Survival of Orangutans Depends Upon Sustainable Palm Oil Value Chains

Leading Orangutan Conservationists Speak Out In Support of Sustainable Palm Oil During Orangutan Caring Week

Orangutan Caring Week is being celebrated this week throughout the world. This year’s theme is “Respecting nature to save orangutans, biodiversity & our collective future.” As the organisers point out, “by saving orangutans, we save ourselves and our life-sustaining environment. If we can protect and save this closest of evolutionary cousins and their rainforest homes, it would mean we are making the necessary changes to possibly protect all life on earth.”

This message goes to the heart of why conservationists see sustainable palm oil as critical for the survival of the orangutan as well as for the planet in general.

Orangutan Land Trust: “The single-most important thing we can all do to save orangutans is demand sustainable palm oil.”

The organisations and experts that lead the way in protecting orangutans share this belief. Orangutan Land Trust have been at the forefront of driving sustainability in the industry for over a decade. Their President and Co-Founder is Lone Droscher-Nielsen, famously featured in many documentaries and series over the years including Orangutan Island and Orangutan Jungle School. Lone, knighted in her native Denmark for her services to wildlife, created the Nyaru Menteng Orangutan Rehabilitation Project in Indonesian Borneo. It is now the world’s largest primate rescue project, and has set the standard for orangutan rescue, rehabilitation and reintroduction. Lone herself has saved hundreds of orangutans.

“Many of the orangutans we have saved have come as victims from the unsustainable expansion of oil palm across Central Kalimantan over the past few decades,” she explains. “We’ve rescued orangutans starving and ill because their forest habitat has been cut or burnt down, as well as those suffering from horrifying injuries as the result of conflicts with humans when they go in search of food in villages and farms. Most of the orphaned infants at the project represent the “lucky” few who survived, but whose mothers did not in such conflicts.”

“We designed the centre in 1998 to accommodate up to 100 orangutans. When in the early 2000s, we were bursting at the seams with many hundreds of animals, we realised we really needed to do something to stem the tide of incoming victims; we needed to stop the orangutans getting displaced or harmed in the first place. So we decided to look deeper at what could be done with the palm oil industry itself. From engaging with plantation managers to use Better Management Practice, to working with multiple stakeholders in platforms like RSPO, we were determined we would see the way palm oil was being produced changed to one that doesn’t harm orangutans and their rainforest habitat. These efforts actually protect orangutan lives. It’s because conventional palm oil is catastrophic to orangutans & forests, that choosing sustainable palm oil is critical for their survival.

The single-most important thing we can all do to save orangutans is demand sustainable palm oil.”

orangutan mother and child


Orangutan Veterinary Aid: Treating orangutan victims of unsustainable oil palm

Another organisation that has witnessed the impact of unsustainable production of palm oil on orangutans is Orangutan Veterinary Aid. This UK-based organisation supports the veterinary teams at orangutan rescue centres across Borneo and Sumatra, providing equipment, training and hands-on assistance. Its Director, Dr Nigel Hicks shares his viewpoint: “Working with the vet teams at the front line of orangutan rescue we regularly have to deal with orangutans severely traumatised both physically and mentally. The rescue centres are constantly working with local communities and neighbouring plantation owners in an attempt to educate and to protect orangutans and those plantations signed up to regulation and sustainable (palm oil) production have a commitment to protect orangutans found on their land.

“The multi-billion dollar palm oil industry is not going to disappear so it is essential that we engage in dialogue with the industry in an attempt to reduce deforestation and preserve the orangutans. Engaging with companies to engender respect for orangutan and to develop corridors to facilitate the movement of individuals is needed together with exploring options for commercial interests to continue to support their country’s economy whilst avoiding the destruction of virgin forest and adopting a more sustainable ethic. All of these will benefit wildlife, indigenous forest-dwelling communities and our climate whilst saving orangutans by preserving their forest habitat. This means we are automatically making the necessary changes to protect our world. Everyone though, must play a part. Making concerted efforts as individuals to reduce our overall palm oil consumption and seeking products sourced sustainably is an essential task which we must all address with great urgency if we are to bring about change.”

restoration forest


Cinta Raja Restoration Forest (Credit: Sumatran Orangutan Society)

Hutan: “Embracing sustainable practices will go a long way to sustain orangutans who are living outside of protected forests.”

