At the turn of the century, orangutan populations in Borneo and Sumatra numbered in the hundreds of thousands, inhabiting endless expanses of untouched tropical rainforest. Today, the situation couldn’t be more different. Large scale logging and rampant plantation expansion has seen both forest habitat and orangutan numbers plummet drastically.

Satellite imagery shows that orangutans have lost approximately 80% of their forest home in the last 20 years, and current estimates put their numbers on the island of Borneo at 55,000, with just 14,500 in Sumatra. All orangutans now exist in small scattered populations, islands of forest in seas of plantations, roads and urban development. In Sumatra, orangutans live in just 13 population units in the north of the island. While protected by Indonesian, Malaysian and international law, it is estimated that between 4 and 5,000 orangutans are still being lost every year, due to the composite effects of habitat loss, illegal hunting and the exotic pet trade. If this rate of loss continues, it is likely the orangutan will become extinct as a viable breeding species within 10 to 20 years.

But why is this? Why is the orangutan, the only Asian great ape, facing extinction?

Current threats to the orangutan and its habitat include:

Palm oil plantations

The biggest threat to orangutan populations is undoubtedly the increasing expansion of palm oil plantations. Native to West Africa, the oil palm tree produces large quantities of red fruits, which, when crushed, produce an oil that has been traditionally used as a cooking oil, in soap and as a lubricant for steam engines. Extremely versatile, as its use has grown, so has demand, and 48 million tonnes are now produced each year for the world export market (Oil World Trade Journal, 2008), with Indonesia and Malaysia accounting for 90% of this production (FOE, 2006). Today, palm oil is found in a vast array of food and consumer products, from ice cream to shampoo, peanut butter to candles. WWF estimates that 50% of all packaged supermarket products contain palm oil, and demand is now growing for its use as a ‘green’ biofuel.

 graphic showing increase in palm oil productionThe palm oil industry has brought huge benefits to both Indonesia and Malaysia, and is an essential factor in both countries’ recent economic growth. While such an industry should be welcomed in countries where many live below the poverty line, the current nature of the industry in Borneo and Sumatra has had a detrimental effect on orangutans in many ways. Orangutan’s diets consist mainly of fruit and, as such, they are found predominantly in fruit rich lowland forests. Unfortunately, this land is often the most attractive for palm oil companies. Current practice involves clear cutting, stripping the forest of all its timber and selling it off. Fires are then set, to rid the land of any wood debris, clear the undergrowth and provide the soil with fertilizing ash. As fires burn, all wildlife either dies, or flees the area, where it will often either starve to death, or be killed by neighboring plantation workers as pests. Once the oil palm is planted, the fragile rainforest ecosystem that has developed over millions of years is lost. Studies conducted in 2000 by WWF Netherlands showed that, in Indonesia and Malaysia, between 80% and 100% of the fauna inhabiting tropical rainforests cannot survive in oil palm monocultures.

According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), since the 1970s, the area planted with oil palm in Indonesia has grown over 30-fold to over 3 million hectares. In Malaysia, the area devoted to oil palm has increased 12-fold to 3.5 million hectares. Despite numerous scientific reports detailing the costs of palm oil expansion to biodiversity, endangered species, indigenous tribes and global carbon emissions, and worldwide media pressure on the plight of endangered species like the orangutan, Sumatran tiger and Bornean elephants, the conversion of forests to plantations continues unabated.


One controversial scheme under consideration by the Indonesian government is the conversion of nearly 2 million hectares of pristine forest along the border of Sarawak and Indonesian Borneo in to the world’s largest palm oil plantation. Studies conducted by scientific organizations such as Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) suggest that sample sites in the so called ‘Heart of Borneo’ are not suitable for palm oil production, and the plan would severely impact the area’s rich biodiversity. However, the promise of investment from China and demand for jobs means the plans are still under serious consideration by Indonesia’s national planning agency.

