World Orangutan Day: conservationists call for an end to habitat destruction

Photo: Björn Vaughn/BOS Foundation.

It’s International Orangutan Day today (Saturday) and events have been organised around the world to raise awareness about the plight of the now critically endangered primate, whose DNA is 97 percent the same as humans.

In 2016, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) changed the classification of the Bornean orangutan (Pongo pygmaeus) from endangered to critically endangered, citing the main causes of its population decline as habitat loss and fragmentation, primarily for logging and oil palm plantations, along with illegal hunting and fires.

The Sumatran orangutan (Pongo abelii) is also listed as critically endangered. There are now only about 14,600 left in the wild.

There are estimated to be between 55,000 and 62,000 Bornean orangutans living in the wild, split into three distinct subspecies.

The IUCN says the population trend is a decrease for both species.

Orangutans’ solitary nature and slow reproductive rates leave them particularly vulnerable when there is forest loss. The rate of population decline is such that it is difficult for the populations to recover because of the lengthy birth intervals.

Photo courtesy of the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation.


Support independent journalism that digs deep.

All the content on this website currently remains available to be read for free, but you can donate or take out a paid subscription using the Paypal or GoCardless buttons on the top right-hand side of this and other pages.

Changing Times brings you a unique and panoramic perspective on issues rarely covered elsewhere. Just $5, 5 euro or £5 a month from each of my readers will ensure its sustainability.


In findings published in Nature Research’s Scientific Reports in July this year, a group of researchers concluded that that Bornean orangutan populations had declined by 25 percent over the past decade.

The researchers estimated that the overall density of orangutans on the island of Borneo from 1997-2002 was about 15 individuals per 100 square kilometres. The density was reduced to 10 individuals per 100 square kilometres in 2009–2015.

“Survival rates of the species are lowest in areas with intermediate rainfall, where complex interrelations between soil fertility, agricultural productivity, and human settlement patterns influence persistence,” the researchers concluded.

“These areas also have highest threats from human-wildlife conflict. Survival rates are further positively associated with forest extent, but are lower in areas where surrounding forest has been recently converted to industrial agriculture.”

Oil palm plantation in the PT Bumi Sawit Sejahtera concession in Ketapang, West Kalimantan, in Indonesian Borneo. (December 3, 2015; © Ulet Ifansasti / Greenpeace.)

The researchers said their study highlighted the urgency of determining specific management interventions needed in different locations to counter the trend of population decline.

The scientists point to the difficulty of accurately assessing the rate of population decline.

“Despite strong public and scientific interest in orangutans, in addition to considerable efforts and spending to conserve the species, we do not have an accurate assessment of the rate of Bornean orangutan population decline, or the drivers of this decline.

“Over the years, different estimates of population sizes have been proposed by various authors, leading to confusion about the conservation status of the species.”

The rate of decline and the drivers of the population change of orangutans are difficult to assess because of the species’ cryptic behaviour, and because surveys of orangutans are typically restricted to small geographic areas, are conducted over short time periods and employ different survey protocols, the researchers say.

The executive director of the UK-based charity, the Orangutan Land Trust (OLT), Michelle Desilets, says she would prefer not to get caught up trying to give current population figures.

“What matters is the rate of decline and the loss of connectivity needed to permit long-term genetic viability in increasingly fragmented habitat.”

The OLT spearheads the PONGO (Palm Oil and NGO) Alliance, which was formed in 2015 and aims to protect orangutan habitat in an oil palm landscape.

Desilets points out that 10,000 orangutans are living in areas that have been identified for industrial oil palm cultivation in Borneo. “There is an urgent need for collaborative innovation to protect these animals in mixed-use landscapes.”

There is a genuine commitment from major growers in the PONGO Alliance, Desilets says. “And the alliance has brought together experts and orangutan conservation organisations, who are developing new strategies for the protection of orangutans in legally unprotected areas. All this is quite a positive shift.

“We need all stakeholders in the palm oil supply chain – and that includes everyone because we are all either wittingly or unwittingly consumers of palm oil to some degree – to support efforts to break the link between oil palm and deforestation.