In Sabah on the Malaysian part of Borneo, conservationists at the NGO Hutan have been studying orangutans, elephants and other wildlife in the Kinabatangan floodplain for decades. As populations of these species became more and more fragmented due to oil palm cultivation and other activities, strategies to protect the increasingly vulnerable animals have been implemented. Dr Marc Ancrenaz, Scientific Director of Hutan explains:

“Our observations in Sabah show that orangutans are using the oil palm dominated landscapes where the animals live. As such, it is crucial to support the best exploitation practices and keep trees within the plantations. Orangutans are more adaptive than we thought: today they are found in agricultural landscapes and everything must be done to sustain the individuals who survive there.     Embracing sustainable practices will go a long way to sustain orangutans who are living outside of protected forests. As such we need to design new ways for people and orangutans to coexist in the Anthropocene.”

Borneo Futures: Science-based interventions for conservation

Dr Ancrenaz is also a Co-Director of Borneo Futures, along with Dr Erik Meijaard. Borneo Futures  engages with projects focused on innovative science that informs the practices and policies of environmental management in tropical forest areas. Dr Meijaard also leads the IUCN Oil Palm Sustainability Taskforce. In an interview with the BBC News Dr Meijaard said, “Orangutans are a lowland species on Borneo and Sumatra and that’s where palm oil is grown. The two often clash, palm oil displaces orangutans, they are pushed into gardens where they generate conflicts with locals and that’s where you get these killings. Orangutans are incredibly versatile, but what an orangutan can’t deal with is killing. Because they are such slow breeding species, the killing has a really big impact.”

But he warns against a blanket boycott of palm oil. “If palm oil didn’t exist you would still have the same global demand for vegetable oil. If you stop producing palm, other oils will have to be produced somewhere else. So instead of harming orangutans because of unsustainable produced palm oil you’ll be harming bears or jaguars, it just pushes the problem somewhere else because the demand for those oils will still be there.”


Gunung Palung Orangutan Conservation Program: Community-based conservation

The Gunung Palung Orangutan Conservation Program is a research centre in West Kalimantan which engages in community-based conservation. As signatories to the Statement in Support of Sustainable Palm Oil signed by close to 100 conservation organisations around the world, GPOCP hold out hope for the orangutan: “There is hope for the remaining orangutan populations in Borneo and Sumatra, but we will only be successful with contributions from every stakeholder: NGOs, local communities, scientific researchers, local, national and international governments, and conservation-minded individuals.”

Orangutan Conservancy: “Palm oil  does not need to destroy more forests in conversions and in concessions.”

The Orangutan Conservancy is dedicated to the protection of orangutans in their natural habitat through wild research, capacity building, education and public awareness programs, and by supporting numerous on-the-ground efforts to save South East Asia’s only great ape. They, too, support sustainable palm oil.

“Here at the Orangutan Conservancy we are well aware of the damage that is done because of greed and the desire for more and more palm oil – we also recognize that it is not entirely the country of production’s fault as the highest demands for oil palm products come from outside and from highly developed nations and the fight needs to begin there not in the developing nations where oil palm production begins.  As palm oil is a product that is very ingrained in many products, we understand that it can not be eliminated entirely, but it certainly does not need to destroy more forests in conversions and in concessions.”

Sumatran Orangutan Society: “We need to demand an end to deforestation to ensure safe habitat for orangutans and all the other species that also rely on the rainforest.”

The Sumatran Orangutan Society has long advocated for sustainable palm oil. When asked, “Should we boycott palm oil?” SOS replies, “This is a question that each individual consumer, and each company with palm oil in their supply chains, must answer for themselves. A business might eliminate palm oil from their products until they feel confident that their supply chain is deforestation-free.  A shopper browsing the supermarket aisles might wish to send a message that they are aware of, and outraged by, the negative impacts of the palm oil industry by choosing palm-oil-free options. The question we encourage individuals and companies to consider is:

Will this action help orangutans, forests, and communities? The answer is an unequivocal no. What we need to do is ensure that it is cultivated in the least damaging way possible. Oil palm does not need to be grown at the expense of forests. Instead, we need to demand an end to deforestation to ensure safe habitat for orangutans and all the other species that also rely on the rainforest. The issues around palm oil (like most crops) are complicated and can’t be reduced to ‘it’s good’ or ‘it’s bad’. We are happy to see so many experts sharing their knowledge about sustainable palm oil and helping consumers make informed, wildlife-friendly choices.”

