Bornean Adventures, Palm Oil and the Great Red Ape

Photo: Mother & Baby in Sabangau - © Marina Mulligan
Photo: Mother & Baby in Sabangau – © Marina Mulligan

With two species existing, only in Asia, Orangutans are the largest tree-inhabiting mammals in the world! Pongo pygmaeus or the Bornean Orangutan can weigh up to 90kg and is believed to be 10 times stronger than a human. I was lucky enough to get the chance to work with these incredible primates through an internship with the Orangutan Tropical Peatland Project (OuTrop) in Central Kalimantan, Borneo. In the protected peat swamp forest of Sabangau, I became part of a small community of researchers both permanent and temporary who work on a day-to-day basis with wild Bornean Orangutans. This catchment holds the largest Orangutan population in Borneo! My position as Orangutan Intern meant I was to follow Orangutans daily with the aim to compile data on mother-infant relationships, diet and behaviour. Dream job!

Trundling through a peat swamp forest, you begin to realise the biodiversity it contains – though not always visible – from harmless, yet character-filled wood ants (the gentle giants of the ant world especially when compared to fire ants), to skinks and snakes, to gibbons, orangutans and kelasi (the local Dayak name for the Red Langur Monkey). Closing your eyes you begin to hear the multiple bird species, the cicadas at dusk and the whooping of gibbons at dawn. This was the real jungle book…I managed to catch glimpses of Sun Bears with cubs, male orangutans munching termites from dead logs on the ground and hornbills high up in the trees. Each day I would head out in a team of 2-3 either searching for orangutans or following one we had found in the days previous. Search days involved working as a team to diligently cover a carefully selected section of forest in the hope of finding an orangutan to follow and record both its behavioural and feeding data. The locals on the team were highly knowledgeable in tree species and the properties of the fruit they bore, and by working alongside these guys, I too found my capabilities in plant I.D. became stronger (something I would previously have had little interest in). ‘Follow days’ meant we got up at 3 or 4 a.m. and found the nest the orangutan had made to sleep in the night before, by doing this we were present when the individual woke up and were able to tag along as it made its journey through the forest. Orangutans remain with their mothers until the age of 8 or 9 (they have a lifespan of up to 45-50 years), so infants slept in the nest alongside their mother while adolescents learned to make their own nests, staying quite close until they matured and found their own home range. Orangutans, like humans, can be individually identified using facial features as well as hair patterns (yes, some orangutans had bald patches or funky hairstyles). Mature males have flanges on their cheeks while immature males try their best to pass as females until they’re strong enough to fight off the competition. Following these beauties on a regular basis meant identification got easier as the days flew by and our site contained a number of regulars – Feb and her son, Fio always seemed to find us at some point each week, while others were spotted fleetingly. In particular, the males as their home ranges are far more extensive than those of female orangutans.

Although my main interest lay with the animals and the different behaviours they displayed my mind turned toward the bigger picture. The forest we worked in was a secondary forest and having previously succumbed to logging, many of the large trees of any worth had been felled and moved out via canals which had been dug out by illegal loggers. With peat soil and shallow rooted trees, gales in the forest would result in large tree falls – acting almost like dominos – so safety was always of importance when the wind began to pick up or a storm rolled in. Rainforests and peat swamp forests are some of the most biodiverse ecosystems worldwide, both in terms of plant life as well as the fauna they support. I knew it was important to protect certain individual species, but realised what’s the point if the habitat they thrive in is being destroyed? As humans, we tend to take things for granted (this is more evident in the Western world) – the paper we write on, the food we eat, the cosmetics we use. I can’t proclaim that I am a saint when it comes to sustainability but I am aware of what I use and keep my eyes open as to where things come from. Forests worldwide, particularly in these humid habitats where trees grow exceptionally well are constantly being exploited for our use.

Photo: Railway to Sabangau Camp - © Marina Mulligan
Photo: Railway to Sabangau Camp – © Marina Mulligan

Currently, many Bornean forests are victims of deforestation, clearance for homogenous plantations and extreme exploitation. Unfortunately for them, they don’t have a voice. Tropical peat swamp forests are characterised by their waterlogged soil which is formed from the accumulation of partially decayed plant material producing a slightly acidic peat. These distinct habitats are of high conservation value especially when it comes to IUCN threatened species of felids, primates and birds along with specialized fish and insects. It is estimated that just 36% of historical peat swamp forests still exist with just about 9% designated as protected areas. Many issues with the peat swamp forests of Borneo lie with land clearance for plantations, plantations themselves and canals dug out by loggers. Plantations suck the peat dry while canals ultimately drain the peatlands of the water they hold. This creates huge problems in the dry season when fires ignite (both naturally and as a method of land clearance). Dried out peat can burn slowly and spread underground as well as above, so once one zone seems to be under control it may reignite or flames may have spread to another area. Although this is an annual issue in the forests where it originates, it was brought to light last year when dense smoke began to affect large cities such as Jakarta and Singapore. The city where OuTrop’s headquarters are based, Palangkaraya in Central Kalimantan, made headlines in September 2015 when pollution levels exceeded 5 times that of the ‘hazardous’ bracket of the Air Quality Index (levels reached 1,575ppm while ‘hazardous’ measurements are rated as >300ppm).

