Helping individual animals is critical to the survival of the orangutan. But at its heart, conservation hinges on protecting the habitats and ecosystems that both animals and humans depend on.
The Earth contains a vast network of ecosystems that control and stabilize everything on our planet. Here are just a few things that ecosystems regulate:
Forests might be the most important ecosystems - both for us and for orangutans. As large primates who feed chiefly on fruit and live only in the lowland tropical rainforests of Borneo and Sumatra, their survival relies on the future of Asia’s tropical rainforests. Although studies suggest that orangutans can survive in degraded and disturbed tropical rainforest (Ancrenaz et al, 2007), they simply cannot survive in any other type of ecosystem.
Forests are also vital for the role they play in regulating water resources. During downpours, the vegetation catches raindrops that would otherwise fall on the ground. By intercepting rainfall and decreasing the speed with which it hits the ground, forests reduce the risk of flooding.
Forest ecosystems alone regulate a third of the planet’s watersheds, on which nearly five billion people depend (Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, 2005). Despite covering just 6% of the world’s surface, tropical rainforests receive nearly half of the world's rainfall. In southeast Asia, an intact, old-growth tropical forest intercepts at least 35% of all rainfall, while a palm oil plantation will intercept just 12% (Ba, 1977). Extensive flooding in Kalimantan over the last few years has been attributed to the conversion of primary rainforest to palm oil plantations (Jakarta Post, 2008). It's estimated that a 10% decrease in forest cover in developing countries would lead to a flood frequency increase of between 4% and 28% (Bradshaw et al, 2007). Studies also show that the impact of the 2004 tsunami, which ravaged areas of Indonesia, Thailand, and Sri Lanka, would have been less if the hardest-hit areas weren't stripped of their mangrove forests, which act as buffers against floods and rising water levels (Dahdouh-guebas et al, 2005). Protection against rising water levels is extremely important. While the Tripa peat swamps in northern Sumatra serve as a freshwater reservoir for local people, they also saved countless lives during the tsunami by acting as a buffer to rising tides.
Healthy forests also prevent soil erosion. Soil is "one of the most critical but also most underappreciated and abused elements of natural capital, one that can take a few years to lose and millennia to replace" (Sekercioglu, 2010). Soil has several major functions, including:
Thanks to its enormous capacity to retain water, soil absorbs most of the rain that falls every year throughout the world and gradually releases it to feed plants, underground aquifers, and rivers. However, intensive cultivation (usually after deforestation) interferes with this process, causing floods, erosion, pollution, and further loss of organic matter. Today, roughly 75 billion tons of soil is eroded every year (Pimental & Kounang, 1998).
Although erosion is a natural process that releases nutrients and makes them available to plants, the loss of forest cover exposes soils and increases the impact of rain, wind, and other elements, causing runoff into water reservoirs and even landslides. In logged forests, trails become rivers of mud just a few minutes after rainfall, and the rivers that drain logging areas quickly become polluted (Chin, 1987). Steep slopes in this province make soil erosion likely whenever the forest cover is broken (Stadtmueller, 1990).
Converting rainforest to rice fields and not using soil conservation measures causes soil erosion and loss of soil fertility, particularly in the tropics, where farming can strip the soil of half of its nutrients in less than a decade (Bolin and Cook, 1983). Soil erosion is detrimental to local communities and wildlife. It's also devastating for the global economy, with the direct costs of erosion totaling around $250 billion per year (Pimental et al, 1995).
In Tanjung Puting National Park in central Kalimantan, a 400,000-hectare expanse of forest with a large orangutan population, mining and illegal logging have increased erosion and runoff into the Seknoyer river, turning its naturally clear, black water to a muddy brown and decreasing visibility. This change is the likely cause of increased crocodile attacks on humans, causing concern for local people who rely on the river and its fish for survival (Mongabay, 2006).
Draining peat swamps for agriculture and timber extraction has also become one of the biggest threats to forest ecosystems in Indonesia. Peat swamps are forests with waterlogged soils that prevent dead leaves and wood from fully decomposing. Over time, the dead material creates a thick layer of acidic peat. In Indonesia, the two national parks with the highest densities of wild orangutans, Sebangau and Tanjung Puting, are mainly peat swamp forests.
Peat swamps act like sponges, absorbing large amounts of rain and river water during the wet season, controlling floods and runoff, and releasing it slowly during the dry season. Unfortunately, large-scale conversion of peat swamps for agriculture is occurring in Indonesia, making these areas susceptible to fire. While fire doesn't normally spread in the moist, closed-canopy environment of undisturbed peat swamp forests, dry peat smolders for long periods and burns down to the water table. In addition, peat swamp forest trees aren't naturally adapted to fire and have high post-fire mortality (Harrison et al, 2009).
Protecting forests in Indonesia and Malaysia is important for the future of both orangutans and people, but protecting ecosystems doesn't just mean protecting the trees and large mammals that live there. It means protecting the millions of species that work together, in intricate, tightly-woven cycles.