“We must demand deforestation-free palm oil and support those organisations committed to driving this change and those working to address the impacts of unsustainable palm oil on orangutans.”

Deforestation in Indonesia. Photo by Roni Bintang.

Report about palm oil threats

A recent report published by the International Institute for Environmental Development (IIED) says the development of large-scale oil palm plantations is responsible for significant loss and degradation of orangutan habitat in Borneo.

One of the main reasons for the population decline is that the Bornean orangutan’s preferred habitat – tropical lowland and peatland rainforests – is largely the same as that targeted for agricultural development, the IIED report states.

“The rapid expansion of the oil palm industry – particularly large-scale plantations, but also government-mandated smallholder schemes – is thus one of the main causes of the loss and degradation of orangutan habitat in Borneo.”

As of 2010, at least 18 percent of remaining orangutan habitat in Borneo was located within large-scale oil palm estates that have not yet been fully ‘developed’, the IIED report says.

Ways of securing the survival of orangutans in such areas must be identified as an urgent priority, the authors say. “If nothing is done, most will be gone in the next ten years.”

As more orangutan habitat is degraded, fragmented, and deforested, the primates come into closer contact with people, the IIED report states, and are therefore more susceptible to poaching, killing, and disease.

The IIED report says that, as a result of habitat loss and hunting, it is expected that, by 2025, the orangutan population in Borneo will decline by 86 per cent as compared to its size in 1973.

“Many populations are expected to be lost if current threats are not abated.”[tweetquote]

The island of Borneo is politically divided among three countries: Malaysia and Brunei in the north, and Indonesia to the south. Indonesia and Malaysia are the world’s biggest palm oil producers.

Orangutans are protected under Indonesian and Malaysian legislation, but law enforcement has proved grossly inadequate, the IIED report’s authors state.

“In addition, state-protected areas cover just 25 per cent of remaining orangutan habitat in Borneo. Both species- and area-based legal protections are thus insufficient for the long-term survival of orangutans.”

Orangutan rescues

In Sumatra, over a period of four weeks, a Human Orangutan Conflict Response Unit (HOCRU) team from the Orangutan Information Centre (OIC) has rescued six orangutans from oil palm and rubber plantations and confiscated two others who were being held captive as pets.

On August 4, a HOCRU team and the Aceh Natural Resources Conservation Agency (BKSDA) rescued a female orangutan who had been chained to a tree outside a house in east Aceh for two years.

The terrain was challenging and the rescue team had to trek a total of ten kilometres along extremely muddy tracks to get to and from the village.

OIC director Panut Hadisiswoyo said it was devastating to see the condition of the orangutan. “I immediately gave her some of the fruits and water that I always have with me during rescue operations.

“Most orangutans kept in illegal captivity have insufficient access to food and water.”[tweetquote]

On July 29, a malnourished and dehydrated female orangutan, called Fiona and estimated to be one and a half years old, was rescued in the Aunan village in southeast Aceh by a team from the OIC, the Aceh BKSDA, and the Leuser Conservation Forum.

Fiona with Krisna Ketapel from the HOCRU team.

“The local resident who surrendered the baby orangutan claimed to have found her on his farmland,” Hadisiswoyo said. “It is most likely that the mother was killed by poachers.”

Poachers often kill mother orangutans so that their infants can be sold on the black market to be kept as pets.

Indonesian law states very clearly that it is illegal to keep, kill, harm, transport, or trade orangutans and it is also Indonesian government policy – set out in its National Strategy and Action Plan for Orangutan Conservation 2007-2017 – that all orangutans confiscated from the pet trade should enter a rehabilitation programme and be returned to the forest.

On July 11, a mother and baby were evacuated from an oil palm plantation in the village of Kampung Batu in Bakongan, south Aceh.

“The rescue took place in very challenging conditions under heavy rain,” Hadisiswoyo said. “It was made even more difficult because the orangutans were constantly swinging from one tree to another.”

The HOCRU team finally managed to get the orangutans to come down into lower trees.

