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With the clearing of forests, baby Orangutans are marooned

By Rhett Butler - posted Friday, 3 July 2009

As Borneo's rain forests are razed for oil palm plantations, wildlife centres are taking in more and more orphaned orangutans and preparing them for reintroduction into the wild. But the endangered primates now face a new threat - there is not enough habitat where they can be returned.

A baby orangutan ambles across the grass at a rehabilitation centre in Kalimantan, in the heart of Indonesian Borneo. The ape pauses, picks up a stick, and makes his way to a plastic log, lined with small holes. Breaking the stick in two, he pokes one end into a hole in an effort to extract honey that has been placed inside. His satisfied expression shows that the exercise - part of an elaborate training regime designed to teach the orangutan to ultimately live on his own in the forest - has been fruitful.

To his right, another baby orangutan has turned half a coconut shell into a helmet, two others wrestle on the lawn, and another scales a papaya tree. Just outside the compound, staff members teach dozens more young orangutans how to climb trees. Others feed milk to orangutans from baby bottles.


The orangutans at the Nyaru Menteng centre, run by the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation (BOS), are mainly “oil palm orphans” whose forest habitats were destroyed - and parents killed - by the swiftly spreading oil palm industry in Indonesia. BOS hopes to eventually release all of these orangutans back into their natural habitat - the majestic rainforests and swampy peat lands of central Kalimantan.

But for many, this is a fate that may never be realised, and instead they may be relegated to a life in captivity. The reason? Suitable habitat in Borneo and Sumatra - the two islands that are home to the world's entire population of wild orangutans - is being deforested so rapidly that it is becoming increasingly difficult to find locations for reintroduction.

Indeed, good habitat is becoming so scarce that scores of recently reintroduced orangutans have managed to win a taste of freedom only to be killed as their new homes are destroyed by loggers and oil palm developers. Economic returns from converting verdant rainforests into furniture, paper, and wood chips - and then using the land for oil palm plantations - have swiftly diminished the availability of sites for reintroduction, while dramatically boosting the number of orangutans in need of rescue.

So the orangutans must wait; more than 2,000 are currently in the rehabilitation system. But they are the lucky ones. For every orangutan housed in a centre, half a dozen or more may have fallen victim to deforestation, been captured for the pet trade, or met their end at the blade of a machete or the blunt end of an iron bar. Estimates of orangutan deaths range from 1,500 to 5,000 per year, out of a population of only 54,000 in Borneo and 6,500 in Sumatra. (Borneo is divided between Indonesia and Malaysia; Sumatra is part of Indonesia.)

Meanwhile, their habitat continues to vanish as oil palm plantations metastasize across the Indonesian and Malaysian landscapes. In the past 17 years, prime orangutan habitat in Kalimantan has declined by more than 50 per cent, falling from 55,000 square miles in 1992 to fewer than 27,000 square miles today. Since 1975, the extent of primary forest cover in Sumatra has decreased by more than 90 per cent.

Orangutan rehabilitation centres originally emerged in the 1960s as a response to the pet trade that saw orangutans plucked from the forest to become circus performers, entertainers for TV shows, and occupants in zoos.


But while the flow of orangutan orphans from the pet trade was relatively manageable, the rise of palm oil has dramatically changed the situation, greatly increasing the number of orangutans in need of care.

Michelle Desilets, executive director of the Orangutan Land Trust, says she started to see the shift about five years ago. Relegated to ever smaller fragments of forest, wild orangutans began to face starvation as their food sources were depleted, forcing them to venture into newly established oil palm plantations where they feed on the young shoots of palms, destroying the tree before it produces any oil seeds.

Viewing the wild orangutans as pests, plantation managers started paying $10 to $20 for each dead orangutan - a strong incentive for a migrant worker.

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First published in Yale Environment 360 on June 25, 2009.

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About the Author

Rhett Butler is the founder and editor of, one of the leading sites on the Web covering tropical forests and biodiversity. In previous articles he has written about how the global commodities boom accelerated clearing of the Amazon and about the burgeoning wildlife trade in Laos.

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All articles by Rhett Butler

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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