Saving threatened habitats worldwide

The Great Ape Debate: Controversy Surrounding Orang-utan Conservation

Date and Time: 
30 April 2009
Linnean Society of London

Orang-utan numbers have plummeted over recent years, mainly as a result of the spread of monocultures, particularly oil palm. The destruction of huge areas of Orang-utan habitat is now seriously threatening the species with extinction. So how best to ensure the survival of the Orang-utan?

Aim of the debate:

The aim of the Great Ape Debate was to focus on the controversy surrounding Orang-utan conservation: Is rehabilitation and reintroduction of rescued captive animals a viable way of conserving Orang-utans or would resources be better spent on the purchase, protection and recreation of their natural habitats?


The debate, hosted by the Linnean Society in partnership with the World Land Trust (WLT), consisted of a panel, with John Burton, CEO of WLT and Fellow of the Linnean Society (FLS) joined by the following speakers:

  • David Chivers, FLS, University Reader in Primate Biology and Conservation;
  • Dr Marc Ancrenaz, Director of Kinabatangan Orang-utan Conservation Project;
  • Ashley Leiman, OBE, Founder and Director of Orang-utan Foundation (UK);
  • Ian Redmond, OBE, GRASP - UNEP/UNESCO Great Ape Survival Project.


Ian RedmondMarc Ancrenaz

Ian Redmond (left): "Conserving wild Orang-utans is key in order to maintain the natural function of forests." Marc Ancrenaz: "65-75% of Borneo's Orang-utans live outside of protected areas."

The lively debate was chaired by the Earl of Cranbrook, FLS, who clarified that the Great Ape Debate was not intended to define a "winning argument" but instead to discuss whether rehabilitation and reintroduction of rescued Orang-utans could be a viable way of conserving them or whether resources would be better spent on habitat protection.

The debate:

Discussions included the perceived risks of reintroductions as well as the financial implications and welfare challenges of Orang-utan rehabilitation. John Burton questioned whether releasing semi-wild animals could potentially cause disease, behavioural and genetic pollution risks and David Chivers responded that these animals are released into areas where wild Orang-utans aren't present, meaning that transfer of diseases is not a concern.

Both John Burton and Ashley Leiman were concerned by the welfare standards in rehabilitation centres, which are often very overcrowded. Burton insisted that "there are undoubtedly very important welfare issues, and these do need to be addressed, but they should not be allowed to undermine conservation". David Chivers also noted the welfare issues but pointed out that these centres should not be dismissed because of overcrowding: "Efforts must be accelerated to rehabilitate these orphans and return them to the wild where they can make a significant contribution to the survival of the Orang-utan", he said.

All the speakers agreed on the importance of habitat conservation. As Leiman said, "The future of Orang-utans depends on us stopping habitat conversion from forests to non-forests. If we achieve that, not only will we save Orang-utans but everything else which lives in the rainforest". This point was strongly emphasised by Ian Redmond who likened the Orang-utan to a "shaggy red cog" in the mechanism of the rainforest, stressing that conserving wild Orang-utans is key in order to maintain the natural function of forests.

Marc Ancrenaz brought a field perspective to the debate, saying that studies show that Orang-utans have adapted to live in secondary forest. He emphasised the importance of addressing how to ensure the conservation of the 65-75% of Borneo's Orang-utans that are living outside of protected areas and insisted that the oil palm problem is not going to go away, but that, increasingly, Orang-utans are forced to use oil palm plantations as corridors between forests. He suggested that a "paradigm shift" is needed to integrate biodiversity conservation with economic development.


After the event:

The debate proved incredibly popular, with the event being fully booked within days of its announcement. In response to the wide interest in this issue, the debate was streamed live on the Internet, in what was a "first" for both WLT and the Linnean Society. Web users were able to watch the debate on the WLT and Linnean Society websites as well as on the website of the Guardian Newspaper, and the library at Burlington House served as an 'overspill' area where guests who had been unable to obtain a place for the debate could watch the event unfold on screen.

75 minutes did not provide enough time to explore the subject in any real depth and so the Great Ape Debate continued with a larger forum discussion in November, which was held at the Royal Geographical Society in London.

Event Extras

The Great Ape Debate in the press

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