By Ariel Mark
20 June 2014
(mongabay.com) – One of humans’ closest relatives, the charismatic orangutan (Pongo pygmaeus), has been listed as Endangered by the IUCN since 1986 and its status continues to remain critical. The orangutan population decline on the island Borneo can be attributed to extensive habitat loss caused by agricultural development, in particular, the palm oil industry. As oil palm plantations continue to expand to satisfy the ever-increasing global demand, orangutans and other wildlife are threatened by devastating habitat loss.
In a recent study headed by Dr. Marc Ancrenaz from Borneo Future and Dr. Isabelle Lackman, president of HUTAN-Kinabatangan Orangutan Conservation Project, researchers assessed how orangutans have adapted to living among oil palm plantations on Borneo. They focused their study on eastern Sabah in Malaysian Borneo, where land conversion for agriculture has left a mosaic landscape of agricultural land interspersed with fragmented patches of protected and unprotected natural forests.
As described in their recently published study in the Cambridge Journal, the researchers found that while orangutans have adapted to the island’s human-transformed landscapes better than expected, oil palm plantations are unable to sustain orangutan populations in the long-term. The researchers observed evidence of orangutans inhabiting small forest patches scattered among oil palm estates, but also observed evidence of starvation among those orangutans, as well as increased conflicts with humans.
“Whenever a forest occupied by orangutans is converted to a plantation (not only for palms, but also for paper pulp – acacias, eucalyptus – or some timber species), we can expect conflicts to happen,” Ancrenaz told mongabay.com.
Forest destruction for agriculture presents several challenges for orangutans during the different stages of land conversion, from the establishment of a new plantation to the maturation of cultivated land.
When a forest is newly converted for agricultural use, orangutans and other wildlife lose not only a place to live, but also access to vital food sources. During the land conversion process, animals are either killed or take refuge in neighboring patches of intact forest. However, these small forest patches often become overcrowded and cannot produce enough food to support the new influx of animals. Therefore, some of the animals venture into the cultivated land and feed on young palms, which is highly destructive for the plants. Between the ages of six months and three years, young palms are very sensitive to wildlife disturbance. When orangutans pull out and eat young shoots, they kill the plants and may cause significant economic losses for the land owners. [more]