Palm oil companies have used fire as a method for land clearance for a number of years and under Indonesian law, hold the responsibility for fires on their concessions. These fires are inclined to spread rapidly especially in plantations where palm trees take large volumes of water from the naturally waterlogged peat. This in turn releases incredible amounts of carbon, which peatlands are renowned for storing. Fires, unsurprisingly, have the capacity to spread outside the boundaries of plantations, destroying any of the species in their path. So what exactly is Palm Oil and why do we use it?

Palm oil is a vegetable oil derived from the African Palm. Originating in West Africa, oil palms were brought to South East Asia in the 20th century as the demand for the product increased. This was due to the ability of the tree to grow extremely well in humid environments with abundant rainfall. Indonesia began investing in the palm oil industry in the 1970s where the industry has exploded exponentially allowing Indonesia to overtake Malaysia in becoming the top producer of the product in 2007. Over 60,000,000 tonnes of the stuff is exported from South East Asia annually. Its production has been linked to deforestation, climate change and habitat destruction. It can be found in anything from detergents to lipstick to chocolate bars. The high yield of oil from the plantations means that it is one of the cheapest vegetable oils to produce and hence the heightened demand. In 2004 due to high concern to the damage caused to tropical forest ecosystems, WWF spurred on the formation of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). The objective: to involve all stakeholders including conservation NGOs, palm oil corporations and local communities to make the production of palm oil more sustainable.

The criteria:

  • “No primary forests or areas which contain significant concentrations of biodiversity (e.g. endangered species) or fragile ecosystems can be cleared.
  • No areas which are fundamental to meeting basic or traditional cultural needs of local communities (high conservation value areas), can be cleared.
  • They must significantly reduce the use of pesticides and fires.
  • Workers must be treated fairly and in accordance with local and international labour rights standards.
  • New plantation owners need to inform and consult with local communities before they develop on their land.”

However, the policing of the RSPO has been heavily criticized. As it is voluntary for companies to sign up and with mega bucks to be made, loopholes have been exploited and very few signatories have been found to be traced back to 100% sustainable plantations. In a recent investigation by Eyes on the Forest, an Indonesian coalition, it was found that illegal palm oil sourced from protected areas was entering the supply chain (April 2016 – read the full report here). This looked specifically at illegal plantations within Tesso Nilo National Park in Sumatra, a haven for protected species, where over 83,000 hectares has been converted to unlawful plantations. It uncovered that some of the largest crude palm oil companies in the world are accepting fresh fruit bunches (of oil palm) from illegal plantations into their certified sustainable mills (for the production of palm oil).

So, is there a silver lining? As a result of increased awareness and the threats imposed on endangered species, there have been many studies investigating the alternatives to palm oil – although it is likely to remain a resource due to its versatility. Most recently, a collaboration between University of Bath and the University of York, discovered an oily yeast that almost identically matches the properties of palm oil. This has the capability to curb deforestation and prevent further damage to some of our most valuable, biodiverse habitats. From the producers’ point of view, palm oil can be cultivated on degraded land on mineral soils rather than in areas of forested peatland. There is also an option for companies to increase yields on existing plantations rather than expanding. With many environmental groups putting pressure on corporations to become aware of their impact there are flecks of hope that more companies will sign up to more sustainable strategies.

On a personal level, the consumer is always the fuel behind the demand so making conscious decisions about the products you purchase and making informed choices (most products do not have to contain palm oil) you too can make an impact on how forests are treated. My experience in Borneo certainly opened my eyes to the richness of biodiversity (numbers of plant & animal species) present in these areas. The work carried out by the NGOs protecting these precious ecosystems is endless and if you want to find out more, here are some links well worth the read:

Orangutan Tropical Peatland Project’s Fire Appeal

International Animal Rescue

WWF and Palm Oil

Borneo Futures – Impacts of Deforestation

Marina Mulligan
About Marina Mulligan 1 Article
I’m a recently qualified Conservation Biologist with an MSc in Conservation & Biodiversity from Uni. of Exeter. Growing up as a nature enthusiast, I originally planned to be a vet at the age of four but quickly discovered the study of animal behaviour when I was a little older and decided that was the route I wanted to pursue. I have experience in both marine and terrestrial zoology and conservation and love to travel. After completing my undergrad in Zoology, I carried out an internship with the Orangutan Tropical Peatland Project in Borneo and from this my interest in conservation on a worldwide scale has grown (I’ve had the opportunity to work in Asia, Africa and Europe). I’ve recently started a conservation and photography blog called Lions and Tigers and Bears…but why?, feel free to criticize; I’m new to this thing. Whether it be photography, work, hobbies or chill-time you’ll mainly find me in the outdoors – I think I’m addicted!
Contact: Website

2 Comments on Bornean Adventures, Palm Oil and the Great Red Ape

  1. Sounds like it was an amazing internship – what an incredible opportunity!

    Pity about the lack of urgency to encourage awareness and curb demand – and demand there is! I find it hard to go to the supermarket and even pick out a loaf of bread without finding palm oil used as an ingredient. So many products use it!

    • Well said, Ben. There is definitely an element of companies trying to hide it now that people are becoming more aware as well – I’ve seen lots of packaging disguising it behind ‘vegetable oils’. Sometimes I find myself being hypocritical as a conservationist but where I can avoid it, I will.

      Also, apologies for the delayed reply!

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