Palm Oil and Deforestation: A Real Threat for Orangutans
Orangutans are great apes with fine reddish hair and large brown eyes who literally hang out in the trees in the rainforests of Sumatra and Borneo in Southeast Asia. Orangutans live in primary and secondary tropical forests situated in the fertile alluvial plains and lowland valleys on these two islands.
These largest tree-dwelling mammals in the world are our distant cousins. Orangutans share 97 percent of their DNA with humans. In fact, in the Malay language “orangutan” means “man of the forest.”
Once a thriving population consisting of three different species, orangutans are now in danger of becoming extinct. Sadly, the populations of these beautiful primates have been sharply declining over the last several decades largely due to logging and the widespread establishment of palm oil plantations and other forms of agriculture in their habitat. Due to a low average birth rate, orangutans are particularly vulnerable in the face of habitat destruction caused by rainforest deforestation.
How does palm oil affect deforestation?
Palm oil is the most widely used vegetable oil in the world. The most recent figures indicate that we used 75.45 metric tons of palm oil in 2020, followed by soybean oil at 59.48 metric tons, rapeseed (canola) oil at 27.64 metric tons and sunflower oil at 19.02 metric tons .
It is not only used as a cooking oil, but due to its versatile characteristics, it is used in a wide variety of consumer products from lipstick to chocolate to shampoo to packaged food like instant noodles to biofuels .
If the market continues on its current trajectory, harvested area for oil palm will more than double by 2050 .
Unfortunately, palm oil only grows only in a tropical climate and tropical climates are where our greatest biodiversity is. Scientists estimate that these tropical forests are home to 15 percent of the world’s species of plants, mammals and birds .
Approximately 85 percent of palm oil is grown on industrial plantations in Indonesia, Malaysia and Papua New Guinea (PNG) . Demand for land for production has pushed cultivation into the rainforests, making this crop one of the key causes of rainforest destruction .
As more palm oil plantations are planted, more tropical forests are cut down, leading to permanent deforestation in many cases, and reduces the necessary habitat for many endangered species, including orangutans.
Indonesia has already lost over 72 percent of its intact forests . And at least 50 percent of all deforestation between 2005 and 2015 was related to oil palm development .
The Malaysian and Indonesian governments fully support the expansion of palm oil production  and the Indonesian government has gone as far as banning the labeling of products as “palm-oil free .”
In addition, many of the forested areas that are being converted into palm oil plantations contain swamps that are abundant on peat soils that hold large quantities of carbon. When such habitats are drained, the peat decomposes and releases carbon dioxide. The peat may also be burned, releasing even more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
Is palm oil destroying the rainforest?
Palm oil production involves clearing the forest, either logging it or burning it or both, but either way, destroying all life, destroying species which have evolved over millions of years and then replacing it with rows of oil palms.
Even fully matured, a monoculture simply cannot provide the symbiosis of life and the resiliency that biodiversity does.
The IUCN concluded in the same report that oil palm expansion may well affect 54 percent of already-threatened mammals and 64 percent of threatened birds globally.
Why is palm oil so bad for orangutans?
Orangutans live in the shade in the trees in the rainforest. They build their leafy nests in the trees and eat insects and fruits that live in the rainforest. As they grow older, orangutans have traditionally lived solitary lives, roaming across large expanses of jungle.
The main reason to the decline of orangutan populations is the destruction and fragmentation of their forest habitat. Large areas of rainforest have been cleared through legal and illegal logging and for the establishment of palm plantations along with other forms of agriculture.
The palm oil plantations provide neither shade, food nor space. Traditionally, as the land has been cleared the orangutans have either been driven deeper into what remains of the forest or more than half of remaining orangutan populations can be found residing outside of protected areas in privately owned timber, palm oil, and mining land, where their protection is not guaranteed.
Because orangutans move slowly and are large animals, they are easily killed or chained and captured for the animal trade. Farmers also may retaliate when orangutans move into agricultural areas and cause destruction on agricultural land when they can no longer find food in remaining forest areas.
The larger adults are generally seen as a threat and killed. It has been estimated that about 3,000 orangutans are killed each year due to habitat destruction and hunting. This has doomed many orphans vulnerable to a slower death in the forest if they are not captured.
A mother orangutan typically spends seven years with her offspring nursing it and teaching it the requisite survival skills, from learning how to move about the tree canopy to avoiding poisonous snakes and plants and other predators, as well as teaching it how to navigate life during the intense rainy seasons when streams and rivers swell, inundating the forest. Orangutans can’t swim after all .
Orangutans may also starve when they are no longer able to find enough food when their habitat is destroyed.
How many orangutans die each year from palm oil plantations?
