Australia relies on volunteers to monitor its endangered species



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Nik Borrow/Flickr, CC BY-NC

Matthew H Webb, Australian National University; David M Watson, Charles Sturt University, and Dejan Stojanovic, Australian National University

The King Island Scrubtit and the King Island Brown Thornbill have the dubious distinction of being considered the first and third most likely birds to go extinct in the next 20 years.

Yet the only reason we know the status of the scrubtit and the thornbill is the diligent efforts of volunteers.




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For 15 years, the Threatened Species Committee has quietly summarised the plight of Australia’s most endangered birds, feeding the information to government, including the most recent report on those species most likely to go extinct in the coming two decades.

Experts in conservation management, specialist bird researchers, dedicated birders, and passionate local landholders all give their time freely to monitor endangered species. This is not outsourcing by the government: this is unpaid work by dedicated Australians stepping up.

King Island crisis

For these two King Island species, the most current information came from surveys conducted by specialist ornithologists, who funded the surveys themselves. In surveys completed this year, a handful of scrubtit were found in just three locations. The thornbill wasn’t found at all.

Follow-up surveys at these sites throughout King Island were carried out as part of the Wings on King initiative, with local landholders and visiting birders teaming up to tally records.

Like most of southern Australia, the native vegetation of King Island has been extensively cleared. This clearing is ongoing, and slated changes to Tasmanian planning laws would allow farmers to remove up to 40 hectares per year.

A key driver of this process is the influx of beef producers to the island, attracted by King Island’s rich soils and reliable rainfalls. Large operators are moving from Queensland and buying up prime grazing land, changing the way the land is used.

Many of these changes are bad news for local wildlife. Shelterbelts and remnant forests are making way for grass to feed ever more beef cattle.

This is alarming enough for the scrubtits, for which we at least have some baseline population data and knowledge of habitat requirements. It may be even worse for the thornbill – but we can’t be sure because we know so little about its habitat requirements or key locations.

Fire is another major threat. Uncontrolled bushfires razed almost a quarter of the island in 2007, decimating the Melaleuca Swamp forest at Nook Swamp, the last stronghold for the scrubtits. Only fragments of the swamp remain. This fire also exacerbated acid sulfate soils in unburned habitats, compromising regeneration in the wetland.

Shedding staff

Yet despite these mounting challenges, the federal Department of Environment is shedding vital staff. Just last month the loss of 60 positions from the biodiversity division was announced, representing a third of the people charged with overseeing monitoring of our threatened species.

Tasmania, despite being home to more than 600 threatened species, has a threatened species section of effectively two full-time positions (one of which is not currently filled). They have an annual budget of about A$5,000, or roughly A$7.14 per species).

This abrogation of biodiversity monitoring and basic conservation management is not new. State and federal departments have been losing capacity for decades.

The embedded research units within these agencies are all but gone, and any long-term monitoring is conducted either with external funds or through dedicated individuals nearing retirement. Entire national parks have been handed over to NGOs to manage, like Pilliga and Mallee Cliffs National Parks in New South Wales. NGOs now manage an estate many times larger than our national parks.

Federal funding has shrunk dramatically, with researchers increasingly reliant on philanthropic trusts, mining offsets, and crowdfunding campaigns to cover the costs of last-ditch interventions.

Another way

You don’t have to look very far to find alternatives. New Zealand has just announced a major increase in investment in endangered species funding, $181.6 million in additional funds for conservation initiatives over the next four years.

New Zealand has long been an international leader in conservation management, eradicating feral animals from entire islands to safeguard wildlife. It is ramping up efforts under the Predator Free New Zealand initiative, which aims to eradicate all introduced predators by 2050 in what has been described as “the most ambitious conservation project anywhere in the world”.

In contrast, the deputy director of the Threatened Species Recovery Hub recently pointed out that a third of Australia’s most threatened species aren’t monitored at all.




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The ConversationEleventh-hour funding will be too late for King Island’s thornbill. It hasn’t been seen since a keen-eyed photographer happened across a single bird in 2016. Despite the valiant efforts of volunteers, inspirational videos, and direct representations and grant applications, it has an estimated 6% chance of surviving the next 20 years.

