Can palm oil save orangutans?

Millions of people around the world have seen the footage of the lone wild orangutan in an apocalyptic landscape of destroyed forest desperately trying to fight off a bulldozer; it has become symbolic of the catastrophic devastation wrought upon rainforests and wildlife by the palm oil industry. 

So, it comes as no surprise that caring people around the world who have become aware of the situation are outraged, and want to play no part in the destruction. And it is also not surprising that the first reaction is to want to stop consuming palm oil. Some brands and retailers have seen an opportunity to cash in on this conviction, by telling consumers that “Saving orangutans is as easy as just saying no to palm oil.” Oh, how I wish it WERE that easy.

But it is not.

Orangutans live only on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo in Indonesia and Malaysia. The conditions which make the habitat ideal for orangutans are the same conditions which make the region ideal for the cultivation of oil palm: a tropical climate with plenty of rain. And it just so happens that these two countries account for more than 85% of the global production of palm oil. As a result, outside of protected areas, orangutan habitat has been hugely fragmented by the expansion of oil palm. How are we to save the orangutan given these circumstances?

To address complex issues successfully, it is important that research and science play a part. The organisation I direct, Orangutan Land Trust, is assisted by a formidable Scientific Advisory Board made up of some of the leading experts in orangutan and wildlife conservation, peatland protection, forestry, sustainability and more. These experts help us determine the best strategies for saving orangutans and their rainforest habitat. Understanding precisely where orangutans and oil palm overlap and how orangutans behave and adapt to these fragmented landscapes is critical to developing sustainable and impactful solutions.

Resilient landscapes
The work of Borneo Futures, with lead scientists Dr Erik Meijaard and Dr Marc Ancrenaz, has provided great insight. In a report commissioned for the PONGO Alliance (Palm Oil and NGO Alliance, which brings together some of the largest oil palm companies, NGOs and experts), they discovered that 10,000 orangutans live in areas allocated for industrial oil palm in Borneo alone. It was clear that the strategy of trying to remove orangutans from oil palm landscapes was not tenable. The fact is, orangutans are found in vast numbers in these landscapes, and so we must find a way to develop resilient landscapes for both people and wildlife.

Developing solutions
Dr Ancrenaz’s research in the highly fragmented Kinabatangan landscape in Sabah showed that orangutans can and do move across oil palm estates and although they cannot survive exclusively on the fruit of the oil palm or the shoots of young palms, they can manage if they can find safe patches of forest along the way with a variety of food sources. Research has shown that orangutans can do well in selectively logged, secondary forests as well. Basically, as Dr Ancrenaz describes it, large terrestrial species like orangutans and elephants that find themselves in these landscapes need 3 things to survive: sufficient food resources, space to move and find mates, and to not be killed.

Safe havens
Where does sustainable palm oil fit in? To begin with, under RSPO, growers are not permitted to clear forests or develop on peatlands. Orangutans thrive in peatland swamp forests. Growers are also required to conserve or enhance areas of High Conservation Value (which includes the presence of rare, threatened or endangered species like the orangutan.) Additionally, growers are responsible for ensuring that rare, threatened or endangered species not be captured, harmed or killed. PONGO Alliance is a platform that demonstrates that growers can, in fact, create safe havens with abundant food sources and forest corridors to improve connectivity for species like the orangutan.

A boycott is no solution
Palm oil is here to stay. The demand for all edible oil crops continues to rise, and palm oil, the highest yielding of these crops, is both versatile and ubiquitous. If a blanket boycott of palm oil which fails to distinguish between conventional and sustainable palm oil did take hold and result in lowered production of palm oil, then other lower-yielding crops would take its place. In places like the tropics, replacing oil palm with these other crops would only multiply the risk to the remaining rainforests and the biodiversity within them.

How to contribute
When consumers demand sustainable palm oil, they send a message to brands and retailers that they expect that the products they buy do not contribute to deforestation and biodiversity loss. And when these brands and retailers follow through with committing to sourcing only sustainable palm oil, they contribute to the survival of the orangutan.

Make sustainable palm oil the norm
I have helped rescue orangutans from oil palm plantations, nursed them back to health or sadly sometimes watched them die. I have seen the forests I love in Kalimantan bulldozed and burned for oil palm. I’ve met local people whose lives have been made unliveable due to land-grabbing and destruction of their forest larder. So it is with the greatest of conviction and a lot of investigation behind me that I stand by my position that if we are to save the orangutans and their forest habitat, and address the catastrophic impacts associated with conventional palm oil production, we MUST do all we can to make sustainable palm oil the norm.

That’s why we encourage all brands and retailers using palm oil to source 100% Certified Sustainable Palm Oil today, and become part of the solution.

Michelle Desilets, Conservationist and Executive Director Orangutan Land Trust

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