Future hanging in balance? Borneo orang-utan. Photo by Rhett Butler.
Borneo will likely lose half of its orangutans if current deforestation and forest conversion trends continue, warns a comprehensive new assessment by an international team of researchers.
The study, published in the journal PLoS ONE, overlays orangutan distribution with land use regulations in Malaysian and Indonesian Borneo. Borneo has suffered high rates of deforestation, logging, and forest conversion for industrial plantations in recent decades, endangering the world’s largest surviving populations of orangutans.
The authors, led by orangutan specialist Sege Wich of Liverpool John Moores University, found that 78 percent of forest currently inhabited by orangutans in Borneo is unprotected. Of that 29 percent is under logging concessions, 25 percent is licensed for conversion to industrial oil palm and timber plantations, and 24 percent lies outside protected areas or concessions.
The researchers then modeled the impact of future land use on the distribution of orangutans. They estimate that under a business-as-usual scenario “at best only 51% of the current orang-utan distribution (in protected areas and logging concessions) would remain”. They warn that the reality however could be far worse due to hunting, which is a substantial cause of orangutan mortality in Indonesian Borneo but isn’t factored into the model. They also note further threats from industrial mining operations, which in Indonesia can be granted in nominally protected areas, and illegal encroachment into officially protected areas.
Conversion of logged forest to an oil palm plantation in Borneo. Photo by Rhett Butler.
But the researchers also ran a more optimistic scenario under which the Malaysian and Indonesian governments zone forests outside protected areas and current concessions for selective logging, which research suggests can maintain orangutan populations when done properly, rather than oil palm and timber plantations.
“There is now a large quantity of evidence indicating that selectively logged natural forests can play an important role in the conservation of orang-utan populations,” they write. “However, it is important to recognize that good management is crucial to the effectiveness of these concessions for orang-utan conservation. Concessions where timber is harvested at unsustainable rates tend to have far lower orang-utan densities, and other factors such as damage to residual stands and hunting control are also very important. Certification, for example through the principles and criteria of the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), could guarantee such sustainable management.”
“Selectively logged natural forest constitutes the highest percentage of the orang-utan distribution of any land-use type. Thus, the future of the species largely depends on the strength of the commitments by governments and companies to reduce deforestation and forest degradation rates in logging concessions and to maintain these forests for sustainable timber harvest over the long-term.”
Under this second scenario, “approximately 64% of the current orang-utan distribution would remain if all such forests, protected areas and logging concessions maintain orang-utans.”
Deramakot Forest Reserve, a Dipterocarp forest managed as an FSC-certified concession in Sabah, Malaysia. Deramakot is considered the “gold standard” for tropical forest management. Photo by Rhett Butler.
To avoid the worst outcome for orangutans, the paper argues for spatial planning that incorporates the best science and accounts for the value of ecosystem services afforded by healthy forests.
“To ensure long-term survival of orang-utans, a masterplan at the landscape level is needed that will consider all remaining viable populations as well as all the different land uses that are active within the orang-utan’s range. Such a master plan should clarify which possible land uses and managements are allowed in the landscape and provide new standardized strategic conservation policies (e.g., a policy for logging concession management in orang-utan areas),” they write.
“Such a process should make much better use of values of ecosystem services of forests such as water provision, flood control, carbon sequestration, and sources of livelihood for rural communities. Presently land use planning is more driven by vested interests and direct and immediate economic gains, rather than by approaches that take into consideration social equity and environmental sustainability. Both the Malaysian and Indonesian governments have committed to the long-term maintenance of natural capital, but this requires the use of scenarios that integrate the need for both economic growth and environmental and social sustainability when making land use decisions.”
CITATION: S.A. Wich et al. (2012) Understanding the Impacts of Land-Use Policies on a Threatened Species: Is There a Future for the Bornean Orang-utan? PLoS ONE 7(11): e49142. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0049142
(07/16/2012) Orangutans are in dire need of a revised conservation approach, according to a new study in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. While the plight of the species is widely recognized within the conservation community—receiving international attention in the form of scientific research, funding, and NGO efforts—the authors argue that “there has been frustratingly little progress.”