As the organisers of Orangutan Caring Week tell us, “We need to express our concern and create positive change through activities and initiatives that go beyond mere talk.  For some people, learning about the issues for the first time may require discussion and discourse.  However, for many people who have been hearing about this species’ plight for survival, talk may not be enough…Action is needed to save the orangutan and their rainforest home. If ever there was a time to care, that time is now!”

sumatran orangutan

A sumatran orangutan (Credit: Sumatran Orangutan Society)

The Earthshot Prize: Repairing Our Planet series focuses on solutions facing the planet

On Sunday, the premiere of The Earthshot Prize: Repairing Our Planet, a 5-part series, aired globally on BBC and Discovery channels. Looking at the gravest problems threatening the health of our planet, the series highlights the people and organisations working to deliver real and lasting solutions.


Glorious images of orangutans, sunbears and proboscis monkeys from the Kinabatangan rainforest in Borneo filled viewers’ screens and we met Hamisah “Mislin” Elahan. Mislin is an orangutan researcher AND a oil palm farmer. “I think people outside Borneo find that a strange combination,” she says.

“In recent years, the increase of oil palm plantations has been one of the leading causes of deforestation in SE Asia,” explains Attenborough. The programme illustrated how first timber and then oil palm came to replace vast rainforest ecosystems. Over the last 50 years, Borneo has lost 30% of its forest and half of its orangutans.


Mislin presents a different approach.  By cultivating oil palm only on existing farmland that lost its native trees decades ago, the palm oil she produces can be labelled “deforestation-free”. But she goes beyond this.

She is proud to explain, “My neighbours and I just have small farms. We’ve been working with palm oil growers to help restore some of the forest. Part of this is our effort to prepare corridors for wildlife in the Kinabatangan.” Forest corridors help to provide safe passages for between larger patches of forest as well as food and home for orangutans and other wildlife.


Attenborough continues, “To stop the complete removal of Borneo’s tropical rainforest, conservationists like Mislin are trying to change the palm oil trade. And that means changing the entire chain from where the oil  is produced to where it is consumed.”

Next, viewers met Cat Barton, a wildlife conservationist from Chester Zoo in the UK. “My journey into palm oil started in Borneo but I quickly realised it was a battle we could also fight right here in England. The biggest challenge is educating people that deforestation-free palm oil exists.”

Like Cat, Attenborough urges consumers to play their part. “Only a small portion of palm oil can be classified as deforestation-free, but that can change if more consumers demand it.”

Cat’s work has helped Chester to claim the title of the world’s first Sustainable Palm Oil City. Since then, 7 more communities have launched campaigns to become Sustainable Palm Oil Communities.

Despite the challenges of trying to change an entire supply chain, Cat remains driven. “There is so much more to do, but we can only do that if we work collectively with plantations on the ground all the way through to consumers that buy the products in the supermarket.”

Attenborough goes on to remind us, “Although habitat loss today is most obvious in the tropical rainforests, we need to remember that natural habitats were lost across much of the rest of the world centuries ago.”

“Today we have a manicured landscape…we tamed our wild a very long time ago. We don’t want the same to happen elsewhere,“ Cat says, as the segment closes.

Last week, close to 100 conservation and social organisations around the world published a Statement in Support of Sustainable Palm Oil (among others the International Elephant Foundation). The signatories declared their commitment to drive the palm oil industry in the right direction, and to support a move to sustainable palm oil and not a blanket boycott.

With leading conservation experts like Sir David Attenborough and Cat Barton, as well as concerned conservation organisations around the world, supporting solutions such as choosing sustainable palm oil, we believe more and more companies and consumers will come on board and help heal our planet.