Matthew H Webb, Dr Matt Webb, Australian National University; David M Watson, Professor in Ecology, Charles Sturt University, and Dejan Stojanovic, Postdoctoral Fellow, Australian National University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Australia: Large Fish Species in Serious Decline


The link below is to an article reporting on the serious decline in large fish species across Australia.

For more visit:
https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/jun/05/australias-large-fish-species-declined-30-in-past-decade-study-says

The future is fenced for Australian animals



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Mala, also known as rufous hare-wallabies, will be protected behind an enormous cat-proof fence.
Donald Hobern/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Michael Bode, The University of Queensland

Many of Australia’s mammals spend their entire lives imprisoned, glimpsing the outside world through tall chain-link fences and high-voltage wires. There are dozens of these enclosures across Australia. Many are remote, standing alone in the endless expanse of inland Australia, but others are on the outskirts of our largest cities – Melbourne, Perth, Canberra.

Every year there are more of them, the imprisoned population growing, while the wild populations outside dwindle. These are Australia’s conservation fences.




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The captives within our conservation fences are adorable – floppy-eared bilbies, tiny hare-wallabies, long-tongued numbats – and they all share an extreme susceptibility to introduced predators. At least 68 native mammal species cannot exist in the wild if either foxes or cats are present. Many of these species once numbered in the millions, ranging from the woodlands of Queensland to the deserts of Western Australia, but predation has driven them to the brink of extinction.

Fences offer these species a future in the wild, and conservation groups have risen to the challenge. Last week, the Australian Wildlife Conservancy completed a new cat-proof fence in their Newhaven Sanctuary, the largest conservation fence ever constructed.

Fences are extraordinarily successful

Make no mistake, these conservation fences work. Species that wilt at the sight of a fox, that have been exterminated from every corner of the Australian mainland, will explode in numbers behind fences. Along with offshore islands, inside these fences are the only places in Australia where these species can prosper – a few hundred square kilometres of safety, surrounded by 7.6 million lethal square kilometres.

Environmentalists have never particularly liked fences. Rather than hide behind walls, they repeatedly took the fight to the cats and foxes on the outside.

Their tactics have been diverse, innovative and brutal. Managers have rained bullets from helicopters and poison baits from planes. They have set cunning snares and traps, mimicked the smell and sound of their enemies, and have turned landscapes to ash with wildfire.

Nothing has worked for the most threatened marsupials. Some of the largest and most expensive management campaigns in Australian conservation history have ended in exhaustion and stalemate, and with a retreat back behind the fences.

Fences were once a source of vehement debate in conservation circles. Should they be permanent? Are fenced populations wild or captive? Should they contribute to species’ conservation status?

These arguments have effectively been abandoned. Scientific studies and painful experience has proven fences and offshore islands to be the only reliable method of protecting predator-threatened species http://www.wildliferesearchmanagement.com.au/Final%20Report_0609.pdf. In place of these debates, conservation organisations and governments have turned to more practical questions of fence height, electric wire voltage and skirt depth.

So now, on average, Australians are building a new fence every year, some of them truly enormous. The just-completed fence at Newhaven encloses a staggering 10,000 hectares of red sand and spinifex. By the time the project is complete, this fence will be home to 11 different threatened mammal species.

And Australia is not alone: around the world, from New Zealand to Hawaii to South Africa, an archipelago of fences is emerging from an ocean of predators. It is one of the great achievements of modern conservation and has already averted the extinction of critically endangered species. Although it’s much smaller than our network of protected areas, it offers refuge to species that are long-gone from our national parks and wilderness areas.

Red foxes have been extraordinarily successful in Australia.
Harley Kingston/Flickr, CC BY

A troubling pattern

However, in recent years a concerning pattern has begun to emerge. While the number and size of fences continue to increase, the number of new species being protected has stalled. In fact, the last five fences haven’t included any new species – they have only offered additional protection to species that were already protected behind existing fences https://www.nature.com/articles/s41559-017-0456-4.