Assisted by members of the Aceh Natural Resources Conservation Agency (BKSDA), the HOCRU team was able to release the mother and baby into the Gunung Leuser National Park on the same day.

On July 13, another mother orangutan and her baby were rescued, again with the help of the Aceh BKSDA and staff from the Gunung Leuser National Park. The orangutans were isolated in a rubber plantation inside an oil palm plantation in Aceh Tamiang.

Again conditions were very difficult and members of the HOCRU team had to battle their way through the jungle on muddy roads in a rain and lightning storm, at one stage getting stuck for an hour.

“Again the orangutans were swinging from one tree to another,” Hadisiswoyo said.

“The OIC vet finally managed to sedate the mother, but the baby continued to swing through the trees.

“The team split up and we were able to get the mother into our vehicle. Half an hour later, we managed to rescue the baby and reunite him with his mother.”

The mother orangutan was estimated to be about 30 years old and her baby was aged about one year.

“We were saddened to find three bullet wounds on the mother’s face, and she was blind in her left eye,” Hadisiswoyo said. “Despite this, both orangutans were in good health so we released them into the Gunung Leuser National Park the same day.”

On July 14, the HOCRU team rescued a female, estimated to be about thirty years old, who was isolated in a rubber plantation inside an oil palm plantation in the Langkat district in north Sumatra.

Given the presence of old nests, it was thought that the orangutan had been on the plantation for some time.

The OIC vet, Ricko Laino Jaya, found twenty wounds from air rifle bullets in the body of the orangutan and she was blind in one eye, but the team decided that her general health was good enough for her to be released into the Gunung Leuser National Park.

Again, the HOCRU team was assisted by the BKSDA, and also by members of the Wildlife Conservation Society.

“This orangutan was in danger of being injured again by local people who consider the animals as pets,” said Hadisiswoyo.

On July 17, the HOCRU team rescued a male orangutan, aged about 20, from an oil palm plantation in south Aceh.

So far this year the HOCRU team has rescued 16 orangutans, 12 of whom were evacuated from plantations or other unsuitable locations and four of whom had been kept illegally and were confiscated.

Last year, there were 28 rescues, 17 of which were evacuations and 11 confiscations. Of the 29 total rescues in 2015, 19 were evacuations and ten were confiscations.

Since the beginning of 2012 the HOCRU team has rescued a total of 124 orangutans. Eighty-five of the rescues were evacuations and 39 were confiscations.

Hadisiswoyo says the OIC only relocates orangutans as a last resort, for instance when they are isolated in small patches of forest surrounded by plantations or farmlands, and have no access to large forested areas.

“When they are in life-threatening situations; when they are starving or risk being shot because they have been raiding crops or are in danger from poachers who kill mother orangutans and sell the babies, then we have to take them to safety.”

It’s a frustrating situation for Hadisiswoyo (pictured left), who dreams of a time when there is no longer a need for rescue, or at least less need.

Helen Buckland, who is the director of the UK-based charity, the Sumatran Orangutan Society (SOS), which co-founded the OIC, says the relentless destruction of Sumatra’s rainforests has pushed the Sumatran orangutan to the edge of extinction.

Hadisiswoyo says that orangutans end up on plantations looking for food. “Adults, juveniles, mothers with babies – they end up in plantations looking for the forest that used to be here, for the fruits they need to survive.”

Plantations, Hadisiswoyo says, are not safe places for orangutans. “We often have to cut bullets out of the orangutans during rescues. People may try to shoot them to protect crops, to kill a mother in order to capture her baby to sell, or just for sport in some cases.”

An orangutan who died from her injuries after being discovered on an oil palm plantation in Central Kalimantan, Indonesia, in December 2014 with more than 40 shotgun pellets in her body.

The programme director of International Animal Rescue (IAR) Indonesia, Karmele Sanchez, said: “Human-orangutan conflict is one of the main reasons why we have to rescue orangutans. When an orangutan is causing economic loss to farmers, then it is time for us to step in. But a rescue and translocation operation is always a last resort.

“If we do not protect the orangutans’ habitat, then there will be no end to the number in need of being rescued and taken into rehabilitation centres. It is imperative that we protect all forests that contain orangutans and stop the rapid decline which otherwise will ultimately push orangutans to extinction.”

