Defined as a new species in 2017 (distinct from the Bornean and Sumatran oragutans), the Tapanuli orangutan (Pongo tapanuliensis) is a critically endangered great ape which is native to South Tapanuli in Sumatra.
In 2017, genetic studies compared the genomes of the three extant orangutan species which showed that the Tapanuli orangutan diverged from the Sumatran species over 3.4 million years ago and become isolated from the Bornean orangutans around 674,000 years ago. The skull of the Tapanuli orangutan was also compared with the other two species and it was found that the skull and teeth were significantly different from their ancestors. Subsequently, the Tapanuli orangutan was declared as a separate species in late 2017.
Similar to Sumatran orangutans in physical appearance, this primate has the typical long, orange fur, however, they have smaller heads and flatter faces than the Sumatran species. Unlike Bornean orangutans, both the males and females of the Tapanuli species have the ginger, ‘Gandalf’ beards.
Unfortunately, with fewer than 800 individuals, the Tapanuli orangutan is listed as critically endangered by the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) and is the rarest species of great ape. The entire species is restricted to an area of around 1,000 kilometres squared. Their endangered status is, once again, due to human activity; they are threatened by hunting, conflict with humans, habitat destruction, deforestation, subsistence agriculture, mining, mineral extraction and the illegal wildlife trade. Moreover, a hydroelectric power scheme is being planned in the core of their habitat which could massively damage their already minuscule population.
We are also great apes but we have subjected our fellow ancestors to doom. We are responsible to help this critically endangered primate – the Tapanuli orangutan is such a beautiful and intelligent species, we must learn from our past mistakes and not let this species fade away.