When humans alter ecosystems, it's often the large mammals that disappear first. This can have a devastating effect on the forest ecosystem and other species, including species of fruit that rely on large mammals to digest and disperse them. The disappearance of large carnivores can cause herbivore populations to surge. When there are too many herbivores and not enough plants, the density of diversity of plants also suffer.
The loss of large herbivores like orangutans can have the opposite effect of exploding populations of plants, small herbivores like rodents, and their predators, such as snakes (McCauley et al, 2006). But while orangutans, leopards, tigers, elephants, rhinos, and other charismatic animals play an important role in the forest ecosystem, their role is no more important than that of the millions of species of birds, reptiles, insects, plants, fungi and other species that work together to provide the services that we all depend on for our survival.
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The word "orangutan" comes from the Malay terms "orang" (person) and "hutan" (forest). The future of the orangutan is linked to the future of its rainforest home. While forest fires, logging, and habitat destruction for agriculture are currently the most immediate threats to orangutans, but the long-term combined effects of these actions on the global climate will likely be far greater than today's challenges.
The planet is a vast network of integrated ecosystems and ecosystem services that control and regulate everything that humans and all other animals depend on for survival. The most fundamental are the air we breathe and the water we drink. The air we breathe is regulated by the carbon cycle, which incorporates the planet's four main reservoirs of carbon:
Carbon is the dominant force that shapes life and regulates the world's climate. Plants, which absorb carbon through a system called photosynthesis, play a major role in fixing the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere, with most terrestrial carbon storage occurring in forest trees (Falkowski et al, 2000). The destruction of forested areas and exploitation of buried organic matter in the form of fossil fuels is increasing the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere and warming the world's climate. Atmospheric CO2 concentrations have increased by 34% since 1750 (Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, 2005). By the end of the century, the average global temperature is projected to rise by up to 2 degrees Celsius (IPCC, 2014).
The effects of rising temperatures are already felt throughout the world. Greenland's glaciers are melting faster, and glaciers in most of the world are also retreating. Longer summers and earlier snowpack melts are increasing wildfires in the American West. Many species are changing the timing of their life histories, life cycles, and migration patterns to deal with seasonal changes. Costa Rica's Monteverde cloud forest, which depends on condensation from clouds for moisture, is experiencing more dry days. The golden toad that inhabits these forests could be the first documented terrestrial extinction caused by climate change (Pounds et al, 1999).
As an archipelago of more than 17,000 islands with one of the world's highest rates of deforestation, Indonesia is one of the world's biggest contributors to climate change and one of the country's most adversely affected by it.
Indonesia lies within the intertropical convergence zone (ITCZ), a belt of low air pressure that runs along the equator where the winds from the northern and southern hemispheres meet. Its climate is characterized by two seasons of varying rainfall. Tropical countries in the ITCZ are some of the wettest on earth, and Indonesia's seasonal patterns of rainfall and winds are strongly related to its location on the equator between mainland Asia and Australia. Monsoons blowing in from mainland Asia bring heavy rainfall from November to March, and southeastern winds from Australia bring a period of infrequent rainfall from June to September (Galdikas, 2009). Indonesia receives an average of 70 to 125 inches of rainfall every year in the lowlands, with some mountainous regions receiving up to 240 inches per year. Local weather patterns known as the El Nino/La Nina Southern Oscillation (ENSO) also strongly affect the region, causing floods, droughts, and variations in annual rainfall (Galdikas, 2009).
During El Nino years, dry season rainfall can be less than half of normal, and very severe El Nino years have seen huge fires devastate Indonesia's forests (Harrison et al, 2009). Once thought to occur around once every seven years, there is evidence that climate change is increasing the frequency and severity of El Nino southern oscillations, with Indonesia experiencing drought conditions and corresponding forest fires in 1972-73, 1982-83, 1987, 1991-92, 1997-1998, 2002, 2006 & 2009 (Yeager et al, 2003). The results were devastating. Forest fires in 1982 and 1983 burned around 3.6 million hectares of forest in East Kalimantan alone (Leighton & Wirawan, 1986), and forest fires in 1997 and 1998, usually started by local farmers or plantation companies and exacerbated by drought conditions, destroyed at least 9.7 million hectares of forest throughout Indonesia, significantly affected 36 of the 45 major forest blocks in Kalimantan, and devastated the country's national parks (Case et al, 2009; Yeager et al, 2003). Thousands of orangutans likely died as the forests burned in 1997-98, with a survey in 2003 showing the wild population in the Sebangau area of central Kalimantan had decreased by 49% relative to 1996 (Suhuh & Saleh, 2007). Hundreds of adult orangutans were also killed by villagers as they fled and wandered into villages in search of food, and orangutan rehabilitation centers were inundated with orphaned babies and infants otherwise destined for the illegal pet trade (Barber & Schweithelm, 2010).
