Palm oil companies join NGOs to save 10,000 Borneo orangutans

Orangutan populations have been decreasing rapidly, largely due to deforestation caused by the practices of the palm oil industry. The Palm Oil & NGO (PONGO) Alliance aims to save 10,000 of the great apes in Borneo.

Some of the world’s largest palm oil companies have joined forces with non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to launch an initiative to help prevent the extinction of orangutans, a great ape species that has come under extreme pressure due to the aggressive expansion of the palm oil sector in Indonesia and Malaysia.

Called the Palm Oil & NGO (PONGO) Alliance, its members include palm oil giants such as Musim Mas, Wilmar and Sime Darby, and numerous wildlife conservation NGOs such as Orangutan Land Trust, International Animal Rescue and Borneo Futures.

The PONGO Alliance - named after the genus Pongo in which orangutans are classified - is seeking to save 10,000 of the animals in Borneo, a biodiverse island where the population has more than halved over the last 50 years.

“They’re an iconic species - and they’ve been the face of the palm oil industry’s evils,” Carolyn Lim, corporate communications manager at Musim Mas, told Eco-Business.

Endemic to the rainforests of Borneo and Sumatra, orangutans have served as the lightning rod for criticism of the palm oil sector, particularly in Europe, a huge market for the world’s most widely used vegetable oil.

In the United Kingdom in 2008, Greenpeace activists dressed up as the apes in protest outside the headquarters of consumer goods giant Unilever, which was linked to sourcing “conflict palm oil” responsible for the destruction of vast swatches of Indonesian rainforest. That campaign led to a change in Unilever’s palm oil sourcing policy that has since prompted other big buyers to follow suit.

As an industry we need to do something to stop this iconic species from declining - and save the skin of our industry.

Carolyn Lim, corporate communications manager, Musim Mas 

Orangutans are classified as critically endangered, with only around 54,000 individuals left in Borneo. Their decline is a consequence of unsustainable practices in agriculture, poaching and the illegal wildlife trade. There have also been cases of orangutans being forced into prostitution, a vile trade linked to agroforestry.

This keystone species plays a critical role in seed dispersal, and is vital to maintain the health of the forest ecosystem. This in turn, benefits communities that depend on the forests.

Habitat loss poses the largest threat to orangutans. The use of slash-and-burn forestry practices by the palm oil industry has been a particular source of habitat destruction, especially the draining of peatland which creates a highly flammable environment that can lead to uncontrollable forest fires and huge bouts of haze.

The PONGO Alliance officially launched on June 13 at the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) conference, an annual event that aims to transform the palm oil sector and has been pushing for responsible and sustainable practices.

Notably, the PONGO Alliance is targeting orangutan populations outside of palm oil companies’ own concession areas, as orangutans tend to roam across large areas.

There are various obstacles to the PONGO project, however, as Bornean orangutans are more solitary than their Sumatran cousins, and their mating cycles are slow. According to the World Wide Fund for Nature, Bornean Orangutans usually give birth to a single baby, and only every five years at the most frequent.

Another issue is the increasing fragmentation of orangutan populations, as deforestation destroys more of their habitat, making it harder for their populations to recuperate.

The PONGO Alliance will be working towards creating wildlife corridors to join isolated patches of forest, to enable fragmented orangutan populations to breed, Lim told Eco-Business.

She said: “As an industry we need to do something to stop this iconic species from declining - and save the skin of our industry.”

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