To mark International Orangutan Day, IAR has released new footage of the rescue of a male orangutan now named Abun.

“The great ape was rescued by our team after he was driven from his home in the forest by land clearance activities,” said the team coordinator, Juanisa Andiani. “Our Human-Orangutan Conflict Response Team had been monitoring the orangutan closely for almost two years after he started straying into a local community garden in search of food.

“Finally, when the ape was considered to pose a possible threat to local residents and also to be putting himself at risk, the team decided to move him. By this time he was damaging the residents’ sugarcane and banana plants.”

Abun was taken to IAR’s Orangutan Conservation Centre in Ketapang, West Kalimantan, and will be released into a safe area of forest when a suitable site has been found.

Sanchez says that returning an orangutan like Abun to the wild presents many challenges.

“A raft of issues must be taken into consideration when we are trying to identify a suitable forest. Our team must ensure that any potential new habitat will provide legal and ecological protection for the orangutan.

“In addition, surveys of food availability and orangutan density are required to ensure that, once released, the orangutan will have enough to eat and will not have to compete for survival with too many rivals.”

Held captive as pets

Hadisiswoyo never ceases to be amazed at the cruel and inappropriate way people treat orangutans.

In July last year, a HOCRU team – along with the wildlife trade monitoring group Scorpion Indonesia, the Natural Resources Conservation Agency (BKSDA) in Aceh, and the south Aceh police – finally succeeded in confiscating a young male orangutan, named Sule, who was being held in captivity as a pet in the province of Aceh in Indonesia.

“Sule’s owner put make-up on his face,” Hadisiswoyo said. “You can see it in the photograph; the white powder. I have seen people put make-up on orangutans before, and dress them up in clothes.”

The rescue of Sule followed on from that, in May last year, of Krismon – a 20-year-old male, who was captured as a baby in 1997 and was held in captivity in in Kabanjahe, North Sumatra, by a local army commander.

Many orangutans held in illegal captivity in Indonesia are kept by local businessmen or high-ranking government officials and police or army officers.

Krismon spent most of his life locked in a small cage in a back yard, being fed mostly on rice.

“When Krismon was still a baby,” Hadisiswoyo said. “The family used to put a nappy on him as if he was a child, and he would eat with them, and go to the fridge and grab food. When they went on holiday, they would take him with them in the car.

“When we took Krismon away, the family members were all crying. People have a total misconception about what it is to love an orangutan. I tried to explain to them that this is not the way to care for a wild animal.”

When the HOCRU team rescues orangutans who are not fit for release straight back into the wild, the primates are taken to the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme (SOCP) quarantine centre in Batu Mbelin, North Sumatra, for a medical check-up, any necessary treatment, and rehabilitation.

Fiona, rescued on July 29, with SOCP vet Yenny Saraswati.

The SOCP team is creating an Orangutan Haven and Wildlife Conservation Education Centre that will be a refuge for rescued orangutans who, for reasons of health or disability caused by human impact, are unable to be released back into the wild.

The orangutans at the SOCP quarantine centre currently reside in 6 metre x 6 metre holding cages.

The SOCP director, Ian Singleton, said: “The new Orangutan Haven, which will consist of moated islands developed from natural habitat, will allow these orangutans, who can live up to sixty years old, to roam freely and live enriching lives while still receiving the long-term care they need.

“Importantly, this development will be open to the public, allowing visitors to witness at first hand the negative impact their actions have on the lives of orangutans – an important step in engaging local participation in conservation.”

Singleton said: “Since the early 1970s there have been more than three thousand confiscations of orangutans illegally kept as pets in Sumatra and Borneo, but there have only been a handful of actual prosecutions.”

All the prosecutions have occurred in recent years, Singleton says. “For far too long, those involved in wildlife crime in Indonesia have known that the chances of any serious legal consequences to their activities were essentially almost zero.”

The BOS Foundation

Just ahead of International Orangutan Day, the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation  (BOSF) announced that it had opened a new baby house for 17 orangutans at Nyaru Menteng in Central Kalimantan. This follows a year-long fundraising campaign and months of construction.