The amount of carbon dioxide that the fires released into the atmosphere is also concerning. During the 1997-98 fires, 2 million hectares of carbon-rich peat swamp forest burned, releasing 0.81-2.57 billion tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere (Page et al, 2002; Rieley, 2002). The surface air temperature in Asia has already increased by 1-3 degrees over the last century, and annual precipitation decreased by two to three percent across Indonesia over the same period (Case et al, 2009). The increased frequency of El Nino-impacted forest fires could create a positive-feedback loop where increased burning increases atmospheric CO2, which raises temperatures and increases the frequency and severity of ENSO events and future fires (Harrison et al, 2009). Additionally, forests that burn once are more susceptible to future fires. This is because reduced canopy cover reduces humidity levels in the forest. As a result, biomass dries faster, creating more fuel (Yeager et al, 2003).
Intensifying drought conditions and more frequent forest fires are some of the most immediate threats to orangutans and their forest habitat, but the long-term effects of fires on forest quality and other effects of climate change are also concerning. Orangutans feed on up to 400 different types of fruit. Their very survival depends on the amount of fruit and other forest products that can sustain them. However, studies show that there are fewer species of tree and less fruit after forest fires (Suhud & Saleh, 2007; Yeager at al, 2003).
Warming temperatures and changes in precipitation and seasonality will likely affect fruiting trees and the seasonal activities of the forests' flora and fauna (Saleh, 2009). Temperatures in Asia are expected to increase by between 0.72-3.92 degrees between now and the end of the century, and the annual monsoon in Indonesia could be delayed by 30 days every year (Chase et al, 2009). A longer, more severe dry season will likely reduce the abundance of fruits (Saleh, 2009). Although orangutans can store fat during periods of low fruit availability, longer periods will force orangutans to rely more heavily on low quality fall back foods like bark and struggle to maintain their body weight (Knott, 1998).
This change may also affect orangutan reproduction because females are less likely to conceive during periods of low fruit abundance (Saleh, 2009). In addition, orangutan ranging patterns and social systems will change as orangutans adjust their behavior and locations to deal with the scarcity of suitable forest foods (Suhud & Saleh, 2007).
Climate change is one of the most challenging and controversial threats facing the planet. Conserving tropical rainforests is one of the most effective ways to decrease the amount of carbon released into the atmosphere, and the only way of securing the future of the orangutan species.
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Habitat fragmentation breaks continuous habitat apart through three interrelated processes:
Forests and other natural habitats have been converted for agricultural use for as long as humans have walked the earth, and while most of the focus recently has been on the conversion of tropical rainforests to agricultural plantations, landscapes all throughout the world are still being converted, and in the developed world, natural landscapes are a shadow of their former selves.
Of the 16 million km2 of tropical rainforests that once existed, just around 9 million km2 exists today, with forests in South East Asia disappearing most rapidly. Tropical dry forests along the Central American Pacific coast now cover just 1% of the total land cover they used to, and from 1990 to 2000, over 1% of all mangroves disappeared annually. By 1990, more than two-thirds of Mediterranean forests and woodlands had been lost, mainly for conversion to agriculture.
In the eastern USA and Europe, old-growth broadleaf forests have nearly disappeared. 10-20% of the world’s grasslands have been destroyed for agriculture, and in South America, more than half of the biologically rich cerrado savannas, which formally spanned over 2 million km2, have been converted into soy fields and cattle pastures in recent decades (Laurance, 2010). Over the past three centuries, the global extent of cropland has risen from around 2.7 to 15 million km2 (Laurance, 2010).
The conversion of tropical rainforests for agricultural purposes throughout Indonesia and Malaysia has been immense. Today, approximately 45% of Indonesia’s workers are engaged in agriculture, with 31 million hectares of land under cultivation, 35-40% of which is devoted to producing export crops.
In Indonesia, there are three main types of agricultural farming: smallholder farming, smallholder cash cropping, and about 1,800 large foreign-owned or privately-owned estates. Small-scale farming usually takes place in modest plots and focuses on cultivating rice, vegetables, and fruit for subsistence. However, these products and rubber are also grown as cash crops for export. Of estate-grown crops, rubber, tobacco, sugar, palm oil, hard fiber, coffee, tea, cocoa, and cinchona are the most important (Encyclopedia of the Nations, 2011).
Converting forest to agriculture involves chopping down trees, which leads to biodiversity loss. Although very few animal species can live in any type of plantation, if managed well, plantations can still retain some of the ecosystem functions of tropical rainforests.
In their undisturbed state, tropical rainforests have a virtually closed canopy and millions of different species of trees, leaves and animals. The forest floor is covered in a thin layer of leaf litter that rests on a highly permeable topsoil. Thanks to these conditions, they have one of the lowest surface erosion rates of any form of land use (Critchley & Bruijnzeel, 1996). Tropical forests also produce an extraordinary amount of plant biomass because of the compact nutrient cycle of these ecosystems. Plant nutrients enter the forest ecosystem through rain, dust, and aerosols. They cycle continuously between the canopy and the soil, with only small amounts leaking out of the system (Critchley & Bruijnzeel, 1996). This delicately-balanced cycle is disturbed when trees are cut down.