Even world famous national parks in Indonesia are not safe from the rampant spread of palm oil plantations. In Central Kalimantan, Tanjung Puting National Park, home to approximately 6,000 orangutans, has been under serious threat, and if plans by the local government to allocate palm oil concessions on the parks eastern border go ahead, the size of the park would be decreased by 25%. Plans by a British company to convert the Tripa peat swamps of northern Sumatra in to a palm oil plantation could see the remaining population of Sumatran orangutans in this area become extinct within 4 years, and the destruction of a coastal ecosystem which saved thousands of lives when the forest acted as a buffer to rising tides during the 2004 Asian tsunami.

To mitigate the problems caused by the palm oil industry, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was formed in 2004, to bring growers, processors, food companies, investors and NGO’s together to find solutions and ways to make the industry more sustainable. While developments have been slow and the organization has been criticized for alleged corruption, it is hoped this consortium can be one of the solutions to the problem. ( ).

A number of studies and reports have documented the threat palm oil plantations pose to orangutans, other wildlife, environment, and human health including:

One recent report shows disturbing practices by palm oil workers who kill orangutans in brutal and inhumane ways (click here to download)

Video presentation by Sky News highlights the palm oil issue. 


Logging- legal and illegal

Before the acceleration of palm oil expansion in Indonesia and Malaysia, logging, both legal and illegal, was considered the greatest threat to orangutan populations.


Logging has historically taken place in two forms, legal logging, based on government granted concessions, and illegal logging, usually taking place by rogue groups of men on non-permitted land, although, in Indonesia, the definition of legal and illegal has always been rather complicated, due both to the nature of former president Soeharto’s stronghold on the country, and current ongoing corruption. After rising to power in 1967, President Soeharto declared all forests in Indonesia property of the state, and allocated concessions to friends, family and business associates, who often logged indiscriminately. Although the Ministry of Forestry’s own figures show that, in 1993, 84% of concession owners were breaking the law (EIA, 2005), Soeharto’s dictatorial grip on the country was so strong that these concessions were essentially legal. By 1998, Indonesia was losing two million hectares of forest every year to both legal and illegal operations, and 72% of the country’s original forest had been lost (EIA, 1999).

After his fall from power in May 1998, illegal logging in Indonesia was at its peak. The huge vacuum created by his absence caused utter lawlessness throughout the country, and, coupled with the huge resentment local people felt for the national government, protected areas in the country were overrun with loggers, including national parks. Gunung Leuser National Park in Sumatra saw widespread orangutan habitat loss, Kutai National Park and Tanjung Puting National Park in Kalimantan were overrun with loggers, with $120 million worth of Ramin, a valuable hardwood, being taken out of the latter in 1999 alone (Galdikas, 2006). Research in Gunung Palung National Park in west Kalimantan found that, after the fall of Soeharto, 40% of local people living adjacent to the park were gaining their main source of income from illegal logging (Hiller et al, 2004).

Illegal logging in Tanjung Puting National Park- (c) Greenpeace

Although much of the illegal logging that blighted Indonesia’s national parks in the last decade has been brought under control, the forests are still under threat. Sawmill operators frequently purchase and process woods from both legal and illegal sources, and it is estimated that over 70% of wood products exported out of the country are from illegal wood sources (EIA, 2006). The sheer amount of logging in Indonesia is simply unsustainable. Such logging practices not only indiscriminately remove the trees that orangutans depend on, they also threaten the existence of thousands of other plants, birds, mammals and insects, and negatively impact the future prospects of local people, and Indonesia and Malaysia’s forest dwelling tribes.

Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has made the elimination of illegal logging one of his top environmental priorities. Not only does illegal logging degrade orangutan and other wildlife habitat, it robs the nation of billions of dollars in revenue, and any chance of creating sustainable forests for future generations. Illegal logging and its impacts are discussed in the UNEP Report " Last Stand of the Orangutan."