Next week will be an exciting week with all eyes on sustainable palm oil! 

We are expecting rich discussions and latest figures on the European imports of certified sustainable palm oil during this year’s Sustainable Palm Oil Dialogue ‘European Action for Global Impact’, starting next Monday. Join the 3-days event and learn more about 

  • Crucial actions to make sustainable palm oil the norm in Europe
  • Driving positive social impact in the palm oil sector
  • Accelerating forest positive action in the sector.

Also we can expect the release of the new WWF Palm Oil Buyers Scorecard 2021 coming Thursday. Who will be the new frontrunners? Which companies have made greatest progress and has the overall sector’s sustainability improved since last year?

Also, CNV will publish a Roadmap calling out for more social dialogue in the palm oil sector.  

Don’t miss these and other important events expected for next week and make sure to regularly tune in on our website and social media channels for updates and reflections!

There will be a lot of opportunities for questions and discussion. What questions would you like to ask? What would you like to know more about? 

Following in the footsteps of Chester Zoo’s ground-breaking campaign which saw the popular tourist destination city of Chester become the world’s first Sustainable Palm Oil City in 2019, today villages, towns, cities and even entire counties across the UK are creating their own Sustainable Palm Oil Communities. The rainforest-saving initiative was launched by conservationists at the zoo is designed to protect vital habitat for wildlife and prevent the extinction of species, such as critically endangered orangutans.

Now a total of seven Sustainable Palm Oil Communities have declared their commitment to the scheme. The movement requires restaurants, schools, workplaces and attractions within each community to use and support sustainable palm oil, which leading conservationists, conservation organisations, wildlife charities and NGOs, backed by detailed scientific research, say is the best way to prevent habitat destruction and protect biodiversity. 

Unsustainable production of palm oil is wiping out huge areas of rainforest – in order to provide the ingredient for food and household products consumed in the UK and around the world. Almost 100 globally-renowned conservation organisations, including Chester Zoo, WWF, the Jane Goodall Institute, Conservation International and Save the Rhino, plus NGOs working in South East Asia, the epicentre for the issue, have long advocated that embracing sustainable palm oil and halting deforestation is the best solution to the palm oil crisis.

Conservation experts say if consumers and organisations were to stop using palm oil entirely, an alternative supply would need to be found for the global demand for edible vegetable oils. With other oil crops – such as coconuts, soya, olives, sunflowers and maize – being less productive per square kilometre, this would result in even more land being cleared and converted to agriculture. Experts also argue that the only way to create change within the industry to achieve better outcomes for wildlife, is to engage with the industry itself.   

Faye Sherlock, Chester Zoo’s Sustainable Communities Project Officer, says:

“The palm oil issue is complex and not at all black and white. Due to its high yield from small land areas when compared to other vegetable oil crops, boycotting palm oil is counter-productive; shifting the issue elsewhere, creating even greater habitat loss and negative impact on biodiversity. We strongly believe therefore that part of the solution is embracing deforestation-free sustainable palm oil – raising awareness with individuals, communities and businesses and creating increased demand for sustainable.


Cat Barton, Field Programmes Manager at Chester Zoo and a specialist on deforestation-free commodities, says:

“Despite significant progress, products containing unsustainable palm oil still come into the UK every single day. However, as more and more places get on board with our new Sustainable Palm Oil Communities movement to demand sustainability, the pressure is being cranked up on the major suppliers to change and move towards deforestation-free palm oil.

“Our movement is already helping businesses in Chester, Oxford and Newquay to influence their suppliers to switch to sustainable ingredients. These changes are then passed along the chain to other customers – it’s a snowball effect.

“Now, we’re seeing that effect spread around the UK. We’re on the cusp of making sustainable palm oil the norm. Together we can create a turning point in the fight to prevent extinction and have a hugely positive impact on wildlife, by influencing the main supply chains to switch to deforestation-free, sustainable ingredients.”


Marieke Leegwater, Programme Manager of Sustainable Palm Oil Choice, applauds the efforts of Chester Zoo and the communities across the UK.

