Borneo, Orangutans, and Palm Oil Plantations
Palm oil is often used in soaps, candles, as well as a variety of many other products. It seems that it should be a likely natural ingredient most people would want to use, but there is more to this than at first meets the eye. There is something going on in order to obtain palm oil that is actually going against nature ... that is what this article is briefly going to cover. The construction of palm plantations is destroying the forests that teem with life.

In the past, we heard news of horrible peat fires in this area of the world, but we learned more about this terrible situation by reading an article about Dr. Biruté Mary Galdikas, someone who has extensively studied orangutans in Borneo and has become an advocate for their survival. She joins many people far and wide who have realized the plight of this wondrous place, and, she has inspired us to focus on either minimizing (to a great degree) and completely avoiding palm oil in our products and urging suppliers to seek out sustainable sources or substitute products. When we read that she awakens in the middle of the night due to concern about this situation, which she described in one article as "catastrophic," we decided to do something ... anything ... we could to help, so we will now share some of what we have learned about Borneo, orangutans, and palm oil plantations.

The rain forest of Borneo is considered one of the most biologically diverse places on Earth ... home to many beautiful flowers; 1500 species of plants; butterflies; birds; insects; amphibians; mammals such as two species of gibbons; eight species of monkeys, including proboscis monkeys and silvered leaf; Borneo pygmy elephant; crested serpent-eagle; sun bear; clouded leopard; and many others. However, what we will be discussing here is the orangutan, which has found itself caught up in a disastrous situation due to loss of habitat in Sumatra and Borneo. A gentle, rather secretive creature of the rain forest, orangutans are being displaced, orphaned, injured, and killed as their rain forest home is being destroyed.

Slightly larger than the state of Texas, Borneo, with an unsurpassed biodiversity, is the third largest island in the world. Some of it belongs to Indonesia, with most of the rest of it (some making up Brunei), belonging to Malaysia. Lying between the South China and Java Seas, Borneo was once primarily covered with rain forest, home to 2500-plus species of orchids, many of which are rare and indigenous and "highly valued for their exotic aromas and aesthetic beauty." Yet, the orchids, as well as other plants and insects, are threatened with extinction, some of which may not have been discovered yet. Borneo's rain forests, as well as southeast Asia’s lowland forests, are composed of the tallest tropical trees in the world, and the rain forest can have as many as 240 species of trees in a area of four acres. The worlds’ largest flower; largest orchid; largest carnivorous plants; largest moth; largest collection of gliding animals, including flying squirrels, lizards, frogs (and even snakes!) reside in Borneo, with the orangutan being the largest primarily tree-dwelling mammal.

This is some of what we have read and learned about the Bornean Orangutan, "Pongo pygmaeus." Orangutans are considered to be "strictly or exclusively" an arboreal ape (living in trees), although Dr. Galdikas says that they spend as much as half of their day on the ground. She has also documented about 400 types of fruit, flowers, bark, leaves and insects that they eat, and amongst other discoveries, she has published her findings in books and publications. Their taste for fruit plays some role in seed dispersal in their environment. They are not known to swim. Their sleeping quarters are platform nests high in the trees. For their life in trees, they spend it in the rain forest canopy at various levels, being the largest mammal on the planet to do this. They walk, jump and swing through the trees from branches ... this is referred to as arboreal locomotion, also known as quadrumanous scrambling. They are active during the day (diurnal). The word Orangutan means "person of the forest," as some of their behavior is very humanlike. They have demonstrated to learn some sign language, and often use tools in their daily activities, for instance, using branches to test water depth, and they have the capacity to reason and solve some problems.

Orangutan babies cling to their mothers by gripping her fur for their first year of life ... then, they begin to ride upon her back until they are "toddlers" and they are not weaned until after the age of three. When separated from their mothers, they scream, as the young are very dependent and the parent-offspring bond is great. While moving through the trees, a mother will stretch her body between two trees, creating a bridge so baby can move across crawling over her back. Baby orangutans cry, whimper, and smile at their mothers, staying close to them. Their moms teach them everything about survival in the forest in a very tight relationship.

The heartbreak of realizing how many baby orangutans are orphaned due to their mothers being killed is tremendous. There is actually a name for them, "oil palm orphans." Some animals take refuge in rehabilitation centers, but the orphan situation has escalated.

It has been documented that "as recently as 1900, more than 300,000 orangutans roamed freely across the jungles of southeast Asia and southern China, with today's populations estimated at 6500 in Sumatra and 48,000 in Borneo" ... today, roaming freely is not a safe option, as the palm plantations have created dangerous boundaries as orangutans are viewed as pests when they venture onto palm plantations. They are often killed, with some leaving behind orphans.

"According to the Nature Conservancy, forest loss in Indonesia has contributed to the death of some 3,000 orangutans a year over the past three decades."

