Campus & Community

Blocking the road to extinction

1 min read

Researcher works to know, protect Borneo's orangutans

A widely cited estimate is that at current rates of deforestation, orangutans will be extinct in the wild in 20 years. But Assistant Professor of Anthropology Cheryl Knott, who heads the Gunung Palung Orangutan Project, believes all is not lost. For the past decade, Knott has helped humans understand orangutans, their treetop world, and their precarious grip on existence. Orangutans breed an average of once every eight years, and produce just one young per breeding. While that is extremely low compared with other mammals, Knott has found that to be in tune with the orangutans’ environment. Though the rainforest may look lush, the fruit that orangutans prefer to live on can be quite rare. The tall rainforest trees tend to produce fruit all at once, during an event called “mast” fruiting. The problem, if you’re an orangutan, is that these mast fruiting episodes average just once every four years, and can range as long as 10 years, though there are smaller annual fruiting peaks. Knott’s work has shown that the orangutans’ reproductive cycles are keyed to these periods of high fruit production.