“After the devastating fires in Borneo in late 2015, many infants were in need of urgent rescue and to accommodate them all,” said BOSF CEO Jamartin Sihite. “It became clear we would need a bigger facility.”

The fires in 2015 were described by conservation scientist Erik Meijaard as “probably the biggest global environmental disaster of the 21st century”. They were exacerbated by the effects of the El Niño weather phenomenon, which caused a prolonged dry season in Indonesia.

Most of the fires were on peatland, which should be protected, but has been drained, mostly to make way for oil palm plantations. Once dried out, the peat is extremely inflammable. The fires burn underground and are very hard to extinguish.

The new BOSF baby house is equipped with an indoor playground and enrichment facilities. There is a special forest school nearby for the nursery group orangutans and a quarantine section for new babies arriving who require isolated care.

There is also a new baby houses in the BOSF rehabilitation centre in Samboja Lestari in East Kalimantan.

BOSF, in collaboration with the Central Kalimantan BKSDA, recently released 12 orangutans – eight females and four males – into the Bukit Baka Bukit Raya National Park. Six of the orangutans were released on August 3, and six on August 5.

“This takes the total number of rehabilitated orangutans released from Nyaru Menteng to thirty so far this year,” Sihite said.

The orangutans were sedated, put into transport cages, and driven the six hours to the national park.

“Our team always follows a strict protocol throughout the journey, stopping every two hours to check on the orangutans, and offer them food and water,” Sihite said.

The BOSF has now released a total of 301 orangutans, 59 of whom have gone to the Bukit Baka Bukit Raya National Park. A total of 167 orangutans have been released into the Bukit Batikap Conservation Forest in Central Kalimantan and 75 into the Kehje Sewen Forest in East Kalimantan.

The foundation has an #OrangutanFreedom campaign goal of releasing one hundred orangutans to conservation forests this year.

In April this year, the BOSF, in cooperation with Central Kalimantan BKSDA, rescued a five-year-old female albino orangutan in Central Kalimantan.

The orangutan was held captive by local residents for two days and still displayed wild behaviour when confiscated.

“She was stressed, dehydrated, weak, suffering from a parasite infection, and displaying a poor appetite,” Sihite said.

“During her first few days at our orangutan reintroduction centre at Nyaru Menteng, she would only eat sugarcane. On arrival, this very rare orangutan was placed with our 24-hour veterinary team in a dimly lit, enclosed quarantine facility due to her sensitivity to sunlight, for a full review of her health, and intensive care.”

Gradually the orangutan started to accept more varied foods, and milk, and her condition improved. The BOSF is now collecting information on albinism in great apes before deciding how to proceed.

There was an international campaign to choose a name for the orangutan, and the name Alba was chosen.

“We can’t simply place Alba in a forest area, nor in a sanctuary, without thoroughly examining all possibilities,” Sihite said. “So far we have been unable to find any other example of an albino orangutan and we need to know more about her and her special situation.”

Certifying palm oil

Another announcement that was made earlier this week, to coincide with International Orangutan Day, was the launch of the world’s first palm oil free certification trademark.

Companies can now apply to the new International Palm Oil Free Certification Accreditation Programme (POFCAP), which is based in Australia and is approved to certify in Australia and the UK, and has applications pending in 14 other countries.

To be certified by the POFCAP, products must be free not only of palm oil, but also of palm oil derivatives.

The first company to apply for POFCAP certification was the Tasmanian company Clean Conscience, which manufactures eco cleaning products.

The POFCAP certification is product, not brand based so companies that make products which contain palm oil and products that are palm oil free can apply for certification for the palm oil free products within their range.

Saving the Leuser Ecosystem

Environmentalists in Sumatra are fighting hard to save vital orangutan habitat in the Leuser Ecosystem, an area of tropical lowland rainforest that straddles the provinces of Aceh and North Sumatra and is the last place on Earth where orangutans, rhinos, tigers, and elephants can be found living together in the wild.

