Orangutans struggle to survive as palm oil booms

A A A

Cinta, a baby orangutan found lost and alone in a vast Borneo palm oil plantation, now clings to a tree at a sanctuary for the great apes, staring intently at dozens of tourists.

She is one of the casualties of the boom in palm oil -- used extensively for biofuel and processed food like margarine -- which has seen swathes of jungle felled in Borneo, an island split between Malaysia and Indonesia.

There are about 50,000 to 60,000 orangutans left in the wild, 80 percent of them in Indonesia and the rest in Malaysia's Borneo states of Sabah and Sarawak.

A 2007 assessment by the United Nations Environment Program warned the charismatic red-haired apes will be virtually eliminated in the wild within two decades if current deforestation trends continue.

Stung by criticism of its environmental record, Malaysian palm oil industry officials pledged at a conference earlier this month to fund the establishment of wildlife corridors that experts say could help save the species.

"The major issue we face with orangutans today is what we called the fragmented population," said Marc Ancrenaz from the environmental group Hutan.

"True enough there are 11,000 orangutans in (Sabah) but they are split up in many small populations, and many of these populations are not connected any more," he told the conference near Kota Kinabalu, the capital of Sabah.

An aerial survey carried out by Hutan and wildlife authorities in eastern Sabah last year revealed some 1,000 orangutan treetop "nests" located in 100 small patches of forest completely surrounded by palm oil plantations.

Isolated from each other, the tiny communities are at risk of inbreeding and also of simply becoming lost in the vastness of the plantations -- just like three-year-old Cinta and the five other young apes at the Tuaran sanctuary.

After becoming separated from their mothers, they were rescued from certain death and sent to the forested reserve, situated near a string of luxury beachside resorts north of Kota Kinabalu.

As well as destroying their jungle habitat, the expansion of palm oil, which now covers nearly one fifth of Sabah alone, poses other risks to the endangered species.

Orangutans that damage the palm oil fruits can be hunted down and killed, and it is quite common for young apes to be captured and kept as pets by villagers living alongside the plantations.

"They either go into the oil palm, and start eating the oil palm fruits, or get pushed into a smaller and smaller area," said Eric Meijaard from the Indonesia-based People and Nature Consulting International.

"What quite often happens is that the oil palm concession basically will ask for these orangutans to be shot so they get rid of the problem."

Malaysia is the world's second-largest exporter of palm oil after Indonesia, and the industry is the country's third largest export earner, raking in 65.2 billion ringgit (19 billion dollars) last year.

Elements in the industry have accused Western lobby groups of trying to smear palm oil in order to boost rival products from developed countries.

Bernard Dompok, the plantation industry and commodities minister, appeared at the conference to completely reject claims that palm oil is responsible for deforestation and the displacement of endangered species.

"I wish to stress that all these allegations are unjustified," he said, insisting Malaysia has taken a comprehensive approach to balance conservation with the development of palm oil.

Representatives from the top industry body, the Malaysian Palm Oil Council (MPOC), said they should not be held accountable for the dwindling orangutan population.

Its chief executive officer Yusof Basiron said that if the world stopped using palm oil, biodiversity would suffer further because substitutes like rapeseed and soyabean would require more land to be cleared.

"We can take some of the blame but not all of it," he said.

Sabah Wildlife Department director Laurentius Ambu said that wildlife corridors, which would enable orangutans to move across the landscape, are vital if the apes are to co-exist with palm oil.

"There is an urgent need to reconnect all forests through corridors... and to reconnect orangutan populations that are isolated by palm oil fields," he said.

The MPOC pledged to help to fund the corridors, but as there is no binding commitment, and no clarity on how the ambitious project would be funded overall, many environmentalists are sceptical.

Ancrenaz said there is no way to stop the spread of palm oil, which environmentalists say is found in one in 10 products on supermarket shelves, including bread, crisps and cereals as well as lipstick and soap.

"Oil palm is here to stay. There is no point in fighting against development, but we also want orangutans to stay," he said.

News
Kenny Ireland, pictured in 2010.
peopleActor, from House of Cards and Benidorm, was 68
News
A scene from the video shows students mock rioting
newsSchool leaver's pic YouTube video features staging of a playground gun massacre
Travel
travel
Voices
A family sit and enjoy a quiet train journey
voicesForcing us to overhear dull phone conversations is an offensive act, says Simon Kelner
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
The cast of The Big Bang Theory in a still from the show
tvBig Bang Theory filming delayed by contract dispute over actors' pay
Sport
England celebrate a wicket for Moeen Ali
sportMoeen Ali stars with five wickets as Cook's men level India series
News
Morrissey pictured in 2013
people
Life and Style
The director of Wall-E Andrew Stanton with Angus MacLane's Lego model
gadgetsDesign made in Pixar animator’s spare time could get retail release
News
peopleGuitarist, who played with Aerosmith, Lou Reed and Alice Cooper among others, was 71
Travel
travel
News
Robyn Lawley
people
News
people
News
i100  ... he was into holy war way before it was on trend
Arts and Entertainment
High-flyer: Chris Pratt in 'Guardians of the Galaxy'
filmThe film is surprisingly witty, but could do with taking itself more seriously, says Geoffrey Macnab
News
people
Life and Style
food + drinkVegetarians enjoy food as much as anyone else, writes Susan Elkin
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Digitakl Business Analyst, Slough

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Competitive Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: Dig...

Mechanical Estimator: Nuclear Energy - Sellafield

£40000 - £50000 per annum + Car, Medical, Fuel + More!: Progressive Recruitmen...

Dynamics NAV Techno-Functional Consultant

£50000 - £60000 per annum + benefits: Progressive Recruitment: An absolutely o...

PHP Developer

£45000 - £60000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: PHP Develope...

Day In a Page

Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

Spanx launches range of jeans

The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
10 best over-ear headphones

Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

Commonwealth Games

David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star