As an example, the first two marsupials planned for introduction behind the Newhaven fence will be the mala (Lagorchestes hirsutus) and the burrowing bettong (Bettongia lesueur). These two species undeniably deserve more protection. Both are highly susceptible to foxes and cats and will derive tremendous benefit from the protection of this enormous fence. However, both species are already found elsewhere behind fences (four different fences for burrowing bettongs). Meanwhile, yet-to-be-published research from the National Environmental Science Program has found 41 other species that are desperately vulnerable to introduced predators are not protected by any fence.

This problem is not new to conservation. In the 1990s, Australian researchers suddenly realised that our national park system was failing to protect the full range of Australian ecosystems. Despite our best efforts, we had created a system of reserves that was biased towards mountainous landscapes and deserts, and away from the fertile valley floors. The solution was to create new national parks using systematic and mathematical methods.

This discovery – the theory of systematic conservation planning – revolutionised global conservation. In 2018, conservation fences need their own systematic revolution.

Unfortunately, the national park system had natural advantages that fences lack. The vast majority of Australia’s protected areas belong to the state and federal governments. The centralised nature of the protected area network is perfect for systematic thinking and top-down optimisation – picture the Soviet Union’s Politburo. In contrast, the conservation fencing sector is diverse and decentralised – picture the third day of Woodstock.




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All cost, little benefit: WA’s barrier fence is bad news for biodiversity



Fences are built by governments at the state, federal and municipal levels, by multimillion-dollar NGOs like the Australia Wildlife Conservancy, by tiny local environmentalist groups and by profit-making corporations. This diversity is a fundamental strength of the fence network, giving it access to a spectrum of funding and ideas. But it makes it almost impossible to plan in a systematic manner. You can’t tell a small bilby conservation group in western Queensland that they should protect the central Australian rock-rat instead (Zyzomys pedunculatus). It doesn’t necessarily matter to them that bilbies are already protected behind four different fences and the rock-rat has none.

While conservation science tries to work this problem out, new and larger fences will continue to be built at an accelerating rate into the foreseeable future. True, the absence of coordination will make mathematicians break their slide rules, but each fence will do its job. The furry denizens will hop, and scurry, and bounce around, heedless of their precarious safety.

The ConversationAnd for us, from the outside looking in, these fences will help us forget the parlous state of Australian marsupial conservation. It will be possible to forget our record-breaking rate of extinctions, to forget the empty forests and deserts, and to imagine what a bushwalk might have been like before Europeans unleashed foxes and cats onto Australia.

Michael Bode, Associate Professor of Mathematics, The University of Queensland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

It’s funny to name species after celebrities, but there’s a serious side too



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Attenborougharion rubicundus is one of more than a dozen species named after the legendary naturalist Sir David Attenborough.
Simon Grove/Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, CC BY

Kevin Thiele, University of Western Australia

Microleo attenboroughi. Scaptia beyonceae. Crikey steveirwini. These are the scientific names of just a few of the nearly 25,000 species of plants, animals, fungi and micro-organisms discovered and named in Australia in the past decade.

In each case, the honoured celebrity’s name is Latinised and added to the name of an existing or new genus – a set of closely related species that share common characteristics. In the above examples, Microleo (meaning “tiny lion”) is a genus of extinct carnivorous possums, while Scaptia is a genus of colourful horseflies. And in the case of Crikey steveirwini, a rare snail from northern Queensland, even the genus name honours Irwin, in the form of his favoured colloquialism.




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Scientists have been naming species in honour of celebrities since the 18th century. The father of taxonomy, Carl Linnaeus, coined names to curry the favour (and open the purses) of rich patrons.

These days, we usually do it to curry short-lived attention from the public by injecting a degree of attention-grabbing frivolity. Scaptia beyonceae is one example – so named because the fly in question has a shiny, golden bum.

I don’t think you’re ready for this genus: Scaptia beyonceae.
Erick/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

But to taxonomists and biosystematists – the scientists who discover, name, classify and document the world’s living and fossil species – the naming of organisms is a serious business.

Not just celeb jokes

Consider this. The current best estimate is that Australia, including its shores and surrounding oceans, is home to more than 600,000 species of plants, animals, fungi, microbes and other organisms.