Illegal gold mining

In Indonesia, mining operations have contributed to 10% of the total environmental damage to the nation's forests and, perhaps more so than any other type of forest conversion, have the greatest impact on the landscape. The open pit method of mining used in Indonesia, most often for gold or silica, turns lush rainforest in to a barren, lifeless moonscape, where nothing can survive, and, although Indonesian law No 41 of 1999 prohibits such mining in protected forest areas, it is thought 90% of open pit mines are located in protected areas. 

index_image653  In addition to the devastating loss of biodiversity, soil erosion and runoff from open pit mining has caused normally transparent blackwater rivers to run a muddy, opaque brown, and of great concern are the long lasting effects of some of the chemicals used in the mining process. Despite being illegal in Indonesia, mercury is often used to extract gold, and contamination of rivers and water sources by this chemical can have a disastrous affect on fish stocks and human health. Anecdotal data from a village in central Kalimantan suggests fish stocks decreased by 70% in areas near to mercury using gold mines, and studies have shown exposure to high levels of mercury can damage the human immune system. Despite this, Indonesia ranks second to China in the use of mercury in gold mining.

Pulp and Paper plantations 

One of the biggest drivers of forest loss in Malaysia and particularly Indonesia has been the expanding pulp and paper market.

The pulp and paper industry in Indonesia, which supplies products including toilet paper and printer paper to the world export market, is dominated in Indonesia by two companies, Asia Pulp and Paper, and APRIL, who control 75% of the market. The capacity of pulp mills in Indonesia in 1990 was 1 million tonnes a year, which had risen to 5.9 million tonnes a year by 2001. It is estimated that the industry had destroyed 835,000 hectares of high conservation forest by 2000 in Sumatra alone, and there are plans by the government to expand pulp and paper plantations by 5 million hectares over the coming decade (Pulp Mill Watch, 2007).

Bukit Tigapuluh Pulp & Paper (c) Eye on the ForestLike the palm oil industry (see above), the pulp and paper industry in Indonesia has been riddled with corruption, and has been the subject of vociferous criticism over the years regarding its impact on the environment, on endangered species such as the orangutan and particularly its appalling human rights abuses against the indigenous forest dwelling tribes of Indonesia. If plans to convert the forest surrounding the Bukit Tigapuluh National Park in to a pulp and paper plantation go ahead, it would destroy the release site and habitat for the world’s only Sumatran orangutan reintroduction program, which has released over 100 ex-captives in to the parks buffer zone, the first time there have been orangutans in the area since they went extinct in the 19th century.


Orangutans have the longest birth interval of any land mammal, with females usually producing no more than 3 or 4 offspring in their lifetime. As such, they are particularly sensitive to hunting pressure, with the loss of just one individual having a huge effect on overall population viability.

Hunted orangutan - (c) International Animal RescueHunting and the use of orangutans for sustenance has always been a factor in Borneo and Sumatra, and traditional hunting by indigenous people has been responsible for a number of local extinctions. Although hunting is less of an issue today, a recent survey conducted in Kalimantan suggests up to 1,000 orangutans are still being lost every year to local hunting pressures (Meijaard, 2010), and research in 2006 suggest that if local people no longer hunt orangutans, it is because they are now so rarely seen, rather than because of any change in beliefs (Marshall et al, 2006).

Today, in the Malaysian state of Sarawak, orangutans are found mainly in areas where the Iban, the indigenous people of the area, have a taboo against the killing of orangutans. In areas where local people have no such taboo, orangutans are extinct. The eating of orangutans is also less common in areas where local people have converted to Islam, due to the religions restrictions on meat eating.

The killing of orangutans by plantation workers, or by farmers who see them as pests, is still a serious issue, and the majority of orangutans currently in rehabilitation centers are orphans rescued from plantations after their mothers have been killed. 

There have also been occasional reports from Aceh that suggest elements of the military have hunted orangutans for sport during the recent separatist conflict.