(11/14/2011) A new study finds orangutans in Indonesian Borneo in unprotected areas are being killed at a rate faster than what population viability analysis considers sustainable. Conflict between orangutans and humans is worst in areas that have been fragmented and converted for timber, wood-pulp, and palm oil production, but hunting is occurring in relatively intact forest zones away from industrial development.
(03/28/2011) How do you count orangutans when they are difficult to spot in the wild given that they are shy, arboreal, and few and far between? To find a solution, biologists have turned to estimating orangutan populations by counting their nests, which the great apes make anew every night. In order to make the most accurate count possible, researchers have studied the different factors that could impact the success, or lack thereof, of nest-counters in mongabay.com’s open access journal Tropical Conservation Science.
(12/13/2010) Michelle Desilets, Executive Director of the Orangutan Land Trust, spoke with Laurel Neme on her “The WildLife” radio show and podcast about orangutans. In the first part of her interview, they discussed orangutan biology, habits and the interconnected threats, from the pet trade to habitat loss and expansion of oil palm plantations, facing these creatures. The second part covers the process of rehabilitating orangutans and teaching them to be wild.
(10/18/2010) As nations from around the world meet at the Convention on Biological Diversity in Nagoya, Japan to discuss ways to stem the loss of biodiversity worldwide, two prominent researchers argue that conservationists need to consider paradigm shifts if biodiversity is to be preserved, especially in developing countries. Writing in the journal Biotropica, Douglas Sheil and Erik Meijaard argue that some of conservationists’ most deeply held beliefs are actually hurting the cause.
(09/23/2010) Selectively logged forests and timber plantations can serve as habitat for orangutans, suggesting that populations of the endangered ape may be more resilient than previously believed, reports research published in the journal PlosONE. The study, conducted by a team of researchers led by Erik Meijaard of Jakarta-based People and Nature Consulting International, found roughly equivalent population densities between natural forest areas and two pulp and paper plantation concessions in East Kalimantan, Indonesian Borneo.
(08/12/2010) Orangutan encounter rates have fallen six-fold in Borneo over the past 150 years, report researchers writing in the journal PLoS One. Erik Meijaard, an ecologist with People and Nature Consulting International, and colleagues compared present-day encounter rates with collection rates from naturalists working in the mid-19th Century. They found orangutans are much rarer today even in pristine forest areas. The results suggest hunting is taking a toll on orangutan populations.
(07/29/2010) Many of the environmental issues facing Indonesia are embodied in the plight of the orangutan, the red ape that inhabits the islands of Borneo and Sumatra. Orangutan populations have plummeted over the past century, a result of hunting, habitat loss, the pet trade, and human-ape conflict. Accordingly, governments, charities, and concerned individuals have ploughed tens of millions of dollars into orangutan conservation, but have little to show in terms of slowing or reversing the decline. The same can be said about forest conservation in Indonesia: while massive amounts of money have been put toward protecting and sustainable using forests, the sum is dwarfed by the returns from converting forests into timber, rice, paper, and palm oil. So orangutans—and forests—continue to lose out to economic development, at least as conventionally pursued. Poor governance means that even when well-intentioned measures are in place, they are often undermined by corruption, apathy, or poorly-designed policies. So is there a future for Indonesia’s red apes and their forest home? Erik Meijaard, an ecologist who has worked in Indonesia since 1993 and is considered a world authority on orangutan populations, is cautiously optimistic, although he sees no ‘silver bullet’ solutions.
(03/01/2010) It is no secret that orangutans are threatened with extinction because their rain forests are being destroyed at an alarming rate. Ten years ago, Shawn Thompson, a writer, former journalist and university professor, set out to chronicle the threat to orangutans in a book released in March 2010. The book is called The Intimate Ape: Orangutans and the Secret Life of a Vanishing Species. The book spends most of the time talking about the nature of orangutans and the relationships between orangutans and people. But the ultimate underlying message is there about the source of the peril to orangutans and the solution. Thompson says that the problem of saving orangutans has to do with communications and human nature.
