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The Role of Palm Oil in Orangutan Conservation

COMMUNITY | 10 February 2021

In the eyes of the general public, oil palm development is a major threat to the survival of orangutans. That perception is correct, especially in Kalimantan, where many industrial and small-scale plantations have been developed in areas formerly occupied by orangutans. Nevertheless, the palm oil sector also has the potential to positively contribute to orangutan conservation. ANJ has taken a leading role in demonstrating this in its KAL estate in West Kalimantan. This helps to show a potential way forward in managing orang-utan populations in agricultural landscapes.

One of the mistakes people make is to think that if a forest is not cut down that automatically it will be safe. Land cover change analyses in the KAL area show that this is not necessarily the case. When ANJ developed its KAL estate in 2010 and 2011, it set aside nearly 3,000 ha of forest on deep peat for conservation purposes. At that time, the forest area was estimated to contain some 150 orangutans. Outside this protected forest, there were additional forests with orangutans. These state forests were not formally managed by anyone.

Illegal logging was rampant in all forest areas, both the forests protected by ANJ and the unmanaged forests. ANJ successfully invested in fighting illegal logging in its protected forests, and from 2014 onwards illegal logging in these protected forests had been reduced to near-zero. In the unmanaged forests outside KAL, on community land, however, illegal logging continued, degrading the forest structure and making it more fire-prone. In the very dry year of 2015, several large unmanaged forests burnt down, and the remainder was cut and burnt in 2019.

The current situation is that the only remaining forest areas around KAL area are the ones protected by ANJ. Because orangutans from surrounding forests had to flee when their homes were logged and burnt, the latest population estimate indicates that the orang-utan population in KAL’s protected forest has increased from 150 to 200 individuals. This potentially means that these forests are now overpopulated.

The situation around KAL shows the importance of active protective management of forests, by government authorities (in legally gazetted protected areas), by communities (in community forest areas) and by companies (in high conservation value forest areas in oil palm and timber concessions). Unmanaged forests where there are no clear tenure or land use rights tend to disappear over time if they are within reach of people (e.g., connected by roads to timber markets).

ANJ has invested significantly in the protection of its conservation areas in KAL. Recent financial analysis indicates that the Company financed some USD 217 per ha per year in the management of conservation areas, which is about 50 times higher than what the government invests in the management of national parks. Most of the costs are associated with land use compensation to surrounding communities and fire prevention and fighting.

Despite all the efforts by ANJ, the conservation areas are not safe yet. An overlapping mining license threatens to convert forests into tailings dump sites and mining areas, while fires remain a major threat, as was seen in 2019, when part of the conservation areas were again affected by forest fires.

The experiences in KAL are important for guiding other oil palm plantations that contain orangutan habitat. A study in 2017 indicated that some 10,000 orangutans in Borneo occur in areas allocated to oil palm development. Translocating all these animals to other habitats is logistically and financially impossible, and because orangutans are a protected species, there is a need to find ways to manage orangutans and their habitats in oil palm landscapes.

The need for in situ orangutan protection efforts in oil palm areas is supported by recent studies that indicate the importance for meta-population dynamics of protecting individual orangutans, even if they occur in small forest patches in agricultural landscapes. Such animals are often females that are then visited by males who are more likely to travel through these non-forest landscapes. Translocating these animals, as is now commonly done in oil palm areas, removes orang-utans from the metapopulation, and also exposes them to high mortality risks during and after the capture and release.

Orangutans are ecologically resilient and could survive in areas dominated by human activities and agriculture, but it requires committed, competent and long-term management of their habitats and prevention of any killings. The successful KAL experiment provides an example of what the future of orangutans could look like in areas where orangutans occur outside protected areas and the permanent forest estate.

About PT Austindo Nusantara Jaya Tbk. (ANJ)
A holding company that engages primarily in producing and selling Crude Palm Oil, Palm Kernel and other sustainable food crops.

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