Of all of the methods of clearing trees, manual clearing is the least damaging to the soil. However, it's a slow and expensive method, particularly when large areas of forest need to be cleared. Most plantations use heavy machinery that uproots tree stumps instead. When the timber is extracted, forest debris will often be set on fire because this a cheaper and easier way to clear any remaining vegetation. After clearing, this land will be planted with crops.
The soil quality and productivity on plantations strongly depends on the methods used and the crop being cultivated. Tea, for example, is usually grown in areas with year-round, abundant rainfall and is often cultivated in areas of high altitude, where terraces will be constructed before planting. Tea plantations can last for several decades before production declines. Of all the land use systems that replace tropical rainforests, tea plantations are usually considered one of the most effective with respect to soil erosion because tea trees often grow tall and form a closed canopy (Critchley & Bruijnzeel, 1996). In contrast, coffee trees must be spaced farther apart to allow access for picking and spraying. As a result, coffee plantations have a much sparser canopy and are more susceptible to soil erosion and invasive weeds. Rubber plantations, which are abundant throughout Sumatra, require deep, relatively fertile soil and thrive best on flat land. To establish rubber plantations, the land is clear stumped to avoid disease transmission to the trees. Newly-planted rubber plantations are also susceptible to high levels of erosion and runoff (Critchley & Bruijnzeel, 1996).
When a natural forest is converted to a plantation, the reduction in plant cover increases the amount of water that reaches the ground. When crops and trees start growing again, it can often take years for this water yield to decrease. Even then, crop plantations almost always use less water than original forests, and runoff in areas surrounding plantations are usually discolored with sediment. However, although the process of conversion is highly destructive, a portion of the original ecosystem services can be protected by using appropriate clearing practices and land management techniques such as controlled drainage, bench terraces, contour farming, and introducing biological barriers like hedges or woodland (Critchley & Bruijnzeel, 1996).
Over the last few decades, palm oil has received the most attention and is considered to have caused the most destruction to primary forests throughout Indonesia and Malaysia. Palm oil is native to Africa and was first planed in Indonesia in 1848. It's suited to tropical regions within 12 to 15 degrees north and south of the equator, where the average rainfall is between 2,000 and 2,500 millimeters per year. Because the palm oil harvest declines during the dry season and the flowering period and maturation of the fruit is affected by temperature, humidity must be between 80 to 90% and the temperature must range between 29 to 30 degrees (Rautner et al, 2005). Borneo and Sumatra are ideal environments for oil palms. As a result, thousands of hectares habitat for the islands’ orangutans, tigers, elephants, rhino’s, leopards, gibbons, and numerous other species has been converted to make room for this oil.
Palm oil has the highest per hectare yield of all edible oils and is now the most important vegetable oil in the world. In 2002, palm oil and palm kernel oil accounted for roughly 23% of the world’s edible oil production and 51% of global trade in edible oils. Indonesia is now the world’s largest exporter of palm oil, with Malaysia a close second. Between 2016 and 2020, Indonesia's projected production is around 18,000 million tons, or 44% of world production. Malaysia’s estimated output will be 15,400 million tons, or 37.7% (Rautner et al, 2005).
Palm oil plantations are usually established after large areas of forest have been cleared by heavy machinery. After the timber has been extracted and sold on the international legal or illegal timber market, leftover debris is usually set alight. The use of fire to clear forest is one of the most destructive practices and is partly responsible for the extensive fires that have ravaged forests throughout Indonesia and Malaysia in recent years, including the devastating fires of 1997 and 1998 (Rautner et al, 2005; Harrison et al, 2009).
Pesticides are used to make the trees yield fruit earlier and to control invasive weeds. Highly toxic Paraquat and other pesticides have been blamed for decreased biodiversity in palm oil plantations and for poisoning thousands of plantation workers (Rautner et al, 2005; WRM, 2005). Converting forests for palm oil plantations results in a loss of 80% of plant species. In palm oil monocultures, research shows that 80-90% of mammals, reptiles, and bird species in tropical forests cannot survive (Rautner et al 2005).
The conversion of forests for agriculture is a historic process that is unlikely to stop in the near future. So far in Indonesia, Malaysia, and other parts of the world, this conversion has occurred in lowland areas home to some of the world’s most endangered animals. Preventing future forest loss while considering the needs of a rapidly increasing human population will be one of the greatest environmental challenges of the next few decades.
