orangutans live in primary and secondary tropical forests situated in the fertile alluvial plains and lowland valleys on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo¹.
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 destruction¹.
While there were an estimated 230,000 orangutans globally a century ago, there are now only an estimated 41,000 individuals in Borneo and 7,500 individuals living in Sumatra¹.
Threats to orangutans
The largest contributor to the decline of orangutan populations is the destruction and fragmentation of their forest habitat. Large areas of their forest habitat have been cleared through legal and illegal logging and for the establishment of palm plantations and other forms of agriculture. Forest fires ignited through slash-and-burn agriculture also threaten orangutans and their habitat¹.
Due to this reduction in their habitat, 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 protection for orangutans is not guaranteed¹.
Because orangutans move slowly and are large animals, they are easily killed through hunting. 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 areas¹. Orangutans may also starve when they are no longer able to find enough food when their habitat is destroyed. It has been estimated that about 3,000 orangutans are killed each year due to habitat destruction and hunting².
The demand for palm oil has steadily increased over the last decade, and currently consists of at least 65% of the global vegetable oil market. The global demand for palm oil is expected to double by the year 2050. 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 orangutans³.
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 atmosphere².
While it might seem that the answer to these palm oil-related issues lies in ceasing to buy palm oil containing products altogether, the fact that so many products contain palm oil in so many forms makes it difficult to do so. 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 fruit³.
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% of the global palm oil trade².
In order for sustainable palm oil to be successful in a competitive global market, consumers must choose products that use the certified palm oil instead of other similar products. To date, the most rigorous certification process comes from the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), where at least 95% of the palm oil is certified in sustainable practices throughout the supply chain³.
When buying sustainable wood and paper products, such as those certified through the Forest Stewardship Council, you are helping to support sustainable forestry practices worldwide that do not destroy habitat for orangutans and other plants and animals through logging activities¹.
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 corridors¹.