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Starving and shot orangutan returned to wild as ‘world’s most wildlife-rich areas being destroyed’

Jane Dalton
International Animal Rescue

An orangutan found starving and with gunshot wounds after fire destroyed its home has been returned to the wild as experts warned Earth’s most biodiverse ecosystems are facing a crisis of destruction.

Epen, as rescuers named the animal, was released with gun pellets still lodged in its back and thighs from attempts to kill it.

The female orangutan was found in a West Borneo forest in November, and was very thin after suffering from malnutrition for several months.

Experts believe Epen’s habitat had been destroyed in huge fires that spread across the Indonesian island last year, prompting the animal to leave the forest in search of food. Villagers and farmers are known to shoot orangutans when they take crops.

Epen had also been separated from the baby she had recently given birth to, with rescuers speculating the baby may have been lost or taken during the shooting.

The animal was treated for a month at an orangutan rehabilitation centre, whose medical team decided it was safer not to operate to remove the pellets. They were not affecting the animal’s health, the team said.

Epen’s forest home is thought to have been badly damaged by fire and people razing woodland to extend farmed land.

Sixteen orangutans have now been released into the protected forest of Gunung Tarak by International Animal Rescue and local conservationists.

Lis Key, of International Animal Rescue, said the animals were facing a series of threats: losing their forest homes to farmland and fires for palm oil plantations; illegal hunting and the pet trade.

A few locals have been accused of taking advantage of Indonesia’s fire season to start their own blazes so they can plant palm trees, which are more lucrative than other types of farming.

“Her baby may have been taken as a pet. We find a lot of babies locally, some dressed up and living in people’s homes, and some are trafficked into the pet trade,” Ms Key said.

The rescue came as new research showed the climate crisis and pressure from human activity were causing biodiversity in some of the world’s most vital tropical ecosystems to collapse.

Academics studied more than 100 places where tropical forests and coral reefs have been damaged by climate extremes such as hurricanes, floods, heatwaves, droughts and fires.

They found threats such as deforestation, overfishing and pollution reduce the diversity of birds, mammals and insects in such ecosystems, which in turn makes those places more vulnerable to damage by extreme weather.

In the Caribbean Islands, extreme weather has cut wildlife numbers by more than half, the study found.

“We are starting to see another wave of global extinctions of tropical birds as forest fragmentation reduces populations to critical levels,” said Alexander Lees, of Manchester Metropolitan University.

Drought in Brazil affected forests’ ability to recover from devastating fires, as dung beetles, which normally spread tree seeds, were much less active than normal, the researchers said.

Higher temperatures combined with longer and more severe dry seasons has also led to the spread of unprecedented and large-scale wildfires in tropical forests.

Animal and human conflicts are a message that if we don’t change, we are all together heading towards extinction

Sadtata Noor

And sea coral bleaching is becoming more frequent because of the rise in ocean temperatures.

Lead researcher Dr Filipe França said: “Tropical forests and coral reefs are very important for global biodiversity, so it is extremely worrying that they are increasingly affected by both climate disturbances and human activities.”

The 11 scientists, from Brazil, the UK and New Zealand, said only global action to cut carbon dioxide emissions could reverse the trends.

Karmele Sanchez, of International Animal Rescue Indonesia, said: “It’s always a source of great hope to be able to give an orangutan another chance at life. Epen had to suffer the consequences of losing her habitat to forest fires and encroachment for agriculture.”

Sadtata Noor, head of the West Kalimantan Conservation Agency, said: “It’s time humans realised that we are killing ourselves slowly.

“Destruction of animal habitats will ultimately afflict humans too. Animal and human conflicts are only a message that, if we don’t change, we are all together heading towards extinction.”

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