(01/16/2010) The Malaysian palm oil industry has been broadly accused of contributing to the dramatic decline in orangutan populations in Sabah, a state in northern Borneo, over the past 30 years. The industry has staunchly denied these charges and responded with marketing campaigns claiming the opposite: that oil palm plantations can support and nourish the great red apes. The issue came to a head last October at the Orangutan Colloquium held in Kota Kinabalu. There, confronted by orangutan biologists, the palm oil industry pledged to support restoring forest corridors along rivers in order to help facilitate movement of orangutans between remaining forest reserves across seas of oil palm plantations. Attending NGOs agreed that they would need to work with industry to find a balance that would allow the ongoing survival of orangutans in the wild. Nevertheless the conference was still marked by much of the same rhetoric that has characterized most of these meetings — chief palm oil industry officials again made dubious claims about the environmental stewardship of the industry. However this time there was at least acknowledgment that palm oil needs to play an active role in conservation.
(10/03/2009) In an unlikely—and perhaps tenuous—alliance, conservationists and the palm oil industry met this week to draw up plans to save Asia’s last great ape, the orangutan. As if to underscore the colloquium’s importance, delegates on arriving in the Malaysian State of Sabah found the capital covered in a thick and strange fog caused by the burning of rainforests and peat lands in neighboring Kalimantan. After two days of intensive meetings the colloquium adopted a resolution which included the acquisition of land for creating wildlife buffer zones of at least 100 meters along all major rivers, in addition to corridors for connecting forests. Researchers said such corridors were essential if orangutans were to have a future in Sabah.
(09/24/2009) Of the world’s two species of orangutan, a great ape that shares 96 percent of man’s genetic makeup, the Sumatran orangutan is considerably more endangered than its cousin in Borneo. Today there are believed to be fewer than 7,000 Sumatran orangutans in the wild, a consequence of the wildlife trade, hunting, and accelerating destruction of their native forest habitat by loggers, small-scale farmers, and agribusiness. Gunung Leuser National Park in North Sumatra is one of the last strongholds for the species, serving as a refuge among paper pulp concessions and rubber and oil palm plantations. While orangutans are relatively well protected in areas around tourist centers, they are affected by poorly regulated interactions with tourists, which have increased the risk of disease and resulted in high mortality rates among infants near tourist centers like Bukit Lawang. Further, orangutans that range outside the park or live in remote areas or on its margins face conflicts with developers, including loggers, who may or may not know about the existence of the park, and plantation workers, who may kill any orangutans they encounter in the fields. Working to improve the fate of orangutans that find their way into plantations and unprotected community areas is the Orangutan Information Center (OIC), a local NGO that collaborates with the Sumatran Orangutan Society (SOS).
(08/20/2009) A baby orangutan ambles across the grass at the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation’s Nyaru Menteng rehabilitation center in Central Kalimantan, in the heart of Indonesian Borneo. The ape pauses, picks up a stick and makes his way over to a plastic log, lined with small holes. Breaking the stick in two, he pokes one end into a hole in an effort to extract honey that has been deposited by a conservation worker. His expression shows the tool’s use has been fruitful. But he is not alone. To his right another orangutan has turned half a coconut shell into a helmet, two others wrestle on the lawn, and another youngster scales a papaya tree. There are dozens of orangutans, all of which are about the same age. Just outside the compound, dozens of younger orangutans are getting climbing lessons from the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation (BOS) staff, while still younger orangutans are being fed milk from bottles in a nearby nursery. Still more orangutans—teenagers and adults—can be found on “Orangutan Island” beyond the center’s main grounds. Meanwhile several recently wild orangutans sit in cages. This is a waiting game. BOS hopes to eventually release all of these orangutans back into their natural habitat—the majestic rainforests and swampy peatlands of Central Kalimantan, on the island of Borneo. But for many, this is a fate that may never be realized.
(06/18/2009) Dr. Yusof Basiron, CEO of the Malaysian Palm Oil Council, the government-backed marketing arm of the Malaysian palm oil industry, claims on his blog that endangered orangutans benefit from living in proximity to oil palm plantations. Environmentalists scoff at the notion, maintaining that oil palm expansion is one of the greatest threats to orangutans.
