Borneo’s orangutan populations have declined as much as 30 per cent in 15 years in areas with large palm oil plantations, a study by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) has found. The study surveyed the population of the critically endangered orangutans in Sabah, the Malaysian state in the north-east of Borneo. By comparison, orangutan populations remained stable within well-managed forests where there is little hunting. The WWF said the study is the largest and most complete population survey ever done on any great ape in the world. It was published in PLOS One science journal on Thursday.
The largest populations of orangutans, numbering about 5,500, were within forests that are either sustainably managed or unlogged in the central uplands of the Sabah, where the population has been stable for the past 15 years, the study found. But in fragmented forest areas surrounded by extensive areas of palm oil plantations, like in Kulamba and Tabin, in eastern Sabah, the orangutan numbers fell by 30 per cent and 15 per cent respectively between 2002 and 2017, according to the survey. Lowland forest in Sabah is the most important habitat for orangutans, but extensive logging and land clearance for agriculture in the past 50 years have caused massive habitat loss and fragmentation, which led to a drastic decline in their numbers.
The study’s authors conducted aerial surveys across Sabah state and calculated a population of 9,558 orangutans. Donna Simon, the lead author of the study, said the survey “showed a mixed picture from different regions.” “However, overall the research shows that they have maintained the same numbers over the last 15 years and can remain so as long as proper conservation management measure continues to be put in place.” Malaysia, the world’s second-largest grower of palm oil after Indonesia, exports palm oil, which is used in many products from chocolate spread to lipstick, worth billions of dollars and thousands of jobs. There are just around 110,000 orangutans in the wild in the islands of Borneo and Indonesia’s Sumatra. Conservationists have said the species’ survival is threatened by poaching and the destruction of their habitat through the logging and palm oil industries. — DPA