This tally ranks Australia as one of the most biologically rich and diverse nations on Earth. We are “megadiverse” – one of a select handful of nations that together comprise less than 10% of Earth’s surface but are home to more than 70% of its living species.

The world’s biodiversity hotspots.
AAS/Royal Society Te Apārangi

Now consider this: only 30% of Australia’s living species have been discovered, named and documented so far. That leaves more than 400,000 Australian species that we know absolutely nothing about.

Estimated number of described (centre shaded areas) and undescribed (outer unshaded areas) species in Australia and New Zealand.
AAS/Royal Society Te Apārangi

Does this matter? Do organisms need names? The answer is yes, if we want to conserve our biodiversity, keep our native species, agriculture and aquaculture safe from invasive pests and diseases, discover new life-saving drugs, answer some of the greatest scientific questions ever asked, or make full use of the opportunities that nature provides to improve our health, agriculture, industries and economy.

Taxonomists construct the framework that allows us to understand and document species and manage our knowledge of them. Such a framework is essential if we are to sustainably manage life on Earth. At a time when Earth is facing an extinction crisis, brought about by land clearing, pollution and global warming, it is more vital than ever.

Without the understanding provided by taxonomists, we’re like the largest, most complex global corporation imaginable, trying to do business with no stock inventory and no real idea of what most of its products look like or do.

Time for an overhaul

The magnitude of the task seems daunting. At our current rate of progress, it will take more than 400 years even to approach a complete biodiversity inventory of Australia.

Fortunately, we don’t have to continue at our current rate. Taxonomy is in the midst of a technological and scientific revolution.

New methods allow us to cheaply sequence the entire DNA code of any organism. We can extract and identify the minute DNA fragments left in a river when a fish swims past. We are globally connected like never before. And we have supercomputers and smart algorithms that can catalogue and make sense of all the world’s species.

In this context, the release today by the Australian Academy of Science and New Zealand’s Royal Society Te Apārangi of a strategic plan to guide Australian and New Zealand taxonomy and biosystematics for the next decade is a significant step. The new plan outlines how we will rise to the grand challenge of documenting, understanding and conserving all of Australia’s biodiversity.

Sir David Attenborough endorses the new taxonomy plan.

Grand challenge

The plan lays out a blueprint for the strategic investments needed to meet this grand challenge. It envisages a decade of reinvestment, leading to a program of “hyper-taxonomy” – the discovery within a generation of all of Australia’s remaining undiscovered species.

It sets out the ways in which we can use our knowledge of species to benefit society and protect nature, and also the risks involved if we don’t. A small example: there are an estimated 200 unnamed and largely unknown species of native Australian mosquitoes. Mosquitoes cause more human deaths than any other animal on Earth. New mosquito-borne viruses and other parasites are being discovered all the time. It doesn’t take much to put these facts together to see the risks.




Read more:
We can name all of Earth’s species, but we may have to hurry


With such a weighty challenge and such important goals, it’s hardly surprising that taxonomists sometimes indulge in a little quirky name-calling. Names like Draculoides bramstokeri, a cave-dwelling relative of spiders; or the tiny, harmless pseudo-scorpion Tyrannochthonius rex; or Hebejeebie, the name that botanists simply couldn’t resist when a new genus was separated from Hebe.

Materpiscis attenboroughi lived hundreds of millions of years before its celebrity namesake.
MagentaGreen/Sularko/Museum Victoria/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

One of the greatest celebrities of all, the naturalist Sir David Attenborough, has more than a dozen species named in his honour. No fewer than five of them are Australian. These include the brightly coloured slug-snail Attenborougharion rubicundus, and the fossil of the first known organism to give birth to live young, Materpiscis attenboroughi.

The ConversationAs Sir David puts the case in endorsing the plan, discovering and naming species is vitally important, not only for the future of taxonomy and biosystematics, but for the future of our living planet.

Kevin Thiele, Adjunct Senior Lecturer, University of Western Australia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

South Africa should sort out the bad from the really bad on its invasive species list



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Managing trout is a contentious issue with conflicting views about whether they pose a risk, or are beneficial.
Shutterstock

Tsungai Zengeya, South African National Biodiversity Institute

This article is the third in a series The Conversation Africa is running on invasive species.

