzy) and, perhaps most crucially, DNA. This distinct southern population are still orangutans, of course – but they have kept themselves to themselves for perhaps 100,000 years, going on their own evolutionary journey. They are, in other words, a new species. And so let us welcome the Tapanuli orangutan ( Pongo tapanuliensis) to the world – even though it was always there – and add its name to the very long list of human-named things that exist in our minds and our books only because they have names that we gave them.
Our next job is, of course, to worry about its imminent extinction. The entire population of Tapanuli orangutans numbers only 800 individuals, and they face a number of familiar pressures that include hunting and deforestation. This urgent threat could make the Tapanuli orangutan one of the most threatened of all great apes, meaning that within seconds of it being discovered, it will likely find itself in the critically endangered category of Earth’s threatened creatures.
There the Tapanuli orangutan will join the eastern gorilla, western gorilla, Bornean orangutan and Sumatran orangutan. It’s not all bad news, though, because one species of great ape is making a very good time of it.
So how did we let the other great apes down so badly?
All extinction is a stain on our conscience. But there is something especially sad about the fate of the great apes. That we can’t even manage to save creatures with whom we shared grandparents a geological period ago is a deep red bloodstain upon our altruistic credentials.
We let them go because we just … sort of … forgot about them. So let’s try not to. Let’s keep talking about the plight of great apes. The world has gained a new species, but we – all of us – also gained a new family member. The least we could do is look out for it a bit.