Orangutans and Their Incredibly Shrinking Forests

Aug 18th, 2016 | By | Category: Biodiversity/Conservation

By Suzanne York.

Orangutans in Tanjung Puting National Park, Kalimantan [photo credit: Suzanne York]

Orangutans in Tanjung Puting National Park, Kalimantan [photo credit: Suzanne York]

One thing is for certain – there is not a lack of specially recognized days, especially for Earth’s endangered species.

Last week there was World Elephant Day. This week, we have World Orangutan Day. If only the day could be celebrated with uplifting photos and stories.   But sadly, orangutans are facing multiple dire threats – the destruction of forests for illegal logging, palm oil plantations and mining, as well as habitat loss driven by an increasing human population.

Just the Facts – State of Orangutans Today

Orangutans are currently found only in the shrinking rainforests of Borneo and Sumatra. World Wildlife Fund estimates there are about 45,000-69,000 Bornean orangutans and about 7,500 Sumatran; a century ago, there were more than 230,000 orangutans in total.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) states that in Borneo, the main reasons why most orangutan populations are in sharp decline are destruction, degradation and fragmentation of their habitats, and hunting (for food and for the pet trade). Forest fires are also a main reason, and last year Borneo experienced some of its worst fires ever, mostly driven by the burning of peat forests cleared for palm oil. Bornean Orangutans have decreased by more than 60% between 1950 and 2010, with a further 22% decline projected to occur between 2010 and 2025.

It is palm oil that is responsible for much of the deforestation.

The Ubiquitousness of Palm Oil

According to the Rainforest Action Network, “palm oil is a globally traded agricultural commodity that touches our lives in every trip we make to the supermarket. Palm oil is an edible vegetable oil derived from pulping the fruit of oil palms originally native to Africa. The recent rise in the use of palm oil in the US food industry has resulted largely from changed labeling requirements that have caused a switch away from using trans fats.”

Palm oil is found in a tremendous range of products, from lipstick to detergent to cookies. To get a good idea of just how many items contain palm oil or are derived from it, read this blog titled How Many Products with Palm Oil Do I Use in a Day? from the Union of Concerned Scientists.


Clearing of forests for palm oil in Kalimantan [photo credit: Suzanne York]

Clearing of forests for palm oil in Kalimantan [photo credit: Suzanne York]

Empowering People to Protect Nature

In Indonesian Borneo, one community is working to change the change the outlook by integrating conservation efforts with providing healthcare.

The non-profit Alam Sehat Lestari, or ASRI, is a small clinic creating big changes in the town of Sukadana and nearby communities.

Sukadana borders Gunung Palung National Park, home to an estimated 2,500 orangutans. Community members wanted to protect the forest, but poverty led many of them to turn to illegal logging to meet their basic needs. ASRI’s leaders listened to the locals who told them they had an urgent need for affordable healthcare. Now ASRI provides health services, ambulances, mobile health clinics, as well as training in organic farming, which the community requested.

ASRI also manages a reforestation program that is meant to not only revitalize the forest but to give the community a stake in conservation, which is a win-win for the people and nature. Local people are paid to prepare, plant, and care for seedlings in degraded areas. The reforestation program has enjoyed widespread local support. Some in fact pay for their health care by participating in the program. In 2015, the ASRI Clinic received 3,500 seedlings in return for health services.


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Together We Can Make a Difference

We can help protect orangutans by acting as informed consumers and not buy products with unsustainably sourced palm oil. We can also support that more of our taxpayer dollars go towards real on-the-ground solutions that empower communities with healthcare (especially family planning and reproductive health) and protect the local environment.

Perhaps it is ironic that the name orangutan means “man of the forest” in the Malay language, because it is man (well, humanity) that is wiping them out. But with concerned consumers, activists and organizations like ASRI, we can work to change that to a positive for both orangutans and people.

Other ways to take action include the following:


Suzanne York is Project Director of Transition Earth.

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