The IUCN has identified Leuser as one of the world’s “irreplaceable protected areas”. It is home to the densest populations of orangutans anywhere in the world, and plays an important role in mitigating climate change through carbon sequestration.

Given its designation as a National Strategic Area, the Leuser Ecosystem should be protected from development, but there are continual threats to its survival, and constant encroachment.

The Leuser Ecosystem. Photo by Paul Hilton.

The UNESCO World Heritage Committee recently voted unanimously to keep the Tropical Rainforest Heritage of Sumatra (TRHS), a large part of which lies within the Leuser Ecosystem, on the List of World Heritage In Danger.

The site has been on the in-danger list since 2011 because of the ongoing destruction of its ecosystem. This has included illegal logging, wildlife poaching, oil palm expansion, and fragmentation of the rainforest for new roads.

There have also been proposals for three large hydroelectric dams on the site.

In its January 2017 report to the World Heritage Committee, the Indonesian government reiterates its commitment “to ensure the sustainability of the TRHS and restore it to such a state that the property may be removed from the List of World Heritage in Danger”.

It lists the measures it has taken, which include establishing a programme to increase the population of Sumatran tigers, elephants, rhino, and orangutans; conducting training in wildlife monitoring; improving monitoring equipment; identifying and mapping human-wildlife conflict areas; developing a rhino sanctuary; and conducting Spatial Monitoring and Reporting Tool (SMART) patrols.

It also said it was committed to not granting any concessions or permits for geothermal exploration or the construction of new roads within the TRHS site.

An additional threat to the Leuser Ecosystem is the new spatial plan for Aceh, which would open up swathes of the Ecosystem for roads, mining, and palm oil and timber concessions and threatens to destroy the area’s biodiversity and increase the risk of flooding and landslides.

An alliance of concerned citizens – Gerakan Rakyat Aceh Menggugat (GeRAM) – has been battling for more than two years against the proposed plan.

GeRAM says the Aceh governor and the Aceh parliament wrongfully excluded the Leuser Ecosystem from the spatial plan.

There is a global “Love The Leuser” movement and 14,000 people have signed petitions calling for the area to be preserved and protected.

Large swathes of the Tripa peat forest, which lies within the Leuser Ecosystem and is one of three remaining peat swamp forests on the west coast of Aceh that host the highest densities of orangutans anywhere in the world, was burnt to a cinder by several palm oil companies.

One of the companies – PT Kallista Alam – was fined 114.3 billion rupiah (at that time nearly 9.4 million US$) in compensation and 251.7 billion rupiah (then close to 20.8 million US$) to restore the affected forest.

In the court ruling in January 2014, Kallista Alam was found guilty of illegally burning about 1,000 hectares of the peat forest. In September 2015, Indonesia’s Supreme Court rejected the company’s appeal.

UN report about Borneo

According to a United Nations report published in 2015, more 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.

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 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.”

Photo courtesy of GRASP – Great Apes.

Coping with fragmented forest

Findings about how orangutans cope in the fragmented forests of Malaysian Borneo were published in in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in July this year.

The authors included Marc Ancrenaz, who co-founded the French NGO HUTAN and the Borneo Futures initiative, and runs the Kinabatangan Orangutan Conservation Programme in Sabah,

The researchers used high-resolution laser remote sensing coupled with visual observations of wild orangutans to map canopy structure and quantify orangutan movement through disturbed forests.

“Our findings provide crucial insights into the types of forest characteristics orangutans use in disturbed forests and are likely required for their continued survival in these fragmented landscapes, where most of the extant population occurs.

“Management and forest restoration efforts that foster these attributes are more likely to succeed at sustaining orangutan populations over the long term.”

The researchers found that the structural attributes of the upper forest canopy were the dominant determinant of orangutan movement among all age and sex classes, with orangutans more likely to move in directions of increased canopy closure, tall trees, and uniform height. The primates avoided canopy gaps.

“Our results suggest that, although orangutans do make use of disturbed forest, they select certain canopy attributes within these forests, indicating that not all disturbed or degraded forest is of equal value for the long-term sustainability of orangutan populations.”