“This demonstrates the potential for communities and consumers to really play a part in addressing the negative impacts of conventional palm oil by choosing sustainable palm oil instead. We encourage more communities across Europe to take the lead as Chester has done and become part of the solution.”

It’s hard to find positivity and motivation as the world is experiencing the crisis of the pandemic. Adding to the long-acknowledged climate change crisis, as well as the emerging awareness of the crisis of biodiversity loss (which leading scientists claim is more critical than even that of climate change), it would be easy for many to feel helpless and despondent.

Working in the area of orangutan and forest conservation for over a quarter century, I’ve experienced enough disappointment, outrage, and anguish to make anyone want to throw in the towel. From helping to rescue and care for traumatised orphaned orangutans to witnessing the juggernaut of destruction associated with conventional production of timber, pulp and paper and oil palm, I find my own search for optimism challenging.

But every now and then something truly positive happens to reinvigorate my determination. Today, on World Environment Day, the United Nations Environmental Programme and the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations launch the United Nations Decade of Restoration. With the aspirational and essential goal of preventing, halting and reversing the degradation of ecosystems worldwide, the platform presents an opportunity to address the wrongs of the past and take steps in the present to ensure the future. Applying this concept to the work that my organisation, Orangutan Land Trust, does in the area of driving sustainable supply chains of palm oil is something  I’d like to see more stakeholders do.

Impacts of palm oil

The impacts of conventional palm oil over recent decades have been undeniably catastrophic for biodiversity. We cannot “undo” these impacts. What we can do is halt the actions and behaviours that today continue to wreak devastation, put in place measures to prevent it in the future, and take meaningful and scalable steps to restore what has been damaged. Adopting this position does not make one an apologist for the industry, but rather, an effective crusader for change. And there are many who share this position, including leading environmental and social NGOs engaged in the issue. The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil today boasts more than 5000 members from 100 countries committed to making sustainable palm oil the norm. While an impressive number, its value is diminished by not only members whose commitments are not being fully implemented (such as buyers not sourcing 100% CSPO), but even more by those outside of membership failing to take any action to support sustainable supply chains. Take for example those brands and retailers using “Palm Oil Free” claims, not, as they would insist, to “save rainforests and orangutans,” but merely as a lucrative PR stunt. Walking away from a problem is not the same as contributing to the solution. (Especially if walking away means walking towards a graver problem as can be posed by the use of less sustainable alternative oils!)

Boycott does not work

Is it surprising that some companies jump on the “Say No to Palm Oil” bandwagon so easily, without sparing a thought for the nuance of the decision? Traditional media, social media, self-declared watchdogs and even books are awash with ill-informed and often biased representations of palm oil, many with a specific focus of attack on sustainable palm oil and the stakeholders committed to it. The motivation? It’s hard to say. It can certainly be “click-baitable” for one thing. But what is commonly lacking in all these communiques is a viable solution to address the issues. #BoycottPalmOil is not going to change the way palm oil is produced on the ground. It’s not going to encourage the necessary continuous improvement needed in certification systems like RSPO, or  in assurance and transparency. And it most certainly is not going to do anything to right the wrongs of the past. In short, such a position is entirely unhelpful.

Sustainable alternative

So what do I propose as an alternative? I propose we demand that growers producing palm oil bring to a halt the destructive practices associated with conventional production, put in place the necessary measures to prevent future negative impacts, and invest in nature-based solutions to contribute to the restoration of ecosystems. I propose we demand that traders and buyers of palm oil, including both manufacturers and retailers, immediately source only 100% CSPO via one or more of the approved Sustainable Supply Chain Options set out by the RSPO and that they invest in ecosystem restoration. I propose we demand that governments of both producer and consumer nations support and uphold these expectations for the supply chain and contribute themselves to ecosystem restoration. And finally, as consumers, all of us can play our part by supporting the companies doing the right thing and demanding those who are not bring to a halt all activities implicated in the destruction of ecosystems, put in place measures to prevent future degradation and start to put right the wrongs of the past by helping to restore ecosystems for our shared future.

