Saving the orangutan

According to a myth from the Dayak tribe in Malaysia, two bird-like gods created all animals and humans. They proceeded to celebrate their achievement late into the night with an enormous feast. In the morning, the pair of gods decided to create a further batch of people, but in their tired condition didn’t get the recipe right and, by error, created the orangutan instead.

The orangutan is one of the four great apes (the others being the gorilla, chimpanzee and the chimp-like bonobo) and shares 97 per cent of our genetic makeup. They possess the intelligence of a three-year-old human, exhibit a wide range of emotional expressions (that share similarities with human behaviours) and are able to create and use sophisticated tools for their own advantage.

The orangutan’s disproportionately long arms, which were developed for living in the trees where it spends most of its time, and bright reddish-brown hair covering most of its body give it a unique appearance. And, although it reaches only 1.4 metres in height, an orangutan weighs approximately the same as a human and can be up to four times stronger. It’s no wonder, then, that the word orangutan means “man of the forest” in the Malay language.

The orangutan was once found across South-East Asia — especially in China, Vietnam and Cambodia — but since the mid-1970s their range has been reduced to the islands of Sumatra and Borneo. While all of Sumatra belongs to Indonesia, Borneo is primarily divided into Kalimantan (Indonesia) in the south and the northern provinces of Sarawak and Sabah (Malaysia).


The orangutan at risk

Recent estimates of the global orangutan population suggest there may be 30,000 left on Borneo and only 7000 on Sumatra. However, numbers are plummeting across the animal’s range as a consequence of various human impacts, and these figures are already out of date. In 2002, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature listed Borneo orangutans as an “endangered” species and those on Sumatra as “critically endangered”.

In recent decades, Borneo has undergone radical change. With dense forest cover, swampy lowland mangroves, a mountainous interior and a low population density, it previously defied many exploration attempts. However, in the 1980s, the island was discovered by the tropical timber industry and large swathes of rainforest were consequently razed.

Nearly 90 per cent of the orangutan’s suitable habitat has been destroyed; on Sumatra, lowland rainforest has already nearly disappeared. Although accurate figures are unavailable, it’s widely believed that around 5000 orangutans die every year as a consequence of such habitat loss. According to Friends of the Earth UK (FOE UK), the orangutan could become extinct in the wild within about 12 years. As a “keystone” species, its presence is vital for the survival of the forest ecosystem; if it were to disappear, the existence of thousands of other creatures would also be jeopardised.

Two industries that are having a great impact on orangutan numbers are palm oil plantations and logging, much of which is conducted illegally. Sometimes, even the apes themselves become targets. When loggers fell a tree containing orangutans, it’s common for the adults to be shot in order to capture the babies, who are in demand for their playfulness and cute appearance. Despite the illegality of this trade, baby orangutans are bought by traders for about AUD$40 and may be later sold overseas for thousands.

German wildlife biologist Peter Pratje estimates that around five orangutans die for each one that reaches its end destination as a pet or in an unethical zoo. Before arriving in the Indonesian capital Jakarta or an overseas country, most will have succumbed to stress or disease in transit. In the back alleys of East Jakarta’s giant Pramuka Market, baby orangutans are clandestinely sold to wealthy Indonesian buyers.


Illegal logging in Indonesia

Poaching, however, is not the greatest threat the orangutan faces. According to an Indonesian government estimate, about 70 per cent of all timber harvested in the country is logged illegally. National parks have not been exempted and orangutans are under threat from logging in Leuser (Sumatra) and Gunung Palung (West Kalimantan). The Center for International Forestry Research and US NGO The Nature Conservancy recently teamed up to expose illegal or deceptive practices by otherwise legally operating timber companies, resulting in additional forest loss.

When democracy arrived in Indonesia in 1998, the breakdown of old structures led to an upsurge in corruption. Conservation groups have pointed out how bribes can compromise local police and forestry officials, while investigations have revealed that smuggling routes out of the country are controlled by major crime syndicates. Environmental investigators have observed that much illegal Indonesian timber is first shipped to Malaysia or Singapore, from where it’s sent on to Hong Kong to be “laundered” with fake paperwork before entering China. Indonesia has recently expressed a serious resolve to curb illegal logging, but it also feels the need for stronger multilateral cooperation from the authorities in Malaysia and China.

Without a strong, educated and well-organised consumer movement demanding Forestry Stewardship Council certification for wood products, or other convincing proof of legal origin, responsibility is shifted onto governments.