Hopefully, we can learn lessons from one of the greatest environmental disasters in history - Indonesia’s "Mega Rice Project", a plan by former Indonesian president Suharto to make Indonesia self-sufficient in rice production. The project proposed to convert 796,000 hectares of peat swamp forest in Central Kalimantan into rice fields, with an additional settlement program to relocate 316,000 transmigrant families to the area. No cost-benefit or sensitivity analysis was conducted in advance. In addition, scientists repeatedly warned that the project would fail, and that the depth of the peat made it unsuitable for conversion. Suharto went ahead with the project anyway.
Around $175 million was spent on the scheme, half of which went towards digging canals to drain the peat swamp, which was so deep that it subsided. After Suharto fell from power in 1998, the project was abandoned, and no rice has ever been grown on the land. Today, the Mega Rice Project area is a barren wasteland where transmigrants are unable to grow rice or enough crops to survive, where poverty is rife, where orangutans and other wildlife are scarce and live in fragmented patches of forest. The area is prone to illegal logging and frequent forest fires (Rautner et al, 2005).
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The spread of palm oil plantations is one of the greatest threats to orangutan survival, but it's also an important driver of future economic growth in Indonesia and Malaysia. Despite repeated and high-profile warnings of the toll the industry is taking on the region's biodiversity, the number of plantations continues to increase.
In both Indonesia and Malaysia, the area planted with oil palm has trebled from 24,000 km2 in 1990 to 83,700 km2 in 2007, an average annual increase of around 3,500 km2, and it is estimated that at least 55% of oil palm expansion in these countries came at the expanse of natural forests, with the remainder obtained from the conversion of pre-existing croplands such as rubber and cocoa (Nantha & Tisdell, 2008). In 2007 alone, Malaysia and Indonesia made US$14 billion and US$5.5 billion from palm oil export revenue, and the industry, directly and indirectly, employs around a million people in both of these countries (Nantha & Tisdell, 2008).
The palm oil trees high yield, cheap cost and the fact that the yield is semi-solid at room temperature, so does not need to be hardened to be useful as a shortening, has made palm oil the most widely traded oil on the international market. Highly versatile, it is used in a variety of household products, from margarine and shortening to cooking oil, soups, baked goods, and confectionary products. It can also be a substitute for hard animal fats, such as butter and lard, and for soy, olive or canola liquid vegetable oils. Chocolate products such as candy bars and cake icing use palm oil as a substitute for cocoa butter, and it is often found in ice cream, peanut butter, coffee whitener, canned cream soups, potato chips, milk, trail mix and other snack foods (Brown & Jacobson, 2005). WWF estimates that 50% of all packaged supermarket products contain palm oil.
Finding a way to balance the spread of palm oil plantations and the increasing demand for palm oil, palm kernel oil and palm kernel meal on the international market is one of the greatest challenges for conservationists working in Indonesia and Malaysia. Condemning the whole industry, or hoping that it simply fades away, is unrealistic, so conservationists have increasingly begun working with the industry, encouraging the concept of sustainable palm oil.
On paper, all oil palm plantations should already be sustainable, as their development is strongly regulated by laws in both Indonesia and Malaysia. In Indonesia, which is home to the largest populations of orangutans and the most substantial tracts of rainforest in South East Asia, no significant land development activities are permitted before the company has obtained a valid Plantation Business Permit (IUP), which should only be awarded after an Environmental Impact Assessment has been completed and approved. According to Indonesian law, developing an oil palm plantation without an EIA should result in any IUP that has been issued being revoked (Greenpeace, 2009). Indonesian law also stipulates that any area that contains peat deeper than 3 meters should automatically be afforded legally protected status, and that if any concessions contain forested areas, companies are forbidden from cutting trees or harvesting and collecting any forest products until they have obtained a Timber Cutting Permit (IPK), which is issued at a local level by either the governor or the district head (Greenpeace, 2009). As orangutans are a protected species throughout the country, their presence in any forested area should, on paper, ensure its protection. In reality, these laws are routinely flouted.
To ensure adherence to the law and to encourage sustainability throughout the industry, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was formed in 2004. Made up of a consortium of NGO’s and palm oil producers, the voluntary organization hopes to encourage palm oil producers to adopt practices and guidelines that would lead to palm oil production becoming environmentally and socially sustainable. By joining the organisation companies are obliged to comply with the RSPO’s ‘Principles & Criteria’, which stipulate that all palm oil producers commit to transparency, comply with all laws and regulations of the countries they're working in, commit to long-term economic viability, use appropriate best practices, behave in an environmentally responsible way and conserve natural resources and biodiversity, consider employees and local communities and adhere to responsible development. If all these criteria are reached, palm oil producers are encouraged to have their palm oil plantations certified by the RSPO as sustainable, which would allow them to use the RSPO logo and advertise their palm oil as such.
