The Tapanuli Orangutan (Pongo tapanuliensis) is the most threatened great ape species in the world. It is restricted to an area of about 1,000 km.sup.2 of upland forest where fewer than 800 animals survive in three declining subpopulations. Through a historical ecology approach involving analysis of newspaper, journals, books and museum records from the early 1800s to 2009, we demonstrate that historically Pongo tapanuliensis inhabited a much larger area, and occurred across a much wider range of habitat types and at lower elevations than now. Its current Extent of Occurrence is 2.5% and 5.0% of the historical range in the 1890s and 1940s respectively. A combination of historical fragmentation of forest habitats, mostly for small-scale agriculture, and unsustainable hunting likely drove various populations to the south, east and west of the current population to extinction. This happened prior to the industrial-scale forest conversion that started in the 1970s. Our findings indicate how sensitive P. tapanuliensis is to the combined effects of habitat fragmentation and unsustainable take-off rates. Saving this species will require prevention of any further fragmentation and killings or other removal of animals from the remaining population. Without concerted action to achieve this, the remaining populations of P. tapanuliensis are doomed to become extinct within several orangutan generations.