(06/04/2009) A new paper by Oscar Venter, a PhD student at the University of Queensland, and colleagues finds that forest conservation via REDD — a proposed mechanism for compensating developing countries for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation — could be economically competitive with oil palm production, a dominant driver of deforestation in Indonesia. The study, based on overlaying maps of proposed oil palm development with maps showing carbon-density and wildlife distribution in Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo), estimates that REDD is financially competitive, and potentially able to fund forest conservation, with oil palm at carbon prices of $10-$33 per ton of carbon dioxide equivalent (tCO2e). In areas with low agricultural suitability and high forest carbon, notably peatlands, Venter and colleagues find that a carbon price of $2 per tCO2e would be sufficient to beat out returns from oil palm.
(06/01/2009) Despite worldwide attention and concern, prime orangutan habitat across Sumatra and Borneo continues to be destroyed by loggers and palm oil developers, resulting in the death of up to 3,000 orangutans per year (of a population less than 50,000). Conservation groups like Borneo Orangutan Survival report rescuing record numbers of infant orangutans from oil palm plantations, which are now a far bigger source of orphaned orangutans than the illicit pet trade. The volume of orangutans entering care centers is such that these facilities are running out of room for rescued apes, with translocated individuals sometimes waiting several months until suitable forest is found for reintroduction. Even then they aren’t safe; in recent months loggers have started clearing two important reintroduction sites (forests near Bukit Tigapuluh National Park in Sumatra and Mawas in Central Kalimantan). Meanwhile across half a dozen rehabilitation centers in Malaysia and Indonesia, more than 1,000 baby orangutans—their mothers killed by oil palm plantation workers or in the process of forest clearing—are being trained by humans for hopeful reintroduction into the wild, assuming secure habitat can be found. Dismayed by the rising orangutan toll, a grassroots organization in Central Kalimantan is fighting back. Led by Hardi Baktiantoro, the Center for Orangutan Protection (COP) has mounted a guerrilla-style campaign against companies that are destroying orangutan habitat in Kalimantan, the Indonesian part of Borneo.
(05/24/2006) A look at conservation efforts in Kalimantan, on the island of Borneo. I’m in Tanjung Puting National Park in southern Kalimantan on the island of Borneo. At 400,000 hectares (988,000 acres) Tanjung Puting is the largest protected expanse of coastal tropical heath and peat swamp forest in southeast Asia. It’s also one of the biggest remaining habitats for the critically endangered orangutan, the population of which has been great diminished in recent years due to habitat destruction and poaching. And orangutans have become the focus of a much wider effort to save Borneo’s natural environment. We are headed to Campy Leakey, named for the renowned Kenyan paleontologist Louis Leakey. Here lies the center of the Orangutan Research conservation Project. Established by Birute Mary Galdikas, a preeminent primatologist and founder of the Orangutan Foundation International (OFI), the project seeks to support the conservation and understanding of the orangutan and its rain forest habitat while rehabilitating ex-captive individuals. The Orangutan Research conservation Project is the public face of orangutan conservation in this part of Kalimantan, the Indonesia-controlled part of Borneo. Borneo, the third largest island in the world, was once home to some of the world’s most majestic, and forbidding forests. With swampy coastal areas fringed by mangrove forests and a mountainous interior, much of the terrain was virtually impassable and unexplored. Headhunters ruled the remote parts of the island until a century ago.
(04/25/2006) In a word, economics, though deeper analysis of a proposal in Indonesia suggests that oil palm development might be a cover for something more lucrative: logging. Recently much has been made about the conversion of Asia’s biodiverse rainforests for oil-palm cultivation. Environmental organizations have warned that by eating foods that use palm oil as an ingredient, Western consumers are directly fueling the destruction of orangutan habitat and sensitive ecosystems. So, why is it that oil-palm plantations now cover millions of hectares across Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand? Why has oil palm become the world’s number one fruit crop, trouncing its nearest competitor, the humble banana? The answer lies in the crop’s unparalleled productivity. Simply put, oil palm is the most productive oil seed in the world. A single hectare of oil palm may yield 5,000 kilograms of crude oil, or nearly 6,000 liters of crude.