Alien species have been introduced to Africa for a variety of reasons. They provide food, raw materials for industry, ornamental plants, recreation in the form of sport fishing, hunting and pets. Some that are highly valued have been moved around widely. And in some areas they now form prominent components of societies and ecosystems like the domestic cat for example.

Many alien species bring considerable benefits. But some have become invasive, causing a loss of biodiversity, changes to ecosystems, economic losses and, in some cases, even affecting people’s health.

The shrub Prosopis or mesquite is an example. It was introduced to South Africa to provide fodder, firewood and shade in arid parts of the country. But it’s also a major water user. And two trout species (S. trutta and O. mykiss) are used for recreational angling and commercial aquaculture. But they’ve also been implicated in having a negative effect on the environment.

Managing invasive species is therefore critical. In South Africa the movement and use of 552 listed invasive species are managed under the Biodiversity Act and regulations attached to it. But not all the species on the list are equally harmful. Several may in fact be relatively harmless.

All the listed species under these regulations require management. Given that the capacity is limited, regulations should arguably focus on priority species because not all are necessarily harmful to the extent that would justify spending large amounts of time and effort on keeping them under control.

The question then is: are there some species that could be removed from the list? In our recent study we set out to answer this question by classifying species as inconsequential, beneficial, destructive or conflict generating species. This was done by assessing the relative degree of benefit they brought and their negative effects.

Beneficial and harmful species

The classification was done by using a simple scoring system. It had two categories for the negatives (ecological and socio-economic) and two for the benefits (economic and intrinsic).

  1. Inconsequential species: these make up 55% of the species listed under the act and in the regulations. They were associated with relatively low costs and low benefits to society. Species in this group had limited distribution or no known impact and were largely introduced as ornamentals or pets. Some examples include the eastern grey squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis), European perch (Perca fluviatilis), and the Père David’s Deer (Elaphurus davidianus).

  2. Destructive species: these make up 29% of the list. They don’t bring substantial benefits to society or the environment, but they have a highly negative impact. Many were introduced accidentally and are regarded largely as pests and weeds. Examples include invasive rodents like the black rat (Rattus rattus) which causes damage to infrastructure and transmission of zoonotic diseases and pitch canker (Fusarium circinatum) a growing threat to pine plantations and forests worldwide.

The jacaranda is an iconic tree species in the city of Pretoria where it’s regarded as part of the identity.
Shutterstock
  1. Beneficial species: they make up 10% of the list and have clear social or environmental benefits. For example the jacaranda (Jacaranda mimosifolia) is an iconic tree species in the city of Pretoria where the species is regarded as part of the identity and “sense of place” of the city. Active management is not necessary or should only be done in particular cases.

  2. Conflict-generating organisms: these can be either beneficial or destructive, depending on one’s perspective or what value is placed on them. They make up only 6% of the list. There’s huge disagreement about whether these species should be controlled, or how they should be controlled. Examples include woody plants introduced for forestry, erosion control, sand dune stabilisation, agriculture and as ornamentals. Acacias and pines are examples. Animal examples include species like the Himalayan tahr which was introduced to the Table Mountain National Park. The goat has been the focus of eradication attempts, despite strong opposition. It also includes species introduced for aquaculture like maroon and brown trout. Managing trout has been highly contentious with conflicting views about whether they pose a risk, or deliver a benefit. This has led to them being listed and delisted. The trout fraternity refuse to acknowledge that trout are invasive species and highlight the lack of scientific evidence of the risks they pose.

Finding common ground

We need to keep sight of the fact that there is general agreement on 94% of listed species. By identifying the small number that are generating the greatest tension, it’s more likely discussions can be held to reach common ground on regulation.

Most countries in Africa don’t have invasive species regulations. But there’s growing recognition that they’re needed. South Africa offers useful lessons on how this could be done.

The control of species listed under the country’s biodiversity act is compulsory. This means that plans to manage them have to be drawn up and implemented. But this doesn’t seem sensible given that not all are equally harmful and resources are limited. Our study suggests that some of the species currently regulated could be removed from the list.