Launched with much fanfare and with the support of the majority of rainforest conservation charities, including OURF, the RSPO has tried to regulate the industry and bring the issue of palm oil and its sustainability to consumers. However, it has also been dogged by accusations of ineffectiveness, infighting, lax regulation, and competing interests. At the heart of these issues is the debate over whether palm oil can ever be truly sustainable, and whether such a complicated extraction, processing and distribution process can ever be properly certified. To try and combat this, the RSPO offers four different categories of certification, with different levels of certification depending on how thoroughly the palm oil can be traced from source to distribution. The most popular certification method is the Greenpalm scheme, an RSPO endorsed trading scheme that enables palm oil producers to earn a premium for using sustainable production methods, regardless of whether their product is exported. RSPO-certified producers have issued certificates for each tonne of certified palm oil that they produce. End-users can then 'cover' their use of palm oil by buying the certificates from GreenPalm, in the process supporting sustainable palm oil production (GreenPalm website).
An issue that many NGO’s have raised with the RSPO is its lack of ability to properly enforce rules and the danger that RSPO membership is becoming a way for palm oil producers to present to the buying public a veneer of sustainability without any actual desire to produce their palm oil sustainably. In 2009, controversy arose in New Zealand after Cadbury began putting palm oil in its popular dairy milk bars, prompting a public backlash by consumers and conservationists in the country. Cadbury eventually relented, and announced it would revert to using traditional cocoa butter, but assured consumers that all the palm oil they used was certified and sustainably produced because it had independent GreenPalm certification. While for many this would be reassuring, closer examination revealed that the palm oil used was most likely not sustainable; as mentioned in the paragraph above, GreenPalm certificates are given if a plantation proves they are producing palm oil sustainably. However, this just means that the company has at least one sustainable plantation, and the GreenPalm certificate issued can be sold old to another company. The palm oil produced on that certified plantation is not sold or kept separately; it is simply put into the same tanker as the unsustainably sourced palm oil, and shipped to manufacturers. In essence, the GreenPalm certificate does not guarantee consumers are consuming sustainable palm oil (The Guardian, 2009).
In 2009, First Resources, a Hong Kong-based palm oil company and member of the RSPO, was found by the NGO International Animal Rescue to be clearing land illegally in West Kalimantan and was responsible for a number of orangutan deaths, and for the capture of infant orangutans. After these orangutans were rescued, an official complaint was made to the RSPO. While this company does not have any of its plantations certified as being sustainable, its membership of the RSPO states it must adhere to the Principles and Criteria of the organization. Although the RSPO agreed to look in to the matter, three years later First Resources are still a member of the RSPO, there is no mention of the complaint on the RSPO website, and the company is free to advertise its membership of the RSPO on its own website, under its commitment to sustainability initiatives, even though it has made no effort whatsoever to behave sustainably. While the difference between being an RSPO member and having your production being RSPO certified are two very different things, for consumers, this is not always clear, and for many, the RSPO is a smokescreen, behind which palm oil producers sit (RAN, 2011).
In response, the RSPO points out that it's a voluntary organization that is limited in its capacity to sanctioning companies that break its rules. It also must deal with the competing interests of the palm oil producers and distributors that are among its members. In 2011, IOI Group, one of Malaysia’s leading producers of palm oil, was reported to the RSPO by a number of NGO’s after evidence was collated showing IOI was responsible for illegally clearing large tracts of forest in Kalimantan. The RSPO responded by announcing that the company had breached its code of conduct, and granted it a limit by which time it must provide answers to the accusations. Although there was criticism that the RSPO had not done more, the fact that it had publicly criticized an RSPO member was rare, and came a year after the RSPO had publicly rebuked PT Smart Tbk and its parent company Golden-Agri Resources for breaches of the RSPO rules, the first time it had done so (Reuters, 2010). While these actions were welcomed by conservationists, they angered the Malaysian government and palm oil body, who in 2011 announced plans to form its own sustainable palm oil regulatory body, implying that the RSPO was becoming too strict (Mongabay, 2011). While this has been interpreted by some as a sign that Malaysian and Indonesian, palm oil producers are becoming increasingly aware of the issue of sustainable palm oil, it is feared that if companies pull away from the RSPO, it would make the industries only recognized regulatory body largely irrelevant.
Although it needs improvement, the RSPO is currently the only organization able to regulate an industry that poses the greatest threat to orangutan populations in the wild. As the use of palm oil increases and a greater threat is placed on desirable lowland tropical forests, it is more imperative than ever that business leaders are encouraged to behave in an environmentally responsible way, and suppliers are put under pressure, by both NGO’s and individual members of the public, to ensure the palm oil they use in their products does not come from plantations established at the expense of rainforests and endangered species.
Basiron, Y. (2007). Palm oil production through sustainable plantations. European Journal of Lipid Science & Technology, Vol. 109, No. 4, pp. 289-295
Brown, E. & Jacobson, M. (2005). Cruel Oil: How palm oil harms health, rainforest & wildlife. Center for science in the public interest.
