October 22, 2009

Palm Oil Boom Creates Danger For Orangutans

Wildlife conservationists say a boom in palm oil -- used extensively for biofuel and processed food like margarine -- has affected the jungles in Borneo, endangering the already declining orangutan populations, AFP reported.

Experts believe that among the 50,000 to 60,000 orangutans left in the wild, some 80 percent of them are in Indonesia and the rest in Malaysia's Borneo states of Sabah and Sarawak.

However, the charismatic red-haired apes will be virtually eliminated in the wild within two decades if current deforestation trends continue, according to a 2007 assessment by the United Nations Environment Program.

Malaysian palm oil industry officials said during a conference earlier this month that they would fund the establishment of wildlife corridors that could help save the species.

Marc Ancrenaz from the environmental group Hutan said the major issue they face with orangutans today is what they called a fragmented population.

He said that while there are 11,000 orangutans in Sabah, they are split up in many small populations, and many of those populations are not connected any more.

In fact, there were only some 1,000 orangutan treetop "nests" located in 100 small patches of forest completely surrounded by palm oil plantations, according to an aerial survey carried out by Hutan and wildlife authorities in eastern Sabah last year.

The tiny communities are at risk of inbreeding and becoming lost in the vastness of the plantations because the industry has isolated many of their populations.

Three-year-old Cinta, a baby orangutan found lost and alone in a vast Borneo palm oil plantation, and five other young apes now housed at the Tuaran sanctuary, are among the few that have survived.

They were rescued and sent to the forested reserve, situated near a string of luxury beachside resorts north of Kota Kinabalu, after being separated from their mothers.

The expansion of palm oil has destroyed their jungle habitat, which now covers nearly one fifth of Sabah alone, and poses many other risks to the endangered species.

Some orangutans are even hunted down and killed for damaging the palm oil fruits, and it is quite common for young apes to be captured and kept as pets by villagers living alongside the plantations.

Eric Meijaard from the Indonesia-based People and Nature Consulting International said they either go into the plantations and start eating the oil palm fruits, or they get pushed into a smaller and smaller area.

"What quite often happens is that the oil palm concession basically will ask for these orangutans to be shot so they get rid of the problem," he said.

Meanwhile, representatives from the Malaysian Palm Oil Council (MPOC), the top industry body, said they should not be held accountable for the dwindling orangutan population.

Yusof Basiron, the council's chief executive officer, said that if the world stopped using palm oil, biodiversity would suffer further because substitutes like rapeseed and soyabean would require more land to be cleared.

"We can take some of the blame but not all of it," he said.

Wildlife corridors, which would enable orangutans to move across the landscape, are vital if the apes are to co-exist with palm oil, according to Sabah Wildlife Department director Laurentius Ambu.

He believes there is an urgent need to reconnect all forests through corridors and to reconnect orangutan populations that are isolated by palm oil fields.

The MPOC pledged to help to fund the corridors, but many environmentalists are skeptical, as there is no binding commitment, and no clarity on how the ambitious project would be funded overall.

There is no way to stop the spread of palm oil, which environmentalists say is found in one in 10 products on supermarket shelves, including bread, crisps and cereals as well as lipstick and soap, Ancrenaz said.

"Oil palm is here to stay. There is no point in fighting against development, but we also want orangutans to stay," he said.


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