Despite what many will tell you, numbers can lie and only fools follow them blindly. But maybe more importantly, numbers, like us all, age. And with that age, again like us all, if not careful they slip into obsolescence. I hate the thought of me going that direction, but to ensure it doesn’t happen it’s critical I state updated — so too, numbers.
Today GRASP-UN released their The Future of the Bornean Orangutan: Impacts of changes in land cover and climate change at the regional meeting in Sabah (Borneo) Malaysia. The report isn’t the issue, but as I dig deeper into the idea that conservation is broken I continue to bump into numbers, old numbers, out of date numbers, irrelevant numbers, yet we continue to base decisions and projections on them. Maybe more importantly we use them to inform constituencies regarding the need for their support and governments the need for action — now.
“Borneo’s deforestation rate has been among the world’s highest for over two decades, and 56 percent of the protected tropical lowland forests – an area roughly the size of Belgium – was lost between 1985 and 2001.” – from the GRASP-UN report
For over a decade NGOs and others have been floating the number 65,000 as the “about” population of orangutans left in the wild. Commonly cited, “According to the most recent census on Borneo, taken in 2003, only 45,000 to 65,000 of these apes remain.” This new report works off a 2008 estimate by Dr Serge Wich of 54,000 orangutans remaining (curiously plopped halfway between the early guesstimate.) But here’s the thing, “What’s worse is… those numbers may be high,” Stephanie Spehar, a primatologist at the University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh. The 2008 estimate is based on data gleaned from work years before that release date. So conservatively we are 9-15 years out from the best Bornean orangutan population estimate the leading organization in the world, tasked with saving great apes in the wild, can come up with? That would be like Apple basing its 2016 production targets for the iPhone 6+ off of 2007 numbers — the year Steve Jobs introduce the first iPhone!
Digging through corporate conference presentations and annual reports from the palm oil industry, logging, (conflict) minerals and mining, electronics, they all are directing their future from the most recent data available; even really old numbers will be from 2012/13. In the corporate world last year’s numbers are ancient history. So why does the conservation community continue to rely and plan based on numbers that are… well, lies?
As Brent Loken, executive director of Integrated Conservation and a PhD student at Simon Fraser University says, “It’s extremely difficult to protect an endangered species if we don’t know how many are there,” Population statistics affect everything from IUCN statuses to protected area designations and conservation budgets. Loken and Spehar have been exploring new methods of collecting census data and the results are deeply concerning, “They also performed a traditional nest count so they could compare results. The count indicated that there were 397 orangutans in the Wehea Forest. The camera traps? Just 60—around 15 percent of what the nest count projected.”
With every page of research reviewed I repeatedly ask myself — how can we attack the problem if we constantly see it as a 25 year old problem? Shouldn’t GRASP-UN, CITES, and the corporate conservation giants be asking the same? As Loken says, “Conservation is often a numbers game. And if we’re going to save “the man of the forest,” we’re going to need better numbers.”
Notes & Resources
2015-2016 Global research and reporting on great apes made possible in part through the generous financial support of the Philadelphia Zoo