Let us hope we don’t kill off our new­found rel­a­tive

The Guardian Weekly - - Comment & Debate - Jules Howard Jules Howard is a zo­ol­o­gist and the au­thor of Sex on Earth, and Death on Earth

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.

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