Orang-utans have been the direct victims of the destruction of vast areas of tropical rainforest and conversion to oil palm plantations.

Industrial palm oil production, through massive rainforest destruction for oil palm plantations, poses the greatest threat to great apes in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Congo Basin.

Rapid plantation expansion and the resulting mass deforestation over the past three decades has reduced tropical rainforest habitat for Bornean and Sumatran orang-utans by nearly 60% and threatened remaining habitat in the next decade. That fate will soon be faced by great apes in the Congo Basin and West Africa as palm oil companies return to the birthplace of oil palms, Equatorial Africa, in search of forests to clear and cheap land for plantations. Already the impact is being felt in Republic of Congo, Cameroon, Nigeria and Gabon.

The suicidal pace of deforestation and peatlands destruction in just the past 10 years has created pockets of isolated populations across Borneo and Sumatra. Habitat losses with the destruction of vast areas of tropical forest throughout the island and their conversion to agriculture (mostly oil palm plantations – Elaeis guineensis, but also acacia, rice, subsistence crops, cocoa, etc). An overall loss of 15.5 million hectares of forest (24% of total forest area) was recorded between 1985 and 1997 in Sumatra and Kalimantan, while 37% of the total forest area was lost in Sabah between 1950 and 2000 (FAO 2000). In the lowlands (prime orangutan habitat) this figure is higher and reaches more than 60%. We consider that today only 86,000 km² of habitat remains available to the species throughout the island (which is about 740,000 km²). Protected areas home to significant orangutan populations are also threatened by habitat loss.

The rapid expansion of oil palm plantations in Borneo in response to international demand (the oil is used for cooking, cosmetics, mechanics, and more recently as source of bio-diesel) has accelerated habitat losses. Between 1984 and 2003, the area planted with palm oil on Borneo increased from 2,000 km² to 27,000 km²: about 10,000 km² is located in Kalimantan; 12,000 km² in Sabah and 5,000 km² in Sarawak. Many areas used to be prime habitat for the orangutans: eastern lowlands of Sabah, the plains between the Sampit and Seruyan rivers in central Kalimantan, etc.

Ravaging Inferno

Fire once again was unleashed on the Indonesian islands of Borneo and Sumatra in late 2015. It has been estimated Indonesia’s forest fires threatened a third of world’s wild orangutans.

Over the past several decades fire, set during the dry season, has become a cheap and efficient tool for clearing tropical rainforest and peatlands first clear-cut, in preparation for planting oil palm. Historically fires have been allowed to burn freely until extinguished by the onset of annual rains.

Over the past two decades a series of fires have expanded out of control due to increased palm oil plantation creation and repeated El Niño climatic events. The result in 2015 was to create the greatest human-caused disaster on Earth. The toll on orang-utans is still being measured.

The habitat destroying fires were caused by palm oil plantations and farmers engaging in illegal slash-and-burn practices as a relatively inexpensive means to clear their land of unwanted vegetation and peat. Caught in the crossfire wild orang-utans trapped in islands of forests required rescuing to survive. Indonesian Sumatra and Kalimantan possess large areas of deforested peatland, which is highly combustible during dry season. Peat, which is made up of layers of dead vegetation and other organic matter, contributed heavily to carbon emissions because of the substance’s high density and carbon content. 

Plantations Creating Islands of Isolation

Fragmentation of orang-utan habitat is just as deadly as clear-cutting forests and ravaging fires. Palm oil companies have been slow to recognize and confess the destructive nature of their industry on tropical rainforest habitat of orang-utans and many other endangered species. An awakening of sorts is beginning to stir the palm oil industry through a self-policing organization called the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). Unfortunately most of the progress towards sustainability has been generated by extreme outside pressure by citizen activists and groups like Greenpeace International. Pressure on end-product companies directly in the wrath of consumers has pushed the palm oil industry on three fronts:
1) zero-deforestation of primary forests
2) no new clearing of peatlands
3) social welfare of employees and local communities

Despite constant scrutiny from outside conservation and environmental groups the palm oil industry still lacks supply chain transparency critical to protecting remaining habitat and orang-utans.

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