Countries wanting to set up a system of managing invasive species could start by classifying a prospective list of candidates. Policymakers could then quickly bring out legislation against the most damaging and destructive ones. At the same time, discussions could be had on the ones that generate conflict with the aim of reaching consensus.

The ConversationThis would allow managers and regulators to focus on the most destructive species – as well as those that are at the centre of fierce disagreement.

Tsungai Zengeya, Researcher at the South African National Biodiversity Institute, South African National Biodiversity Institute

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

How we discovered a new species of orangutan in northern Sumatra



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The new species has a smaller head, and a distinctly ‘cinnamon’ colour compared with other orangutans.
Maxime Aliaga, Author provided

Colin Groves, Australian National University and Anton Nurcahyo, Australian National University

We have discovered a new species of orangutan – the third known species and the first new great ape to be described since the bonobo almost a century ago.

The new species, called the Tapanuli orangutan (Pongo tapanuliensis), has a smaller skull than the existing Bornean and Sumatran orangutans, but has larger canines.

As we and our colleagues report in the journal Current Biology, the new species is represented by an isolated population of fewer than 800 orangutans living at Batang Toru in northern Sumatra, Indonesia.

Orangutan populations in Sumatra and Borneo – the new species’ distribution is shown in yellow.
Curr. Biol.

Read more: The lengthy childhood of endangered orangutans is written in their teeth


The existence of a group of orangutans in this region was first reported back in 1939. But the Batang Toru orangutans were not rediscovered until 1997, and then confirmed in 2003. We set about carrying out further research to see whether this isolated group of orangutans was truly a unique species.

On the basis of genetic evidence, we have concluded that they are indeed distinct from both the other two known species of orangutan: Pongo abelii from further north in Sumatra, and Pongo pygmaeus from Borneo.

The Batang Toru orangutans have a curious mix of features. Mature males have cheek flanges similar to those of Bornean orangutans, but their slender build is more akin to Sumatran orangutans.

The hair colour is more cinnamon than the Bornean species, and the Batang Toru population also makes longer calls than other orangutans.

Making sure

To make completely sure, we needed more accurate comparisons of their body dimensions, or “morphology”. It was not until 2013 that the skeleton of an adult male became available, but since then one of us (Anton) has amassed some 500 skulls of the other two species, collected from 21 institutions, to allow for accurate comparisons.

Analyses have to be conducted at a similar developmental stage on male orangutan skulls, because they continue growing even when adult. Anton found 33 skulls of wild males that were suitable for comparison. Of 39 different measurement characteristics for the Batang Toru skull, 24 of them fall outside of the typical ranges of northern Sumatran and Bornean orangutans.

The new orangutans have smaller heads – but some impressive teeth.
Matthew G Nowak, Author provided

Overall the Batang Toru male has a smaller skull, but bigger canines. Combining the genetic, vocal, and morphological sources of evidence, we have confidently concluded that Batang Toru orangutan population is a newly discovered species – and one whose future is already under threat.

Under threat as soon as they’re discovered.
Maxime Aliaga, Author provided

Despite the heavy exploitation of the surrounding areas (hunting, habitat
alteration and other illegal activities), the communities surrounding the habitat of the Tapanuli orangutan still give us the opportunity to see and census the surviving population. Unfortunately, we believe that the population is fewer than 800 individuals.

Of the habitat itself, no more than 10 square km remains. Future development has been planned for that area, and about 15% of the orangutans’ habitat has non-protected forest status.


Read more: Orangutans need more than your well-meaning clicktivism


The discovery of the third orangutan in the 21st century gives us an understanding that the great apes have more diversity than we know, making it all the more important to conserve these various groups.

The ConversationWithout the strong support of, and participation from, the communities surrounding its habitat, the future of the Tapanuli orangutan will be uncertain. Government, researchers and conservation institutions must make a strong collaborative effort to make sure that this third orangutan will survive long after its discovery.

Colin Groves, Professor of Bioanthropology, Australian National University and Anton Nurcahyo, , Australian National University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.