The Palm Scribe

Orangutans in and around palm oil plantations

How orangutan can exist in conservation areas near plantations and human settlements

For some 47 orangutans in Ketapang district, West Kalimantan, Forest 657 is their home in nature, where they can freely pursue their daily activities, even though it is an area neighbouring with plantations and human settlements. Forest 657, named for the 657 hectares it covers, reflects the concrete results of efforts conducted by a palm oil plantation company and other related stakeholders, in safeguarding the existence of a conversion area within its concession.

Maharani, one of the 47 orangutans in Forest 657, is pregnant and does her bit for the ecology of the area. (Photo: Nardiyono/PT ANJ)

This forest is a conservation area situated within the Cultivation Rights Title (Hak Guna Usaha/HGU)  of PT Kayung Agro Lestari (KAL), a subsidiary of PT Austindo Nusantara Jaya Tbk (PT ANJ.) The area is part of the 3,884.52 hectares of conservation forests that lie within the concession of PT KAL, and is surrounded by three villages — Laman Satong (624 families), Kuala Satong (769 families), and Kuala Tolak (1,300 families).

Nardiyono, Conservation Manager of PT ANJ. (Photo: Fuad Arrasyid/The Palm Scribe)

The conservation forest was initially to be developed as a palm oil plantation, but after it was discovered to be a habitat for orangutans, the work was halted as PT KAL dedicated it as a conservation area instead.

Nardiyono, a Conservation Manager of PT ANJ, said that besides the 47 individual orangutans (Pongo pygmaeus) at Forest 657, there are another 102 orangutan in the  2,300 hectares of other conservation forests within the KAL concession, eleven of them being animals that were transferred from community lands around these conservation forests.

Orangutan is a species that has been classified as threatened with extinction because of their continuously dwindling number. Data from the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) showed that in 2004 the orangutan population on Borneo island, both in the Indonesian and Malaysian territories, numbered at only some 54,000 individuals.

Working together with its partners — the Ketapang Natural Conservancy Agency (Balai Konservasi Sumber Daya Alam/BKSDA) Ketapang and Yayasan Internasional Animal Rescue Indonesia (YIARI),  PT KAL has deployed 12 personnel to manage the conservation forests since 2015. None of the personnel are field officers, two are staffers and one is a manager.

Most of the field officers, according to Nardiyono, were formerly wood loggers who were later recruited by the company and changed profession into conservation workers. “They are now guardians of the same area that they used to log illegally,” Nardiyono said.

These guardians hold daily patrols around the forest. They are tasked to monitor and understand the situation in the forest, prevent any disturbance against the forest and its content, and take the necessary measures in case any violation or crime is taking place in that forest.

Beside the orangutans, the conservation area is also home to other wildlife such as Macaques (Macaca nemestrina), Bornean Bearded Pigs(Sus barbatus), Agile Gibbons(Hylobates agilis), Brown-throated Sunbirds(Anthreptes malacensis), and Malaysian Pied Fantails (Rhipidura javanica) .

The thick and cool jungle is packed with evergreen trees of various species that are on average about ten to fifteen meters in height. They include Ramin (Gonystyllus bancanus), Syzygium confertum that is locally known as Ubas, Teban payak (Vitex heterophylla), Brunei Cherry (Garcinia parvifolia) of locally known as Asam Kandis, Jelutung (Dyera costulata), and Jungkang (Palaquium sp) as well as bushes. Forests and peatland are areas where orangutans move around in search of food because they are home to various trees that bear the large fruits that constitute part of their diet.

“The fruit of the Junkang is the favorite food of orangutans here,” said Hendriyana Rachman, a conservation staff of PT KAL. The dietary habits of the orangutans also cover eating ferns (Polypodiopsida), termites and Junkang fruit worms.

Hendriyana said that orangutans always move around every day. An adult male orangutan can travel up to three kilometers in a day while a female one could cover 1.5 to two kilometers a day. They will swing from one tree to another in their search for food and build their nest out of branghes and foliage, on top of trees that are strong enough. Orangutans are said to only use their nest once and would not return and use the same nest again and again.  “When they move into another place, orangutans will build a new nest,” Hendriyana said.

However, Katherine Scott, a PhD candidates from Oxford Brookes University, found that the orangutans in Forest 657 “showed a rather different behaviour than usual.” Scott, who has already been in Forest 657 for two weeks to conduct her research on orangutans, observed that several of the orangutans in this conservation forest do reuse their nests.

Katherine Scott, a PhD candidates from Oxford Brookes University. (Photo: Fuad Arrasyid/The Palm Scribe)

“This is an unusual behaviour, but I do not yet know what causes this. I have only been here for two weeks,” said Scott who was previously a research manager with the Gunung Palung Orangutan Conservation Program (GPOCP).

According to her, the orangutans in Forest 657, also eat more nuts,seeds and insects than fruits although she added againt that she did not yet know the cause for this rather different behaviour, although  the conservation forest, with its many large trees, young leaves, fruits, seeds, insect and water, is capable of providing enough food to support is orangutan population.

“In general, they appear normal and healthy. There are no sign of stress or food shortage,” Scott said. “There are also no individual with wounds. They have normal body measurements,” she added.

The orangutans in Kalimantan are part of the great ape family and the largest arboreal mamal. The species has long hirsute hairs that ranges from orange, to dark reddish browh and facial skins that can range from pink, reddish and up to black. An adult male orangutan can weigh between 50 and 90 kilograms and reach a height of between 1.25 meters to 1.5 meters. The female can weight between 30 and 50 kilograms and reach around one meter in height.

The presence of orangutan is now increasingly prone to disturbances in its own habitat. Among the threats faced by the orangutans are the loss of their habitat due to illegal logging, encroachment of human activities, fires, hunting and trafficking of orangutans as pet. The orangutans living in Forest 657, however, are insulated from such threats.

Scott said that the relations between orangutan, the environment and humans is very complex and far from simple as people usually think. She said she appreciated the commitment of PT KAL in safeguarding its conservation forest, including with its orangutan population. ” Just imagine if there were no companies that safeguarded the life of orangutan. It is certain that it would be prone to conflict with humans,” said Scott.

“Companies such as PT KAL deserves our appreciation because it has set standards and all sides abide by them,” Scott said. The company, however, also needed to continuously make sure that the trees are not logged and that orangutans do not become the victim of illegal hunts. The company also needs to prevent fire in their forest. Orangutans, Scott said, needed to be saved from all such threats.

Maharani is one of the residents in this conservation area. As with other orangutans, the pregnant Maharani was also busy swinging from tree to tree in search of food. Once in a while, she will come out with a loud scream as orangutan have the ability to swell their vocal resonance cavity to produce a loud shriek that is used to call others or to tell them or their position.

Maharani and her friends, who all appear to be healthy and active, are good guardians of the forest, helping the distribution of plants through the seeds of the fruits they ate, or inadvertently fall to the ground or those that are secreted along with their secretion.

Orangutan also helps the growth of new trees in the thick forest canopy that allows almost no sun rays to pass through. When they eat or build their nest, orangutan usually break branches and take folliage and thus open up parts of the canopy, allowing sun rays to penetrate and reach the ground. Small trees could thus get the sun rays they need to grow.

Forest 657 is a real example that can show that when a company, such as PT KAL, and the other stakeholders, are committed to safeguarding a conservation area, the future of wildlife such as Maharani and her friends, need not become a source of concern.



Share This