Oil Palm the biggest threat to orang-utans

Rapid oil palm expansion into lowland forest habitats represents the greatest threat to the critically endangered Sumatran orang-utan.

However, a recent study conducted by Fauna & Flora International (FFI), in partnership with the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology (DICE), has been the first to investigate whether and how orang-utans are able to survive in human-altered landscapes where oil palm and other agriculture has replaced primary habitat, but where remnants of old growth forest also still occur.

The scientific article Apes in Space: Saving an Imperilled Orang-utan Population in Sumatra” published in PLoS One reveals that orang-utans actually can live, and even reproduce, in an agroforest system that has been isolated from primary rainforest.

“The orang-utans adapted to these degraded landscapes by foraging on a mixture of crops and wild fruits”, comments lead author Dr Gail Campbell-Smith (DICE), “but the oil palm patches in the study area were found to offer no benefits and worse still acted as a barrier between individual orang-utans”.

Dr Matthew Linkie (FFI Programme Manager in Indonesia), warns of the perilous situation of these orang-utans, “If oil palm plantations continue to expand into primary forests, or even the remnant degraded forests like those found in our study area, orang-utans are not predicted to survive in the long term.”

The key recommendations for successfully managing the study’s population draws on the experience gained from FFI’s regional projects which are engaging with the oil palm concession holders in sustainable production and setting aside forest patches with high conservation value for wildlife.

However there is hope for the orang-utan. International governments are willing to financially support the Indonesian government avoid deforestation through carbon credit trading (REDD) schemes.

FFI is currently supporting its local partners to implement REDD projects across the Asia-Pacific region, several of which occur in critically important orang-utan habitats.

The pledge of US $1 billion dollars from the Government of Norway to Indonesia in return for effective protecting forest habitats is both timely, and welcome, and may avoid imperilling further populations of orang-utans.