It is estimated that there were more than 230,000 orangutans one hundred years ago.
Today all three remaining species are endangered. The endangered Bornean orangutan population is estimated at 104,700; the Sumatran orangutan is critically endangered at only 7,500 remaining as it rapidly approaches extinction, and there are no more than 800 Tapanuli orangutan alive today .
In the last thirty years, orangutans have lost 80 percent of their habitat .
The Orangutan Foundation International estimates that between 1,000 and 5,000 orangutans are killed each year in the expansion of industrial scale palm oil plantation .
The numbers are hard to narrow down because many deaths go unnoticed or are unreported and many are consequences, lives shortened by their inability to adapt to a new habitat.
How to stop palm oil deforestation and save orangutans?
Because of the ubiquitous use of palm oil, the solution is not a simple one.
In fact, the IUCN and the World Wildlife Fund both believe that palm oil is a better alternative than the next leading vegetable oil, soybean oil as the production of soybeans requires nine times as much land to produce the same volume of vegetable oil.
This would only shift the deforestation to other regions such as the tropical jungles of South America, already a major producer of soy  and likely to welcome expanding its market. Too, new research suggests that soybean oil not only leads to obesity and diabetes, but may also affect neurological conditions like autism, Alzheimer’s disease, anxiety, and depression .
Two solutions are at hand, however.
The first is that we can limit our use of products containing palm oil. Consider that a search on the Alibaba.com website brings up 169,485 results for lipstick. Consumer demand drives production. Presently it is not a simple matter to ascertain what products contain palm oil but pushing for legislation requiring clear labeling would help consumers make a choice to substitute a non-palm oil product for another.
The European Union is phasing out palm oil use in biofuels. All governments should do this.
A large part of the solution to these palm oil woes is not necessary to stop buying palm oil entirely, but to buy only those products made with certified sustainable palm oil instead.
Sustainable palm oil certification is primarily achieved through the training and support of smallholder farmers who cultivate oil palm trees on less than 50 hectares and conserve forests. These farmers also get paid a livable wage for their oil palm fruit.
The good news is that as consumer awareness has grown concerning the negative impacts of large commercial palm oil plantations, demand for sustainable palm oil has grown to approximately 60 percent of the global palm oil trade.
The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil is an organization created for companies using palm oil in their products to select suppliers who are taking action to mitigate adverse environmental impacts, such as planting mixed species of trees among the oil palms, and taking other actions to grow more sustainably.
The results have been mixed as Greenpeace noted recently in a video revealing that the world’s largest retailers, some RSPO certified, are still contributing to the destruction of the Indonesian rainforest .
The standards must be tightened and enforced. And consumers need to be educated to understand the significance of buying RSPO products. We should demand that all manufacturers using palm oil must use only certified sustainable and deforestation-free palm oil in their products. To find the commitment status of many major brands to the use of sustainable palm oil, the Union of Concerned Scientists has published an online scorecard.
Conservation organizations such as the World Wildlife Fund are also working on the ground in partnership with government, academic and other non-profit organizations to conserve orangutan habitat through the proper management of protected areas and throughout landscapes located outside of protected reserves through the use of wildlife corridors.
What else can you do to help the orangutans?
Encourage better use of forest patches left untouched by neighboring deforestation so that they might provide a habitat for displaced species, including orangutans.
Look for the FSC certification of wood and paper products that you buy. Often times, the clearing of forests goes hand in hand with timbering and the Forest Stewardship Council label is awarded to those who practice sustainable forestry.
Donate or volunteer to work for the Orangutan Conservancy which is dedicated to protecting their habitat, supporting rescue and rehabilitation efforts and return to the wild of injured and illegally held orangutans, supporting conservation education programs, supporting wildlife healthcare worker education and funding field research projects.
If you shop on Amazon other gift-matching or charity contribution websites, make them your charity or choose another of the orangutan orphanages or rescue efforts.
Consider alternatives in your own life to the use of vegetable oils in recipes, such as using applesauce in baked goods.
Draft a petition to your legislators for clear labeling of all products that contain palm oil and circulate it to gain signatures so that we can make informed choices. We can instill ethics in the marketplace by being mindful in our individual choices and exercising our own bargaining power.
The most powerful tool in your toolkit is to spread the word, that is to educate others to the impact of the choices they are making today. Allowing the wholesale slaughter of a species so close to our own is just a shade away from the definition of genocide. And for what? Shiny chocolate and smooth long-lasting lipstick?
 https://www.statista.com/statistics/301032/palm-oil-consumption-united-states/  https://www.ifpri.org/blog/can-boosting-yields-slow-global-palm-oil-expansion-and-ease-its-environmental-impacts
 Orangutan Island, 2007 https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1232509/