Oil palm expansion puts Bornean orangutans at risk of extinction, UN report says

BorneoCardMore than eighty percent of the remaining orangutan habitat in Borneo could be lost by the year 2080 if the island’s current land-use policies remain intact, according to a new United Nations report.

The report, entitled “The Future of the Bornean Orangutan: Impacts of Change in Land Cover and Climate”, states that the massive conversion of Borneo’s forests for agricultural development – primarily  oil palm plantations – will leave the endangered orangutans fragmented and facing extinction in a number of areas.

In addition, the environmental impact of climate change, exacerbated by the deforestation of Borneo, could result in severe floods, temperature rises, reduced agricultural productivity, and other negative effects.

The report, which was published by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and Liverpool John Moores University in England, in collaboration with the Great Apes Survival Partnership (GRASP), was presented at the GRASP’s Southeast Asia regional meeting, which has just taken place in Kota Kinabalu, Malaysian Borneo.

“The current policies for land conversion on Borneo are simply unsustainable,” said the report’s lead author, Serge Wich. “Our models show that the effects will worsen over time, leading to greater and greater loss of suitable land, not just for orangutans, but for the human population as well.”

Borneo is Asia’s largest island. It is governed by three different countries: Malaysia and Brunei in the north, and Indonesian in the south.

The island’s deforestation rate has been among the world’s highest for more than two decades, and 56 percent of the protected tropical lowland forests – an area roughly the size of Belgium – was lost between 1985 and 2001.

The authors of “The Future of the Bornean Orangutan” used various climate and land-cover scenarios for the years 2020, 2050, and 2080 and modelled the individual and combined effects of both factors on orangutan habitat.

In each scenario, dramatic rises in temperature brought on by deforestation and the loss of land cover cause serious damage to Borneo’s biodiversity. The combined model shows an even more pronounced impact than when each factor is modelled on its own.


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Steiner-063UNEP executive director Achim Steiner (pictured left) urged the adoption of programmes that measure the natural capital of a region and offer payment for ecosystem services to mitigate these threats.

“Now, it is time to utilise these approaches and divert from an unsustainable pathway to development,” Steiner wrote in the report’s foreword. The new report made it clear, he said, “that a future without sustainable development will be a future with a different climate and, eventually, without orangutans, one of our closest relatives”.

Steiner added: “Over the past century, orangutan populations in Southeast Asia have seen a very steep decline, driven to the brink of extinction by a host of man-made threats. Deforestation, illegal logging, the expansion of agro-industrial plantations and hunting – these forces combined to isolate orangutans into precarious pockets of forest on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra. Now, a new threat has emerged: climate change.”

An estimated 55,000 Bornean orangutans remain in the wild, split into three distinct subspecies. Orangutans’ solitary nature and slow reproductive rates leave them particularly vulnerable when there is forest loss.

Models incorporating projected changes to climate and to land cover indicate that between 68 and 81 percent of orangutan habitat may be lost by 2080.

The new report makes several recommendations for action to curb the impact of agricultural conversion. They include the following.

  • Identify all remaining orangutan populations and undertake an assessment of their viability based on local threat levels from killing and incompatible land use, present and predicted habitat quality, and population dynamics.
  • Propose and designate new protected areas or other areas under permanent forest cover that are large and safe enough to contain viable orangutan populations.
  • Where possible, connect these permanently forested areas through uninterrupted forested corridors that allow orangutans and other wildlife to move through the landscape in reaction to changing climatic and ecological conditions. (Such corridors could exist in permanent natural forest timber concessions, for example.)
  • Reconcile these land-use plans with other spatial plans (for development, infrastructure, agriculture, etc.), and endorse these planned land uses in high-level government regulations that allocate special strategic status to orangutan populations and are strong enough not to be overruled by other national-level or local-level regulations.
  • Effectively enforce laws on the killing of orangutans and implement public campaigns and other communication efforts that make the public aware of the illegality of such killing.
  • Seek innovative ways to augment protected areas to conserve remaining orangutan forests. This could include the leverage of carbon mitigation investments via the UN-REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) mechanism, or other payments for forest environmental services (e.g. erosion control, flood buffering, and local climate regulation).

The report adds that drained coastal peatlands in Borneo are predicted to decompose and flood, leaving behind unproductive brackish swamps. “Peatlands are key orangutan habitats that should be left forested and undrained to avoid major negative biodiversity and socio-economic impacts.”


Orangutan shot Kondisi-OU-sebelum-operasi2

A Bornean orangutan who died in December last year after being discovered on an oil palm plantation in Central Kalimantan, Indonesia, with more than 40 shotgun pellets in her body.