FAO. (2008). Small-scale palm oil processing in Africa. Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations, Rome
Greenpeace. (2009). Illegal forest clearance and RSPO greenwash: Case studies of Sinar Mas. Greenpeace
The Guardian. (2009). 'Green palm oil' claims land Cadbury's in sticky chocolate mess. The Guardian, UK
Kubota E., Mayo, J., O'Brien, K., Rocheleau, A. & Watthanakornchai, K. (2009). Palm oil processing recommendations to support new life project for underprivileged children. Worcester Polytechnic Institute & Chulalongkorn University, BSc project
Mongabay (2011). Malaysian government to launch RSPO rival for palm oil certification. Mongabay
Nantha, H.S. & Tisdell, C. (2009). The orangutan-oil palm conflict: economic constraints & opportunities for conservation. Biodiversity & Conservation, Vol. 18, Issue 2, pp. 487-502
RAN. (2011). The Great RSPO Membership Myth: Why Buying from RSPO Members Is Meaningless. Rainforest Action Network.
Reuters. (2010). Sustainable palm oil body censures Indonesia's PT SMART. Reuters
Tourism is one of the world’s fastest growing industries, and ecotourism has emerged as one of its leading sectors, estimated to be growing at a rate of between 10% and 15% per year (Matthews, 2002). Ecotourism has been defined as travel to natural areas that conserves the natural environment and helps the local people (Chin et al, 2000), and is seen increasingly as a significant tool in the conservation of endangered species, by providing local people with economic alternatives to resource exploitation (Nakamura & Nishida, 2009), raising living standards (Matthews, 2002), providing awareness and financial support for conservation (Ash, 2006) and financing protected areas (Wilkie & Carpenter, 1999). Although ecotourism has enjoyed broad support as a conservation tool, concerns have been raised that the development of tourism can negatively impact on the environment, by the development of urban infrastructure, can cause stress to animals and affect their behavior and cause social problems for local people (Roe et al, 1997).
Ecotourism has become an increasingly popular tool in the conservation of the great apes, which are all either endangered or critically endangered in the wild (Beck et al, 2001, cited in Nakamura & Nishida, 2009). In Africa, ecotourism has involved habituating groups of wild gorillas and chimpanzees to human observers (Nakamura & Nishida, 2009), and such projects have thrived; In Uganda, tourism has become the principal source of foreign exchange, and gorilla and chimpanzee viewing is responsible for 52% of tourism revenue (Wrangham, 2008, cited in Nakamura & Nishida, 2009).
In Indonesia and Malaysia, home to the only remaining populations of orangutans, ecotourism has taken a different approach. Unlike chimpanzees and gorillas, which live in large social groups and spend a significant proportion of their time on the ground (Redmond, 2008), orangutans are semi-solitary and almost strictly arboreal (Gladikas, 1985). As such, they are difficult to find and observe from the ground, and even when found, have often been accused by tourists of being boring (pers. obs), on account of their slow activity patterns; orangutans in some areas spend 60.1% of their time foraging and eating, and 18.2% resting (Gladikas, 1988). Instead, tourism most often revolves around ex-captive orangutans, which are often more social than those in the wild (Yeager, 1997), and spend more time on the ground and in association with conspecifics (Snaith, 1999). Hence, they are often easier for tourists to see.
Tanjung Puting National Park is a 416,000-hectare park in the province of Central Kalimantan. The park hosts a wide variety of biodiversity (Brend, 2006), but is most famous for its population of Bornean orangutans; the park was estimated to comprise a population of 6000 individuals in 2004 (Singleton et al, 2004), though it is possibly less now. Orangutan rehabilitation began in Tanjung Puting in 1971, concentrated around the Camp Leakey study area (Galdikas, 1982). Ninety orangutans were released there between 1971 and 1985 (Galdikas & Ashbury, 2012), and possibly as many as 180 up to 1994 (Yeager, 1997) when orangutan rehabilitation began being moved to other areas. Today, tourists can visit ex-captive orangutans at 3 areas in the park, Camp Leakey, Tanjung Harapan and Pondok Tanggui (Brend, 2006), where orangutans are given a daily supply of milk and fruit daily at a feeding and viewing platform (Galdikas & Ashbury, 2012). Although Tanjung Puting contains a large wild population and some wild individuals visit the feeding platforms (Ibid), most tourists will only see ex-captive orangutans and their offspring (pers. obs).
Bukit Lawang is a former orangutan rehabilitation center situated in the Gunung Leuser National Park in Sumatra, an 830,000-hectare park situated in the Leuser Ecosystem (Dellatore, 2007; Singleton et al, 2004). Bukit Lawang acted as a Sumatran orangutan (Pongo abelii) rehabilitation project between 1972 and 1991, with 227 orangutans being associated with the project, though 51 are confirmed as having died (Dellatore, 2007). Orangutans are no longer rehabilitated at the center, but the area remains home to a number of ex-captive orangutans and their offspring, who receive supplementary feedings of fruit and milk twice a day at a feeding platform attended by tourists (Ibid). Official Forestry Department figures show 206,963 foreign tourists visited Bukit Lawang between 1985 and 2003, an average of 10,893 per year, and 5,800 domestic tourists visited per year between 1990 and 2003 (Ibid). In total, 288,165 people visited this site in 18 years, though this might be less than half the real figure if unregistered visitors are taken in to account (Rijksen & Meijaard, 1999, cited in Dellatore, 2007).