 Illegal Pet Trade

It has been illegal to own or trade orangutans in Indonesia and Malaysia for decades, but despite the substantial resources and media attention devoted to the issue, the trade in orangutans, predominantly infants, continues to flourish.  

index_image651   index_image11161

Although hunting is still an issue (see above) in both Indonesia and Malaysia, and illegal poaching does occur, most of the illegal trade in orangutans is a by-product of the destruction of the orangutan’s habitat. As the rainforest is cut down, terrified orangutans have nowhere to go and will descend to the ground, where they will usually encounter loggers or field workers. These orangutans, usually mothers with dependent offspring, are inevitably attacked, killed and eaten, their babies taken from them and either kept as pets or sold in to the illegal animal trade. 

Most infants do not survive the harsh journey to the wildlife markets in Jakarta, Bali or other international locations. Poor care, disease, injury and the psychological trauma of losing their mothers means most captive infant orangutans do not survive their first year, and it is believed that for every orangutan that does survive, 6-8 will have died. 

If an orangutan does survive the journey, for the first 2-3 years of their life they will make cute and appealing pets. However, by the age of 3 or 4, an orangutan will already be as strong as an adult human, and by the time an orangutan is approaching maturity at 10 years old, it will be between 5 and 7 times as strong as a male human. At this stage, most owners will keep the orangutan permanently caged, kill it or discard it. The lucky few will be confiscated.

There are currently over 1,500 hundred orangutans in rehabilitation centers in Borneo and Sumatra.

The impact of this trade is discussed in the UNEP Report "Last Stand of the Orangutan."

Forest Fires

Forest fire in BorneoForest fires are a usual occurrence in the parts of Indonesia and Malaysia where local people still practice traditional slash and burn agriculture. Under normal circumstances, however, the moisture contained within primary rainforests would control such fires, and the practice has coexisted with healthy orangutan populations for centuries.

In recent years, the frequency and intensity of forest fires has increased, and the results have been catastrophic, for rainforests, orangutans, humans and for the economy of Indonesia, Malaysia and the wider South East Asia area.

In 1997 and 1998, forest fires raged throughout 4.7 million hectares of Indonesia’s tropical forests, damaging 36 of the 45 major forest blocks in Kalimantan, adversely affecting 19 national parks and reserves, and destroying habitat for and killing thousands of orangutans (Yeager et al, 2003; Harrison et al, 2009). Exacerbated by the El Nino weather phenomenon, which causes severe draughts throughout South East Asia, the fires were set by palm oil companies, plantation owners and small scale farmers to clear land, and even arsonists using fire in land tenure disputes. Poor logging practices, which have seen a buildup of fuel loads in logging concessions, and the draining of peat swamp forests, added to the severity of the fires. After raging for nearly a year, it is likely that one third of the existing orangutan population perished, and rehabilitation centers in Borneo and Sumatra were full to capacity with orangutans rescued from burning forests, many with serious burns and respiratory problems. 

It was not just animals that suffered. An estimated 20 million people in Indonesia were suffering from respiratory problems by 1998, and between 19,800 and 48,100 premature mortalities were attributed to the fires. It’s estimated that the economic loss to Indonesia was US$20.1 billion dollars (Harrison et al, 2009).

Tripa Swamp Fires-11-15 June 2009 - (c) YEL

Unfortunately, since 1997, fires in Borneo and Sumatra have been an almost annual occurrence, as rapid palm oil expansion, continued logging and the draining of peat swamp forests continues unabated. With the frequency of the El Nino climatic oscillation increasing, fire prevention is an increasingly important feature of orangutan conservation. In 2009, fires were detected in the Tripa peat swamps of Aceh in Sumatra, an area currently battling palm oil expansion, and the three biggest protected areas in Central Kalimantan, Sebangu National Park, Tanjung Puting National Park and the Lamandau Nature Reserve, which have a combined total of 13,000 orangutans, were all badly damaged by fires.



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EIA. (2006). Violence in the Forest. Environmental Investigation Agency report, UK

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Meijaard E. (2010). Indonesian people-not international donors or orangutan conservationists-will determine the ultimate fate of Indonesia's forests.

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