Palm oil is has become highly controversial in recent years. While many advocate a total ban on this crop, an increasing number of  conservation organisations are committed to support the move to 100% sustainable palm oil. Why do they choose for sustainable palm oil? Emma Payne from Bristol Zoological Society explains to us why this is key to the conservation of wildlife and natural habitats:


As part of our commitment to ‘saving wildlife together’ at Bristol Zoological Society we are dedicated to promoting a world where all palm oil is 100% sustainably produced.

Bristol Zoological Society is a registered education and environmental charity, which runs and manages Bristol Zoo Gardens and Wild Place Project, as well as conservation projects in 10 countries around the world.

Palm oil is the most widely used vegetable oil in the world with approximately 60 million tonnes produced each year, but when produced unsustainably it has negative consequences on the environment and biodiversity.

Over the past few years, we have been spearheading a campaign to encourage people to choose products containing sustainable palm oil, and to encourage organisations to take responsibility for sustainable sourcing and correct labelling of palm oil products.

Why stick with palm oil?

There is large controversy surrounding palm oil production, led by high-profile organisations and hard-hitting advertising campaigns. These promote a total ban on palm oil, but this is not the best solution.

Replacement vegetable oil crops have a far lower yield, so more land would be needed to produce the same amount of vegetable oil. Palm produces up to ten times more oil per hectare than any other crop in the world, so it can be produced using far fewer plants, and therefore less land.

We believe something can be done about the use of palm oil without destroying livelihoods or using even more land for crops – by supporting sustainable production.

Consumer behaviour

Part of our work involves encouraging consumers to choose products which contain sustainable palm oil. This begins with informing people about the benefits of sustainable palm oil, using our platform at Bristol Zoo Gardens and beyond.

At the Zoo, we have featured exciting interactive displays within animal exhibits, which explain the palm oil issue to a new generation of future conservationists. Last year, this included showcasing a hamper filled with sustainable palm oil products in our shop, promoting sustainable brands and encouraging visitors to think about their purchases. At Christmas, we donated 10 of these hampers to a local Bristol foodbank, both raising awareness and giving back to our community.

To further help consumers make positive choices, we are campaigning for mandatory labelling of sustainable palm oil in UK supermarket products. Close to home, we have been working with local businesses in Bristol and helping them develop sustainable palm oil position statements and undertake audits of their supply chains. This is something we are also committed to at both Wild Place Project and Bristol Zoo Gardens, also working closely with our concessions partners, as part of our five-year plan.

Protecting Endangered Species

Unsustainable palm oil plantations can have a devastating impact on a wide range of animal and plant species. Our conservation projects include the protection and breeding of Endangered and Critically Endangered species that are threatened by loss of habitat.

The Goodfellow’s tree kangaroo is one species which has become endangered due to deforestation in their native Papua New Guinea, including logging and non-sustainable palm oil plantations. At Bristol Zoo Gardens, we are part of the European breeding programme for this species and have a breeding pair.

This year we welcomed our first joey, in an exciting boost for the programme – it was one of only two tree kangaroo joeys to have been bred successfully in captivity in the UK in the past year. It was particularly important as the joey’s dad, Mian, joined us from Perth in Australia, so he and the youngster bring new genes for the programme.

Saving Wildlife Together

Bristol Zoological Society, which operates Bristol Zoo Gardens and Wild Place Project, is a conservation and education charity and relies on the generous support of the public not only to fund its important work at Wild Place Project and Bristol Zoo, but also its vital conservation and research projects spanning five continents.

Our diverse conservation projects include:

  • Working with the University of Bristol to develop new drone technology, allowing us to track the Critically Endangered Kordofan giraffe in Cameroon
  • At our Ankarafa field station, we are working to secure the future of Madagascar’s people and their threatened wildlife, protecting threatened lemurs, supporting reforestation, fire control and protection, and the provision of schools and drinking water.
  • Breeding and reintroducing Endangered white-clawed crayfish in south-west England, a species which has suffered a 70% decline in the past 50 years

Further to this, we have programmes protecting species such as the Endangered African penguin, and the Critically Endangered Desertas wolf spider, lemur leaf frog, Livingstone’s fruit bat and western lowland gorilla.

Click here to find out more about our commitment to sustainable palm oil.

Curious about how other zoos are driving change in the palm oil industry? Find out more here.


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