Palm Oil Plantations - What’s Going On
Much of Borneo’s natural resources have been exploited or plundered throughout history, and now, this island is considered by many to be the "most critical conservation issue on our planet." With forest lands being depleted for the planting of palm trees that stretch for miles, creating monoculture palm plantations in place of the native biodiversity, this environment, with all of its true beauty, is being lost. Parts of this region has been referred to as a "biological desert" ... nothing but palm trees. The vast biodiversity of Borneo is being obliterated ... in other words, completely blotted out from the face of the earth.

Over 80% of the world's palm oil production is grown in Indonesia and Malaysia. According to one source, Indonesia has 15 million acres under cultivation for palms, with plans for more. Palm oil plantations are replacing the virgin forests where orangutans live. Some of the palm oil is being grown for the biofuel industry, and it is also commonly used in many snack foods and candies, but our personal concern has to do with the palm oil ingredient in cosmetics, skin care products, as well as candles. The demand is great for versatile palm oil, derived from the fruit of the palm tree (Elaesis guineensis), sometimes referred to as "green gold" due to its profitability.

In Borneo, where there is peat swamp forest, a specialized ecosystem, forests grow on soil nurtured over the centuries with plant material. This plant matter stores carbon. If it is deforested and drained, the peat decays and releases its carbon. To make matters worse, there have been massive peat fires which have gone out of control. These fires are responsible for the release of a tremendous amount of carbon dioxide, contributing to Indonesia’s placement as "the world’s third-largest CO2 emitter." Beyond the pollution, orangutans are caught up in the flames and the habitat loss. Indonesia’s forests have seen a heightened destruction since the 1950’s, with approximately 40% of it wiped out due to logging and other interests. This has placed the Sumatra orangutan at a critically endangered stage, as their populations have fallen by over 80% in only a hundred years. Borneo’s forest habitat has a rich history of exploitation due to its beautiful and aromatic hardwoods. Although the orangutans of Borneo are at less risk of immediate extinction, with current trends, the reality is that they too are risk of being annihilated. Their behavior is considered "flexible" ... with an ability to adjust to various situations, but their decline persists.

What You Can Do
First, we would like to offer you some information (links below) so you too can learn more about these wonderful creatures and the special place they are desperately trying to call "their rain forest home." Then, we'd like to ask you to become an involved consumer and see if you can also avoid the use of palm oil, or to inquire to see if it has been derived from sustainable resources. However, even if it is from such sources, we must remember that it's still being harvested from a monoculture that used to be wild rain forest. Finally, you may wish to air your views with others about what is happening, contribute money for habitat conservation or other needed aid, be a voice and spread the word, or simply take a stance. The beauty of Borneo belongs to future generations who are unable to speak for its protection, so it's up to us.
Borneo Orchids Expedition -

Assorted Resources and Articles -

Their Rain Forest Home
Orangutan Protection Foundation
This page may also link to Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation, which aids in orangutan rehabilitation in Sepilok, Tanjung Puting National Parks and Nyaru Menteng Centre.

About Dr. Biruté Mary Galdikas

Mary Galdikas’ Twitter Page
"Words cannot describe what palm oil companies have done to drive orangutans and other wildlife to near-extinction. It's simply horrific."   - Dr. Biruté Mary Galdikas
Smithsonian Magazine, December, 2010, Article by Bill Brubaker

About Camp Leakey

National Geographic - Borneo
"Considering the island's unsurpassed biodiversity-from orangutans and rhinoceroses to tiny mosses and beetles not yet discovered-and the rate at which its forests are being lost, Borneo's future may well be the most critical conservation issue on our planet."

Rain Forest Rescue - Orangutans versus Palm Oil - About Palm Oil - Deforestation Article

"The storybook forest of his youth, the great green riot of reeds and vines, the cathedral-like thickets of fruit and hardwood trees - all of it is gone. "

Interview - Orangutan Threats

Article on Sustainable Palm Oil - Home Page - Article: Orangutan Threats
(note: includes some graphic images)

Science Daily

Animal Diversity

Organic Consumers - Article - Politics & Conservation

Aerial view showing a palm oil plantation

Born to Be Wild Film Information

Pongo pygmaeus - by Deborah Ciszek and Maija K. Schommer

BBC - U.K. - Bornean Orangutans - About Bornean Orangtans

National Zoo - Orangtan Fact Sheet

National Geographic - Orangutans


Smithsonian - Orangutans

Photo Gallery - Orangtans

"Among the Great Apes with Michelle Yeoh"
(National Geographic Documentary Film Photo Gallery)

World Land Trust - Malaysia
One of Sir David Attenborough's Patron's Messages at World Land Trust ...
"In human nature there is good and evil, and often it is within man's capacity to destroy the very things we value most. For millions of years we have been exploiting our planet and its natural resources but it is only with modern technology that we have tipped the scales to an alarming degree. We are at risk of destroying the very bedrock on which our existence was built."     Read more ...

Australian Orangutan Project

Orangutan Conservancy

The Orangutan Foundation UK

Orangutan Appeal UK

Sumatran Orangutan Society

The Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme

Orang Utan Republik Foundation (OURF)

Palm Oil Free Alternatives

Shopping guide for more information on
products to avoid that contain palm oil ...
Palm Oil Action Group

"Why Go Naturally?"

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