How Palm Oil is Killing The Sumatran Orangutan.
Updated: Aug 22, 2019
North Sumatra holds one of the most incredible ecosystems left on Earth, it is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the only place you will find orangutans, tigers, elephants, rhinos all living together. Despite this, huge quantites of the rainforest are cleared everyday to make way for Palm oil plantations.
What exactly is Palm oil?
Palm oil come from the fruit of the two types of Palm tree; African oil palm and the American oil palm. This edible oil is used in almost all the products we buy such as; biscuits, chocolate, chewing gum, ice-cream, shampoo, washing products, cleaning agents, cosmetics, Palm oil biodiesel and even animal feed.
Sad fact; it is likely you eat or use palm oil at least 11 times a day.
What is the problem with Palm oil?
Palm trees only grow in a hot climate with high humity; therefore making a rainforest the ideal location for a plantation. Plantations also need a HUGE area to grow in order to keep up with the current demand, another reason rainforests appeal to these industries.
This explains why about 90 percent of the world’s palm oil is produced in Malaysia and Indonesia. Two countries with vast areas of undeveloped land; some of the last rainforests on Earth.
In 2003 Indonesia has 5.3 million hectares of Palm oil plantation, by 2014 this figure has doubled to 10.6 million hectares (2014). It is believed that 80% of this deforestation was performed illegally.
Deforestation for palm plantations is the leading cause of rainforest destruction, as well as causing significant envionmental damage from the green-house gases released in the burning of cut trees.
Other damaging factors include the vast quantities of highly toxic chemicals used by these plantations. Pesticides and fertilisers are spread with little or no concern to wild or domestic animals feeding or walking in the area.
Having spent time living in North Sumatra, I have frequently witnessed masked plantation workers carelessly spraying highly toxic weed killer across areas where children from rural villages wait for the school bus, or where locals travel by foot or motorbike, the health impacts are not yet fully known.
How is Palm oil killing the orangutan?
Indonesia is home to an estimated 10,000 plant species and more than 200 mammal species, including the Critically Endangered Sumatran orangutan, tiger, rhinoceros and elephant, I will focus on the Sumatran orangutan for this blog.
The vast amount of land clearned daily leads to loss of habitat for the orangutan. These plantations are monocultures, growing only one kind of tree, this results in a very low level of biodiversity. When the habitat has been destroyed it forces the orangutan to search for food closer to the jungle border or to enter villages and oil plantations. Here, they are often killed by farmers wanting to protect their fruit or captured to be kept as pets.
You might be shocked to find out of a current project building new roads passing through three National Parks in North Sumatra. This new road will pass through Mount Leuser, Bukit Barisan Selatan and Kerinci Seblat National Parks.
Clearly there are benefits to providing the new routes. The reason cited for this new development is to connect rural areas, providing better transport, evacuation routes and employment for locals.
However, the impacts of this deforestation will inevitably inpact the habitat of key species such as elephants, tigers, tapirs, rhinoceros, orangutans and rafflesia, the world’s largest flower.
Orangutans are arboreal, meaning they are "tree-dwellers" reluctant to go onto the ground. If new roads are fragmenting their habitat they will struggle to cross the road into order to move into areas to search for food.
What can I do to help?
1- Shop responsibly - avoid products listed to contain palm oil or other derivatives, please refer to the document below for palm oil free products. OR try to source sustainable palm oil products.
2- Talk about the problem- write to companies to complain, sign petitions, support palm oil free products.
3- demand transparency on products to list that they contain palm oil
4- Travel responsibly- use responsible, community based organisations. Companies that aims to support the community provides more work and opportunity for locals, reducing the need for them to work in the palm oil industry. When trekking, chose a sustainable company that moderates the number of people allowed trekking, and uses certified guides that adher to the regulations.
Let's save the rainforest and the Sumatran orangutan!
Thank you from the Sumatran Orangutan Discovery team