Palm oil puts squeeze on Asia’s endangered orangutan
May 29, 2007, 7:48 pm
Filed under: Orangutan stories


By Gillian Murdoch Mon May 28, 12:08 AM ET

PALANGKARAYA, Central Kalimantan (Reuters) – Bound hand and foot, disheveled orangutans caught raiding Borneo’s oil palm crops silently await their fate as a small crowd of plantation workers gather to watch.

Lacking only hand-cuffs and finger-printing to complete the atmosphere of a criminal bust, such “ape evictions” have become part of life for Asia’s endangered red apes.

Thousands have strayed into the path of international commerce as Indonesia and Malaysia, their last remaining habitats, race to convert their forests to profitable palm crops.

Branded pests for venturing out from their diminishing forest habitats into plantations where they eat young palm shoots, orangutans could be extinct in the wild in ten years time, the

United Nations said in March.

Fighting against this grim prediction is the Nyaru Menteng Borneo Orangutan Survival (BOS) centre in Central Kalimantan, which rescues orangutans and returns them to the wild at the cost of US$3,000 per ape.

“They will kill the animals if we don’t go … It’s cheaper to kill the orangutan than put up a fence or snares,” said Lone Droscher-Nielsen, the Danish-born founder of the centre.

While harming the apes is illegal, her centre has amassed a slew of photographs of the grisly fates of some plantation trespassers: Apes with their hands cut off and slashed to death with machetes, and others with bullets through their foreheads.

With dozens captured this year, cages are full, and finding secure land for releases is a constant challenge for the centre.

“It’s not just orangutans — bears, gibbons — everybody is losing their home,” said Droscher-Nielsen.

“If it was only the orangutan, people just say: ‘Well it’s only one species that’s going to go extinct’. But it’s not just one species. Those forests have millions of animals in them that are all going to go extinct if we continue.”


Indonesia and Malaysia together produce 83 percent of the world’s palm oil. Made by crushing fresh fruit, the reddish-brown oil is riding high in the commodities charts, with crude prices up over 15 percent this year after rising 40 percent in 2006.

Used in cookies, toothpaste, ice cream and breads it is the world’s second most popular edible oil after soy.

Demand is also soaring for palm oil-derived biofuel, despite objections from critics who slam the “green” alternative to pricey crude oil as “deforestation diesel” because of the destruction wreaked on forests to make way for palm plantations.

Of 6.5 million hectares cultivated in Malaysia and Indonesia in 2004, almost four million hectares was previously forest, environment group Friends of the Earth calculated.

For orangutan, the clearances are a matter of life and death.

“You can see how desperate the situation is,” said forestry department official Sugianto, 43, as he gestured at row after row of palms in the ape’s last stronghold, Central Kalimantan.

“The company knows the orangutan has a protected status … if they have a permit to clear 60,000 hectares they clear 60,000 hectares, orangutan or not. They only care about their profit.”

Caught and reported to the Borneo Orangutan Survival centre by plantations who say they are trying to be responsible stakeholders, healthy animals are re-released deep in the forest. Those too injured or too young to survive alone join 600 others at the rehabilitation centre.

Forty local Dayak women look after the current crop of 18 palm oil “orphans,” whose mothers have been killed; bottle-feeding them milk, administering medicine and supervising their climbing and nest-building.

“Some people still think it is a strange job, but others think it is normal now,” said 31-year old Sukawati.

After “forest school,” the apes graduate to eventual release.

“They are cute and funny,” said Sukawati. “They make me laugh.”


Orangutans once ranged across Southeast Asia. Now an estimated 7,300 remain on Indonesia’s Sumatra island and 50,000 on Borneo island. An estimated 5,000 disappear every year.

Decades of habitat loss through rampant illegal logging, lethal annual forest fires, and poachers who earn hundreds of dollars for capturing orangutans for the illegal pet trade have all taken their toll.

But this latest threat is the worst, experts said.

“The orangutans can withstand a certain degree of logging, as most loggers don’t take the orangutan food trees,” said Bhayu Pamungkas of the World Wide Fund for Nature.

“But they have no chance with oil palm -& there’s no chance for the orangutan if they clear-cut all the forest.”

To rescue the industry’s green credentials, several Indonesian and Malaysian palm oil companies have joined the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), whose voluntary criteria include a ban on clearing primary forests and areas of high conservation value, such as forests containing orangutan.

Its more than 150 members also include major European end-users like Cadbury-Schweppes, Unilever and the Body Shop, that together take 40 percent of Asian exports, and who want to buy non-destructive palm oil.

But securing private sector support is a balancing act, said Fitrian Ardiansyah, 32, an RSPO board member.

