Orangutans and oil palm plantations

Hanging on - but just barely

Of approximately 11 million hectares of oil palm plantations globally, about 6 million hectares are found in Indonesia1 (in 2006) - and counting. But in many places, these plantations are taking over rainforests, the natural habitat of endangered species such as orangutans.

Habitat conversion from natural forests to oil palm plantations has been shown to have a devastating impact on tropical forests, along with plants and animals that depend on them.

For example, there are nearly 80 mammal species in Malaysia's primary forests, just over 30 in disturbed forests, and only 11 or 12 in oil palm plantations.2 A similar loss in diversity occurs for insects, birds, reptiles, and most important of all, for soil microorganisms.
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About orangutans

Orangutans live on the Indonesian islands of Sumatra and Borneo as 2 distinct species:

Sumatran orang-utan <i>(Pongo pygmaeus abelii)</i> at the Bohorok Rehabilitation Station. Sumatra, Indonesia Project number: ID0100

Sumatran orangutan

(Pongo abelii)

The forests of the Kinabatangan River Basin are home to orang utans.

Borneo orangutan

(Pongo pygmaeus spp)

Scientists estimate that fewer than 60,000 orangutans remain in the wild on Borneo and Sumatra.

The palm oil industry, which is causing clear-cutting of forests, forest fires, and also facilitates greater access for hunters and traders, is one of the most important factors for the dramatic reduction of orangutan populations.

What is the connection between orangutans and oil palm?

  • Orangutans live in areas that are favoured for establishing oil palm plantations: fertile lowland soils close to rivers.
  • The orangutans’ forest home is being converted into oil palm plantations at a massive scale. This conversion is being driven by growing global demand for palm oil, which is pushing up prices and hence encouraging the development of more plantations.

Impacts of oil palm development on orangutans

  • The development of oil palm plantations causes the fragmentation of forests, which reduces the natural habitat of orangutans. There are about 25,000 km2 of oil palm plantations in Borneo, and the area is ever increasing.

  • Where forests are being converted for oil palm plantations, poaching of orangutans for the illegal pet trade is more prevalent. This corresponds with reports from WWF and TRAFFIC that show an increase in the trade in baby orangutans over the past decade.
  • Forest fires are set deliberately to clear land for plantations. Not only do fires destroy vast areas of orangutan habitat, but thousands of these slow-moving apes are thought to have burned to death, unable to escape the flames.
  • In some areas of Borneo and Sumatra, orangutans are shot as pests by plantation owners or farmers. 


1 Ardiansyah, F. 2006. Realising Sustainable Oil Palm Development in Indonesia – Challenges and Opportunities. International Oil Palm Conference 2006. 10 pp.

2 Wakker, E. 1998. Lipsticks from the rainforest: Palm oil, crisis and forest loss in Indonesia: the role of Germany. WWF report.

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