Palm Oil and the Decline of the Red Apes


Orangutans are critically endangered under the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species due to habitat loss via deforestation and poaching [1,2]. Much of the Deforestation in Indonesia is due to the expansion of palm oil monocultures in-line with its increase in use and demand [3].

Palm oil is a lucrative industry and growing each year. It is a key ingredient in many household products such as cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, food and even biofuel [3]. It is hard to avoid, especially in the UK where over 50% of supermarket products contain palm oil, often from an unsustainable source. Increasing global demand for palm oil means consumption is expected to reach 240million tonnes per year by 2050 [3]. The majority of palm oil supplies come from mass monoculture plantations across Indonesia. This is when large areas of primary forests are being cleared and replaced with thousands of oil-palm trees [3].

South East Asia is one of the most affected areas; both Borneo and Sumatra are facing mass deforestation due to the expansion of these palm oil plantations which has a significant impact on the endemic species of Orangutan: Pongo pygmaeus and Pongo abelii respectively [1,2]. In Borneo, 39% of the forest was cleared from 1973-2010, with a further 37% clearance estimated before 2025 [1]. Other than being a shocking statistic, this poses a large threat to Pongo pygmaeus in Borneo which relies on the forest for its survival.

Palm oil monocultures have a detrimental impact on the Orangutan populations which rely on the diversity of the forest to be able to move between habitats while foraging for food [1]. Their diet consists of fruits, flowers, leaves and invertebrates which they find if they cannot freely move across their habitat [4]. The level of biodiversity in a large-scale palm oil plantation is severely reduced in comparison to natural forests [3] which means that suitable Orangutan habitats are becoming smaller and the population numbers are declining at a fast rate. The Bornean Orangutan population, Pongo pygmaeus, has decreased by 50% in the period 1950-2010 and is expected to decline by a further 22% by 2025 [1]. This is largely due to their limited habitat area and difficulty in finding food which can only be made worse by the expansion of the palm oil industry. If they cannot easily roam through the forest, food sources can become depleted quickly and the forest can no longer sustain a high number of individuals. You can see the lack of diversity in this plantation:


An article on the global palm oil sector [3] explores the benefits of converting to small-scale palm oil farms from these large monocultures as a way of increasing forest diversity. Smallholdings can contribute to diversity conservation because independent farmers often use intercropping systems whereby they cultivate a number of crop plants alongside oil palm trees such as fruit trees, and sometimes integrate livestock grazing such as cattle, goats and sheep for local consumption [3]. This increases the forest diversity as wells as increasing the availability of food sources to local consumers – a win-win for both the forest ecosystem and local inhabitants. The smallholders also often prevent poaching which means that Orangutans are directly protected as they traverse the farms [3].  In this scenario, the Orangutans benefit from a varied food source and are able to move through these smaller plantations to reach different parts of the forest in safety: it creates corridors for wildlife to move through the landscape.

An issue in creating sustainable farming is the lack of incentive to government to implement legislation to change farming practice. The high economic return from palm oil investments is often more appealing to Indonesian national government than the ecological gain from halting deforestation [3]. In Sumatra there is a new initiative to reduce carbon emissions from deforestation (RED) although it won’t prove to be successful if the expansion of palm oil agriculture provides a higher economic return [5]. This is a problem for the Orangutan population in Sumatra because the construction of new roads and expansion of current plantations will cut straight through tropical forests and peat swamps, both of which are important habitats for Pongo abelii [5].

The certification body for sustainable palm oil is the Roundtable of Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) whose vision is to ‘transform markets to make sustainable palm oil the norm’. Smallholders would benefit from being engaged in proper certification schemes to improve their knowledge of biodiversity and help them to implement conservation methods in order to be competitive in the market for sustainable palm oil. However, the majority of them are sidelined because the certification is expensive and complicated so they fail to gain approval from the RSPO [3]. This is a problem because the uncertified smallholdings are likely to already be more sustainable than larger plantations due to their use of intercropping systems [3] but will not be listed to companies looking for a sustainable farm to source palm oil for their products. The certification needs to be made more accessible to smallholders so that we as consumers can make better informed decisions on our palm oil consumption.

As consumers, we have the ability to choose to avoid the mass-scale, unsustainable farms by choosing only products sourced from certified sustainable farms. Rainforest Foundation UK have produced a guide to inform consumers of where best to source sustainable cosmetics and many food products. This guidance can help us avoid unsustainable palm oil in our individual consumption but until we find a replacement, palm oil will continue to be used at the expense of the Orangutan.



  1. 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. Downloaded on 19 October 2017.
  2. Singleton, I., Wich , S.A., Nowak, M. & Usher, G. 2016.  Pongo abelii. (errata version published in 2016) The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2016: e.T39780A102329901. Downloaded on 19 October 2017.
  3. Azhar, B., Saadun, N., Prideaux, M., Lindenmayer, D.B. (2017). The global palm oil sector must change to save biodiversity and improve food security in the tropics. Journal of Enviornmnetal Management. 203: 457-466.
  4. Bernard, H., Bili, R., IkkiMatsuda., Hanya, G., Wearn, O.R., Wong, A., HamidAhmad, A. (2016). Species Richness and Distribution of Primates in Disturbed and Converted Forest Landscapes in Northern Borneo. Tropical Conservation Science.9(4): 1-11. doi:10.1177/1940082916680104
  5. Gaveau, D.L.A., Wich, S., Epting, J., Juhn, D., Kanninen, M., Leader-Williams, N. (2009). The future of forests and orangutans (Pongo abelii) in Sumatra: predicting impacts of oil palm plantations, road construction, and mechanisms for reducing carbon emissions from deforestation. Environ. Res. Lett. 4: 034013. doi:10.1088/1748-9326/4/3/034013

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