“There is some genuine intention from progressive companies to distinguish between them and the bad guys,” he said.

“But if the push is too hard for them it’s not going to be too difficult to switch the market to China and India, and emerging markets like the Middle East and Africa.”


Like whales, pandas, polar bears, and tigers, shaggy orange orangutan are classed “charismatic megafauna” by academics – endangered animals whose plight provokes compassion and concern.

Cute as they may be, their supporters need to keep perspective, said Derom Bangun, executive chairman of Gapki, the Indonesian Palm Oil Association, and an RSPO member.

“We should see the whole picture, not only the orangutan. They try to manipulate emotional side of orangutans so that housewives in Europe find it very pitiful,” he said.

The country’s clearance of almost 1.9 million hectares of forest a year between 2000 and 2005, Asia’s worst deforestation rate, also needs to be seen in its economic context, Bangun said.

While the government does need to better define which forest areas are to be preserved, not all will be kept, he said.

“Other countries chopped down their forests when they were developing their countries. If they would like us to preserve more than we can, they should do something to help us.”

But while plantation workers have some choice whether they want to buy into the motorbikes and mobile phones offered by palm’s economic opportunities, orangutans have no such choice, those on the front-line point out.

“I’m not against palm oil,” said Droscher-Nielsen. “(But) if there’s not proper protection of the forest the orangutans are not going to make it.”

(Additional reporting by Mita Valina Liem in Jakarta)


We must act now to save orangutan
January 24, 2007, 9:18 am
Filed under: Orangutan stories


Erik Meijaard , Jakarta

They are “the people of the forest” and the face of Indonesian conservation. The orangutans of Borneo and Sumatra are uniquely beautiful, undeniably compelling, and incredibly endangered.

These precious creatures should be well protected as a cultural icon and as an endangered species. But not nearly enough is being done to save our orangutans. The time to act is now, or this precious animal will be lost forever.

Protective measures are long overdue. Orangutan conservation was only seriously undertaken in the 1970s, with the focus simply on habitats in Sumatra’s and Kalimantan’s national parks. It soon became clear that wasn’t enough.

Orangutans started to show up in captivity. They were subsequently confiscated, and because there were no proper facilities to house them in, the first rehabilitation centers were established to remove orangutans from illegal captivity and trade. Intended as a temporary solution, it was expected that after a few years, there would be no need for the centers. But reality proved otherwise. In the last 25 years, the few hundred orangutans in captivity are now numbering in the thousands, driven to these centers as the world in which they lived began rapidly disappearing.

As the forests of Indonesia have vanished, so have their precious residents. The Indonesian media estimated that one thousand orangutans were killed last year because of fires and habitat loss. A more long-term look is even more disturbing: In the last 35 years, orangutan habitat in East Kalimantan alone has shrunk to 800,000 hectares from six million hectares and as many as fifty thousand orangutans are estimated to have been lost in that province alone. These numbers show that orangutan conservation has largely failed in Indonesia, and the orangutan is now one of the most threatened species.

What is the reason for such failure? Poor forest management and land use allocation, for starters, in addition to a lack of law enforcement, corrupt practices, and incompetent governance. This has happened both inside and outside the national parks and other protected areas. Clearly, the strategies that have been developed for orangutan conservation have not worked.

It is difficult to believe this could happen to a species that is strictly protected by Indonesian law. Part of the problem is that those laws are not applied consistently. And even though killing orangutans and other protected species is clearly prohibited by laws such as Law No. 5/1990, it appears that more protection is needed.

After checking many forestry laws, and talking to government officials, I have come to the conclusion that there is no law that clearly prohibits the destruction of orangutan habitat. That’s why agro-business can be established in orangutan habitats; as long as the company does not directly kill or harm the orangutan in the process, the clear cutting of those habitats appears legal.

So the question remains: How can we save the orangutan?

Two threats need to be eliminated: The destruction of orangutan habitat — the forests — and the killing of orangutans themselves.

We will need a cooperative effort. Gunung Leuser and Tanjung Puting are proof that not all national parks must lose their tall forests. Those with significant support from nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) fare better than those without.

The successes in orangutan conservation also appear to be linked to effective partnerships between local stakeholders with real commitment to forest conservation were built. It doesn’t really seem to matter whether these stakeholders are from the local government, local communities, or the private sector. What matters is whether they care about conservation. And often, a focus on the forest and its economic and ecological value, rather than on orangutans, appears to be a key to success.

The solution to preventing the extinction of orangutans lies in combining all these approaches, with the focus on two important areas:

Firstly, we need new legislation that prohibits the destruction of the habitat of protected species. The use of such forests might be allowed, but the user has the responsibility to ensure that populations do not decline.

