The Rabbit and the Orangutan

As I am sure you are aware, the Orangutan; that amazing ginger-haired great ape, is threatened with continued habitat destruction that is a result of humankind’s continuing population growth and our voracious appetite for consuming natural resources. Orangutan are classed as endangered to critically endangered and at their current rate of population decline they could be extinct in the wild within 25 years.

Rabbits (the European or common rabbit to be precise), on the other hand, are more numerous than people in countries such as New Zealand and Australia. Although much has been done to keep their numbers under control they will not be going extinct any time soon. Why are these two animals so different in their numbers? The key is their ‘breeding strategy’.

From an ecological perspective, rabbits are described as being r-selected, that is they produce large numbers of offspring yet offer their offspring limited parental care. A pair of rabbits may produce several litters of kittens totaling up to 40 offspring in one year. Obviously very few will reach adulthood due to natural selection removing the least fit individuals. However, if conditions are favourable they can increase in numbers very rapidly. 24 rabbits released in Australia in the mid-1800s increased to over 600 million in less than a century.

Orangutan, on the other hand, are K-selected, in that an adult female will only produce one offspring at a time and will spend 8 years caring for and teaching that one individual. A female Orangutan may only produce 2 or 3 offspring in her lifetime, however, since the majority of her offspring will survive, this is all that is necessary to maintain the population.

R-selected organisms generally live in unstable environments and as a result their breeding strategy ensures that some of their offspring will survive to adulthood although a great many will not. K-selected organisms generally live in stable environments and replacement fertility is all that is required to maintain the population of their species. A number of New Zealand species display a K-selected pattern.

Humans tend to display a similar pattern in relation to their fertility levels. In unstable, and economically impoverished nations the TFR is generally very high, whereas in stable and prosperous nations the TFR is generally low. Clearly, nobody desires to live in a poor and socially unstable society, therefore it is imperative that we work to ensure all nations achieve some degree of stability, both economically and socially. How is this achieved? I think we could learn something from the Orangutan.

1. Empower Women: Female orangutan are given full responsibility to raise young (Obviously this role should be shared in humans – but the idea of trusting women to help make the best decisions for the future of our species has merit)

2. Education: 8 years of ‘one on one’ education for a young orangutan is better than most humans get.

3. Low Fertility and High Parental Input: Only having 2 offspring maintains a stable population and enables a greater amount of parental input. What could be wrong with that?

I only hope we are as intelligent as Orangutan.

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