Except for a US-Indonesian agreement signed in April, little government progress has been made: the Australian Government’s cautious approach towards taking action is driven in part by a fear that economically squeezing Pacific nations will turn them into “failed states”, in turn posing a security threat to the region.


The expanding palm oil industry

Most orangutan NGOs and rescue groups currently regard palm oil as the ape’s greatest threat. Where forest is destroyed to make way for palm oil plantations, orangutans often venture into these vast monocultures in search of food, or may invade villagers’ gardens. Their sad fate is often to be physically attacked by frightened and inexperienced plantation workers.

In its hard-hitting 2005 report, The Oil for Ape Scandal, FOE UK teamed up with three orangutan groups to blow the whistle on palm oil’s excesses. Through detailed research, it found that between 1985 and 2000, palm oil was responsible for a staggeringly high 87 per cent of deforestation throughout Malaysia. Most of Indonesia’s notorious smog-producing fires lit during 1997-8 occurred on palm oil concessions, and even industry figures show that 48 per cent of palm oil plantations in South-East Asia have necessitated the removal of some primary or secondary forest.

The oil palm, also known as Elaeis guineensis, originated in the West African nation of Guinea. Today, much of the world’s production of palm oil is from plantations scattered across the humid tropics.

Growing to a height of 25 metres, oil palms produce large clusters of reddish fruits roughly the size of a small plum. Each cluster weighs up to 50kg, resulting in a profligate palm oil yield of around 6000 litres per hectare that far surpasses its competition among edible oils. This enormous productivity is reflected in its cheap price.

Global consumption is following an exponential growth curve and recently palm overtook soya as the world’s number one vegetable oil. The recent media spotlight on hydrogenated trans fats has encouraged the promotion of palm oil as a non-trans-fat alternative, but as a saturated fat, many health experts do not view it as healthy option. In the supermarket, it’s commonly labelled as vegetable oil and found in such processed foods as chips, biscuits, margarine and chocolate, and in non-food items such as soap. FOE UK estimates that palm oil is found in one-tenth of all products on British supermarket shelves.


A shift towards sustainable palm oil

Against this generally gloomy backdrop are a few glimmers of hope. In 2001, Switzerland’s largest retail chain, Migros, working with WWF Switzerland, took the initiative by committing to apply a strict set of social and environmental criteria to palm oil purchases for its range of own-brand products.

Following groundwork by WWF, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was established in 2004 as a multi-stakeholder forum involving producers, consumer product manufacturers, banks and environment NGOs. While its scope extends to a range of environmental and social concerns, including pesticides and land rights, the RSPO also addresses issues that directly affect the orangutan.

With a steady trickle of new members, today an estimated 50 per cent of the palm oil sector has now joined the RSPO. FOE UK has been lobbying large British companies to become members, with some success; by August 2006, all the UK’s large supermarket chains had applied for membership.

November 2005 saw RSPO members adopt the Principles and Criteria for Sustainable Palm Oil. Among the diverse areas covered by this agreement are protection measures for endangered species, primary forest and high conservation habitats. Nevertheless, as the 50 per cent of the industry yet to join the RSPO is probably causing most of the damage, FOE UK questions whether voluntary participation by the most responsible operators will bring the whole sector in line without a strong regulatory framework. Other NGOs have concerns about the two-year pre-implementation lead-up time.

The need for awareness in the manufacturing sector is highlighted by a survey conducted last year by FOE UK. Of the 96 British companies the environment group approached, none was able to trace its palm oil supply back to non-destructive plantation sources. Although the situation in Australia is probably similar, some larger food companies operating here are aware that their palm oil supplier is an RSPO member.


Working on the ground in borneo

For the past three decades, Dr Birute Galdikas has devoted more than half her lifetime to saving the orangutan. Initially working for archaeologist and anthropologist Louis Leakey in Africa, she followed Leakey’s suggestion and relocated to Borneo, living on the edge of the Tanjung Puting National Park in southern Kalimantan. This coastal lowland peat forest is home to around 5000 orangutans, one of the world’s largest remaining populations.

In the early years, she inhabited a small hut, wading up to her neck in swamps to track orangutans at a time when modern science knew virtually nothing about them. Single-handedly, she succeeded in greatly adding to scientific knowledge of their behaviour, discovering many similarities with humans. Establishing the Orangutan Foundation, she gradually turned her humble surroundings into Camp Leakey, a substantial orangutan research and protection centre that today employs 200 people. Many Indonesians come to visit and are educated about the importance of protecting their remaining rainforest.

