The Palm Scribe

Why There’s Now Greater Optimism for Orangutans

The British public broadcaster British Broadcasting Company (BBC) has recently come out with its latest documentary on the orangutans of Borneo, Red Ape which focused on the impact of the expansion of oil palm plantations and called for a consumer ban on the edible oil. But is the situation actually as dire as it is pictured for the orangutans?


The BBC documentary said that the fate of orangutans is reported to be dire indeed, with its population in Borneo dwindling by half in the space of just 16 years. The expansion of oil palm plantations is blamed for the loss of habitat since the early 2000s that have led to the gradual diminishing numbers of the island’s orangutan population. The allegation was accompanied by data reported by several mainstream media in the months leading up to the Red Ape program

The negative publicity on oil palm plantations was also the main reason cited for UK supermarket chain Iceland to announce its blanket ban on products containing palm oil.

As has been the case for decades, predictions for the future are dire as well, with estimates of rapid extinction. Red Ape says that a third of Borneo’s orangutans will disappear by 2020. It is also mentioned that 20 orangutans die every day, although this number is not put into the context of natural or unnatural deaths.

Scientific articles, however, have come up with a plethora of reasons for the decline of the ape’s population. Some argue that hunting is the prime reason behind the rapid decline, while others believe the loss of habitat due to the plantation encroachment, including oil palm, as well as the massive forest and ground fires that hit Sumatra and Borneo islands in 1997-1998, and the most recent in 2015.

In the case of the Red Ape documentary, it mainly reduces the reason behind the rapid decline in population to just two words:  “Palm Oil’, although the program does cite natural fires and illegal capture too, as other less significant reasons.

But a good look at data and history of the orangutan population on the island that is the largest island in Asia and third largest in the world, another picture is emerging. Given the program’s alarming history of the last two decades and the even more dire outlook for the future, it might come as a surprise to many to know that the estimated orangutan population today, set at around 100,000, is actually four times as many as what it was thought to be 20 years ago, at the beginning of the time period when the population is supposed to have halved.

Based on the assumption that the orangutan population is estimated to be ‘only’ at 100,000 today, the population in the late 1990s must then have been over 200,000. Scientific data and estimates at that time put the number of the hirsute large primate to as low as 27,000 and their extinction was supposed to be around nowadays. 

The World Wildlife Fund (WWF), meanwhile, estimates the total orangutan population to be at over 200,000 one hundred years ago, and not 16 or 18 years ago. It says that a century ago there were probably more than 230,000 orangutans in total, but the Bornean orangutan is now estimated at about 104,700 based on an updated geographic range (Endangered) and the Sumatran about 7,500 (Critically Endangered).

That the population is still high is surely great news. Another excellent news carried in Red Ape is the fantastic work of International Animal Rescue Foundation who has successfully saved hundreds of orangutans, many from captivity. IAR also works together with palm oil companies to save orangutans.

Red Ape features many shots of foundation personnel working with plantation workers in rescuing orangutan, fostering the great primates and releasing them in the wild in protected high conservation areas. The foundation’s great rate of rescued orangutans saved and successfully returned to the wild is also another piece of great news.

Given the numbers, it is surprising that Red Ape film has taken such a negative tone. There is more potential good news too. Palm oil only accounts for about seven percent of Borneo land up to today and the expansion of oil palm plantation areas has also slowed down significantly. Clearing and planting primary forest have always been illegal and with the lower expansion rate, disturbances to habitat will also be lower.

In light of the limited remaining land available for agriculture, many palm oil groups have since switched their focus to their existing areas, increasing the productivity of their crop instead and conserving areas of high conservation value, including orangutan habitats. 

A number of palm oil groups, including PT Eagle High Plantations Tbk, is working to develop conservation projects on a large scale in collaboration with customers, experts, Non-Governmental Organizations, as well as local and international governments.

Rather than targeting and punishing palm oil companies, the industry should be supported in its role of leading conservation, including, but not only limited to the orangutan.

This is especially so, as the palm oil industry is the only group with the adequate size and financial capability to ensure that orangutans can continue to thrive long into the future. Support is needed to offset the continuing threats from illegal logging, animal trade, and natural disasters.

Data on the orangutan population points to a better current picture for orangutans than anyone could have dreamed of. The future looks bright, especially when the palm oil industry is supported in its efforts to conserve this wonderful species.

It is a shame that Red Ape descends into a negative view on palm oil when it actually shows plantations workers and animal rescuers working together. As always, when humans work together, great things will happen.

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