The Orangutan: “Man of the Forest,” Minus the Forest

The cause of millions of acres of deforestation and declining orangutan populations might be lurking in your very own bathroom. Palm oil – an ingredient in everything from cosmetics to confections – is increasing in popularity, and as its demand increases, so do the borders of plantations growing the crop. Old growth rainforests are torn down to make room for these massive plantations, forcing orangutans to either adapt to their new surroundings (where they will likely be killed by workers and sold on the black market) or flee to whatever cover is left.

In August 2016, the Bornean Orangutan joined the Sumatran Orangutan as a critically endangered species (IUCN), and recent articles claim that both will go extinct in the next 10 years (Ancrenaz et. al). There is an obvious link between the critical endangerment of the orangutan and our increased consumption of palm oil, but is there any hope for saving these primates and their homes?


(“Palm Oil Plantation Encroaching on Forest” by Glenn Hurowitz is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0)

The loss of orangutans leads to even more drastic consequences for ecosystems in Borneo and Sumatra. As primary seed dispersers, orangutans maintain species biodiversity and serve as umbrella species for rainforest conservation (if orangutans are protected, then the rest of the rainforests will have a chance to recover as well) (Delgado et. al). When palm oil plantations replace old growth rainforest, they are drastically reducing the biodiversity of the ecosystem, and it’s especially difficult for orangutans to survive on plantations because they are used to the varying canopies of the rainforest and not the physical uniformity of the palms (Danielsen et. al).

Orangutans are not just critical for rainforest health; they also offer insight into human evolution and development. Orangutans are some of our close primate relatives, and by looking at our closest relatives we can gain insight into our own biology and social behaviors. For example, earlier this year, human-like speech was observed in orangutans (Lameira et. al). Certainly, there is more to be learned from our cousins if we are allowed the time to do so. Without orangutans, we will struggle to maintain other rainforest species, and we will likely miss out on key information on human evolution.


(“Baby Orangutan 3” by Tony Hisgett is licensed under CC by 2.0)

Critics may raise points about capitalism and the open global market, as the plantations supply for the demand of first world countries. However, the plentiful supply of palm oil will not last and there will be a scramble for alternatives – but only after these plantations have done their damage on rainforests and orangutan populations. In a recent article, published in Ecology and Society, scientists found that even “sustainable” palm oil growth is not viable in the long term. Deforestation leads to soil erosion and landslides, and after 100 years, floods will render the land unusable for crops, and the scientists argue that, “there is a need to stop the conversion of currently undrained peatlands and to restore degraded peatlands, in combination with policies that facilitate expansion of oil palm on mineral lands” (Sumarga et. al). This exploitation of land is short-lived, and it will be better for both the economy and the environment if alternatives to palm oil are invested in now before it is too late.

As the rainforests shrink, there is still hope for the orangutan, but it starts with you and the choices you make at the store. Various companies and organizations are recognizing their global impacts and making commitments to either sustainable palm oil sources or cutting out the ingredient completely from their products. At the same time, consumers are taking action and making conscious decisions not to support products that use palm oil, forcing companies to change their ways. To decrease your impact on rainforests and orangutans in Southeastern Asia, look on the back of your shampoo for the hidden derivatives of palm oil such as the ubiquitous sodium lauryl sulfate. It will take economic backlash to show palm oil plantations that we are aware of their impacts and that we are done standing by idly while they exploit the rainforest and devastate orangutan populations.

Ancrenaz, M., Gumal, M., Marshall, A.J., Meijaard, E., Wich , S.A. & Husson, S. 2016. Pongo pygmaeus. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2016: e.T17975A17966347.
Danielsen F, Beukema H, Burgess N, Parish F, Bru¨hl CA, Donald PF, et al. (2009), Biofuel plantations on forested lands: double jeopardy for biodiversity and climate. Conservation Biology 23:349–58.
Delgado, R. A. and Van Schaik, C. P. (2000), The behavioral ecology and conservation of the orangutan (Pongo pygmaeus): A tale of two islands. Evol. Anthropol., 9: 201–218.
Johnston, Ian. (2016), Orangutans face complete extinction within 10 years, animal rescue charity warns. The Independent. Web.
Lameira, A. R. et al. (2016), Vocal fold control beyond the species-specific repertoire in an orang-utan. Sci. Rep. 6, 30315
Neme, Laurel. (2014), Endangered Orangutans Gain From Eco-Friendly Shifts in Palm Oil Market. National Geographic. Web.
Sumarga, E., L. Hein, A. Hooijer, and R. Vernimmen. (2016), Hydrological and economic effects of oil palm cultivation in Indonesian peatlands. Ecology and Society 21(2):52.


This entry was posted in Conservation Biology Posts, Conservation Editorials 2016. Bookmark the permalink.

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