According to Galdikas’s perspective, as human presence has encroached on Tanjung Puting over the past three decades, the presence of Camp Leakey has probably saved most of the forest from destruction. With the help of outside funding, the Orangutan Foundation has recently installed 17 guard posts around the forest, and local villagers are running reforestation programs inside the park.

The news is not all good, though. Satellite images from 2004 show that around 40 per cent of Tanjung Puting has been de-vegetated, the main culprits being rice and shrimp farming, gold and silica mining and the march of the oil palm; recent ground surveys show plantations making incursions inside the park. Ever alert, FOE UK recently revealed the Indonesian government is considering whether to allow five palm oil companies to convert seven per cent of Tanjung Puting into plantation land, issuing a cyberactivist alert to its members.

A recent bulletin from the Nyaru Menteng orangutan rescue centre in central Kalimantan presents a picture of stressed volunteers rushed off their feet, picking up orangutans from forest habitats recently cleared to make way for vast tracts of palm plantations, before they come to harm. As the number of orangutans at the centre swells into the hundreds, housing them all is becoming a growing challenge.

At such centres, orphaned pet orangutans captured in government raids are released into the wild after a period of gradual readjustment. The reconditioning process at Camp Leakey involves daily use of a small training forest followed by release at a remote outpost inside the park. After initially being given handouts, the orangutans are encouraged to become self-reliant. Biologists engaged in this process hope that after years of captivity orangutans will quickly adopt their natural behaviour patterns, which include swinging on vines, building nests in trees and feeding on fruit and termites. While it’s still too early to gauge the success of release programs, Peter Pratje is hopeful that the long-term survival rate will be at least 50 per cent.


Time for action

Evidence continues to reinforce the impression that Indonesia is failing to adhere to the UN’s Kinshasa Declaration on Great Apes, which it signed last year. Signatory countries to the declaration have all agreed to take the necessary steps to prevent the great apes’ extinction. Malaysia was conspicuous, at the time of writing, as one of two great-ape-range countries not to have signed.

Meanwhile, numerous NGOs around the world are working to save the orangutan. These include the Perth-based Australian Orangutan Project, which accepts tax-deductible memberships, donations and bequests. Funds provide practical support for orangutan protection and rescue initiatives, all of which are listed on the group’s website.

Nick Lyon and Evie Wright of the Orangutan Film Protection Project have visited Kalimantan twice over the past couple of years, reporting that the destruction is gathering pace. Although time is running out, orangutan groups reject the notion that extinction in the wild is an inevitability and some are prepared to become politically engaged. Hopefully, their efforts will ensure that one day the orangutan and the other great apes, our closest cousins, will enjoy some of the rights many humans have long taken for granted.


What can you do?

FOE UK, which has been at the forefront of palm oil activism for years, argues against a blanket boycott of palm oil on the grounds that, besides being impractical, it would impact most severely on poor communities. Instead, it has been urging large food manufacturers and supermarkets to join the RSPO and help bring about the shift to sustainable production.

You can become proactive in the push for corporate social responsibility by contacting the following supermarkets and consumer sector companies to encourage them to adopt corporate sustainability policies on palm oil use and to join the RSPO.



T: 1300 767 969



T: 1800 061 562



T: 1800 025 361


Peerless Foods

T: (03) 9214 7777


Colgate Palmolive

T: 1800 802 307


PZ Cussons

T: 1800 809 282


Proctor and Gamble

T: 1800 028 280




Australian Orangutan Project:

Orangutan Foundation International:

Orangutan Conservancy:

Sumatran Orangutan Society:

Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation:

Orangutan Film Protection Project:

Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil:

The Oil for Ape Scandal:

Martin Oliver is a writer and researcher based in Lismore. His article on Eco-philanthropy appeared in WellBeing 106.

Martin Oliver

Martin Oliver

Martin Oliver writes for several Australian holistic publications including WellBeing on a range of topics, including environmental issues. He believes that the world is going through a major transition and he is keen to help birth a peaceful, cooperative and sustainable reality.

You May Also Like

Wellbeing & Eatwell Cover Image 1001x667 2024 02 21t112255.897

Green Beat: Biodiversity, Solar Dominance & Healthy Neighborhoods

Wellbeing & Eatwell Cover Image 1001x667 2024 02 14t123927.263

Community-based prepping

Wellbeing & Eatwell Cover Image 1001x667 (87)

The bushfire cycle and more

Wellbeing & Eatwell Cover Image 1001x667 (77)

Oceans of minerals