Photo by Suzi Eszterhas.

Habitat is the key

For Hadisiswoyo, the solution is straightforward. “We have to maintain the orangutan habitat that remains,” he said.

“But there is still insufficient law enforcement. Those who are found keeping orangutans illegally are never prosecuted.”

Hadisiswoyo does have hope, however, for the primates he devotes his life to rescuing and protecting.

“That hope,” he says, “lies in the spirit and determination of people like the members of the HOCRU team, who work tirelessly to safeguard orangutans and their habitat, and our forest restoration and forest patrol teams.”

Desilets (pictured left) also says she remains hopeful. She points to a report by Borneo Futures for the PONGO Alliance, which she says demonstrates that efforts to improve the sustainability of palm oil is having measurable benefits as regards orangutans and their habitat. The study was funded by the palm oil giant Wilmar International.

For the Borneo Futures report, the researchers studied 2,771 oil palm estates across Borneo, comparing deforestation rates on RSPO and non-RSPO estates.

They found that annual forest loss rates in RSPO-certified areas consistently declined after 2005 from 13,417 hectares per year between November 2005 and November 2007 to 1,839 hectares per year after May 2014, while the rates in non-RSPO areas stayed consistently higher.

The total loss of intact and logged forest between 2000 and 2015 in RSPO-certified concessions and estates was 73,559 hectares, i.e. 9 percent of the total concession area, as compared with 1,748,123 hectares forest loss, i.e. 17.2 percent of the total concession area in non-RSPO concessions and estates.

The report points out that RSPO-certified concessions and estates are not yet meeting the RSPO-stipulated target as orangutan populations are continuing to decline in certified plantation areas.

Erik Meijaard, who coordinates Borneo Futures, wrote in an article for the environmental news portal Mongabay: “We conclude that there is room for further improvement on environmental practices in RSPO-certified estates and concessions, but that orangutans have better prospects in management units owned by RSPO members because of more effectively avoided forest losses there. RSPO compliance as measured through forest loss is improving with time.”

The IIED says that most of the protected areas in Borneo are at high-altitude, do not correspond with orangutan habitat, and are generally unsuitable for oil palm development.

“If the current approach to plantations continues, the window of opportunity to protect key orangutan populations and their natural habitat in will close in the near future,” the report’s authors¹ state. “However, a number of ambitious private sector commitments and regulatory improvements offer glimmers of hope.”

If these improvements are strengthened, scaled up, and embedded within broader legal and institutional frameworks, they could shift the trajectory of the palm oil industry in Borneo towards more responsible forms of production, the authors say. 

  • The IIED report’s authors are Holly Jonas, who coordinates Forever Sabah’s legal innovation programme and co-directs the environmental organisation Ridge to Reef; conservation scientist Nicola Karen Abram, who is a technical coordinator for spatial planning for Forever Sabah and founded and co-directs the NGO Living Landscape Alliance; and Marc Ancrenaz.



Update: 23/8/2017 

Two baby orangutans were confiscated in a raid in west Borneo conducted by police from Indonesia’s Ministry of Environment and Forestry on Monday.

The two orangutans – a male aged about one year and a female, who is about eight months old – were found packed up in tiny cages, ready to be sent to a buyer.

The babies were rushed to International Animal Rescue’s centre in Ketapang for urgent treatment and care.

IAR Indonesia’s vet Temia Twin Pangesti said: “The general condition of the two orangutans is not bad, although both are dehydrated and suffering from severe distress. One of them is rocking back and forth. This is an abnormal behaviour presented by animals in extremely stressful conditions.”

A man has been arrested for alleged illegal trafficking of wildlife in direct transactions and using online social media sites. A full investigation is underway as he is believed to belong to an international trafficking syndicate.

“Before being captured and sold, these babies were torn from their mothers, who are very likely to have been shot dead whilst trying to protect their infants,” IAR said.

“The illegal trade in orangutans is still one of the major threats to the orangutan’s survival.”

The two new arrivals bring the total number of orangutans in the Ketapang rescue centre to 111.




Headline photo courtesy of Björn Vaughn/BOS Foundation.