Secondly, forests need to be managed so that threats can be abated. Such effective forest management requires real commitment, an investment from a range of stakeholders, and effective control, either by government or an independent organization,

We need to increase collaboration to become a more effective force that ensures these changes will happen. The orangutan conservation community of today is fragmented with inter-personal and inter-organizational competition preventing it from becoming a strong force. If we can unite as a community, we will represent an enormous national and international force and millions of dollars of funding for orangutan conservation. We must put aside our differences and recognize how we can effectively work together.

If we speak with one strong, clear voice, we will influence government and enact sound policy, giving Indonesia’s orangutans a chance to survive. But if we don’t, our “people of the forest” will be forever silenced.

The writer works as senior forest ecologist at The Nature Conservancy. He can be contacted at emeijaard@tnc.org . The views expressed here are his own.

Smuggled orangutans flown out of kick-boxing theme park
November 22, 2006, 8:16 pm
Filed under: Orangutan stories


Apes to be returned to Indonesia this week

Forty-eight orangutans smuggled into the country from Indonesia are set to be returned on Wednesday, officials said yesterday. The endangered apes have been waiting for months to return home since veterinarians confirmed they were captured in the wild in Indonesia and not born in captivity as their Thai owners had claimed.

The apes were seized from Safari World Zoo in Bangkok in a raid after forestry police and environmental groups suspected the orangutans had been smuggled into Thailand from northern Sumatra.

All of the animals have had medical check-ups and are in good health and ready to be sent back, said Pornchai Pratumratnatan, chief of Khao Pratap Chang Wildlife Rescue Centre in Ratchaburi province.

Thai wildlife officials are waiting for their Indonesian counterparts to send more cages for the apes, he said, warning that the transfer had to be carried out with great care to avoid causing the animals too much stress. The wildlife rescue centre has served as temporary shelter for the apes since 2005 while a team of Indonesian veterinarians conducted DNA tests on the animals to identify their origins. The test results contradicted the zoo’s earlier claim that many of the orangutans were born in captivity.

Forestry police have already charged the zoo owner for illegally possessing the orangutans. The zoo once had 101 orangutans in its possession. However, in 2004 nearly
half of them died under suspicious circumstances.

The zoo owner claimed they died from pneumonia but police suspected they may have been moved or killed ahead of a police inspection at the zoo.

Meanwhile, four koalas given to Thailand by Australia are set to arrive at Chiang Mai airport on Wednesday and be taken to Chiang Mai Zoo, said Sophon Damnui, director-general of the Zoological Park Organisation. Zoo officials are preparing eucalyptus varieties and a new shelter for the cuddly marsupials to make them feel at home, he said. The shelter, which will be open to the public from early next month, has been designed to imitate their native environment.

Bangkok Post

Indonesia forest fires, attacks kill 1,000 orangutans
November 12, 2006, 10:56 pm
Filed under: Orangutan stories

orangutan.jpgJAKARTA (Reuters) – About 1,000 orangutans are estimated to have died in Indonesia during the dry season this year in which raging forest fires have produced thick smoke across huge areas of Southeast Asia, a conservationist said on Monday.

The fires in the Indonesian part of Borneo have deprived orangutans of food and forced them to encroach on human settlements, where they are often attacked for damaging crops, the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation said.

“Orangutans are starving. They are sick and many of those we are treating were injured after being attacked by machetes,” Willie Smits, an ecologist at the foundation told Reuters, adding that many also suffered from respiratory problems.

He said 120 sick orangutans had been treated in three conservation centers over the past three months, and 10 to 15 of them had died.

He estimated that in all 1,000 orangutans had died over this year’s dry season.

Orangutans live on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra, but encroachment on their habitats by humans and massive destruction of forests is threatening their existence.

In 2002, it was estimated there were 56,000 orangutans in the wild but the population has dwindled at a rate of 6,000 a year, conservationists say.

Heavy rain brought a respite to fires in Borneo’s Kota Waringin Barat where about 6,000 orangutans live at the Tanjung Puting national park, the park’s director Bambang Darmaji said.

“The weather here is all clear,” he told Reuters.

But the airport in Palangkaraya, the capital of Central Kalimantan province, remained closed due to poor visibility, its director Jamaluddin Hasibuan said.

Most of the annual dry season fires are deliberately lit by farmers or at the behest of timber and oil palm plantation companies.

Indonesia’s neighbors, Singapore and Malaysia have grown increasingly frustrated by the fires which triggered fears of a repeat of the choking situation that hit the region in 1997-98.