The ex-captive tourist sites in both Tanjung Puting and Gunung Leuser remain controversial (Russon, 2009), and there have been longstanding fears about the effects such high densities of people have on the orangutans. In both national parks, tourists have been observed soliciting contact with orangutans, stroking them, trying to touch infants leading to aggressive encounters with mothers, shaking trees to get an orangutans attention and taunting them with fruit (pers. obs), and similar behaviors have been seen elsewhere; Bowden, 1980 reports seeing ex-captive orangutans at Sepilok in Malaysian Borneo being approached by humans, offered food, being touched, harassed, hit and kicked (cited in Snaith, 2009), and Yeager, 1997 reports that 3 released individuals in Tanjung Puting were recaptured and released in to other areas after aggressive encounters with humans.
The close proximity of humans and orangutans at such tourist sites remains a concern; the close phylogenetic relationship between humans and non-human primates means pathogen exchange is a risk (Gillespie et al, 2008), and the great apes are particularly susceptible (Homsy, 1999). A number of cases of illnesses in apes have been shown to be linked to human respiratory viruses and bacteria, including influenza, measles, mumps, pneumococcal pneumonia and herpes viruses (Ibid), and in the Virunga volcanoes in Africa, over 81% of gorillas in 7 groups used for research and tourism purposes suffered from an influenza-like disease, with 6 adults dying from it in 1988 alone (Reynolds, 2006, cited in Isabirye-Basuta & Lwanga, 2008).
Surveys at the Sepilok orangutan rehabilitation centre in Malaysia show that a significant portion of tourists that visit this center, which totaled 97,367 in 2006 (Muehlenbein et al, 2010), is ill and potentially infectious at the time they visit and risked infecting the animals, local inhabitants of the area and Sepilok rangers (Ibid). Such diseases not only pose a threat to the ex-captive orangutans, but risk spreading to the wild populations, which would have no such natural resistance. Although authors have argued that the largely solitary nature of wild orangutans would inhibit disease transmission (Galdikas & Briggs, 1999), ex-captive orangutans at Tanjung Puting have been shown to be social, often travel together, and have been observed soliciting play with wild females and their offspring and climbing in and out of their nests (Yeager, 1997), and that ex-captives are exposed to human diseases and that respiratory diseases and skin infections have been transmitted between individuals (Ibid).
The risk of behavioral changes in wildlife also remains a concern at ecotourism sites. Bukit Lawang, Sepilok, and Tanjung Puting all report higher infant mortality in the offspring of ex-captives than is seen in wild orangutans (Dellatore et al, 2009; Russon, 2009), and cases of ex-captive females at Bukit Lawang cannibalizing their offspring, a previously undocumented behavior in wild orangutans, may have been influenced by stress caused by the high concentration of humans in the area (Dellatore et al, 2009).
Modifications in primate behavior are seen in numerous other primate ecotourism sites. An examination of the impacts tourists have had on wild howler monkeys in the 400 hectare Lamanai Archaeological Reserve in Belize, which attracted 21,499 visitors in 2000 (Grossberg et al, 2003), has shown that 25% of all tourists have observed other tourists or guides interacting with howler monkeys, shaking branches, trying to make them roar, offering food or making physical contact with them (Ibid), and that such provocation disrupted activity patterns, with juveniles, females, and infants avoiding provocation by moving higher in to the canopy, while adult and sub-adult males responded by roaring or approaching the humans, moving to the ground to bite people, or grabbing bags (Ibid). Intense roaring against humans has also provoked neighboring howler monkey groups to either roar back or approach (Ibid). As howler monkeys are highly territorial, spend the majority of their time in the trees, roaring is believed to act as a spacing mechanism, and competition between adult males is intense (Redmond, 2008; Di Fore & Campbell, 2007), such behavior is a concern.
Instances of primates descending to the ground and biting or attacking humans have been observed at a number of primate ecotourism sites (Fuentes et al, 2007), and often involves provisioning of food, which can increase levels of aggression (Westin, 2007; Hsu et al, 2009). In India, monkeys around Hindu temples are given hand-outs by local people and tourists and often become aggressive when food is denied, tearing clothes, biting, and raiding pantries and hotel rooms (Wolfe, 2002, cited in Westin, 2007). In Tanzania, vervet monkeys have been seen waiting at picnic tables and public toilets to ambush tourists to take their food (Ibid). Fuentes et al, 2007 found that at the Padangtegal Hindu temple on the Indonesian island of Bali, the strongest enticement for contact between tourists and the resident long-tailed macaques was the presence of food or the suggestion of it, in the form of plastic bags or items wrapped in banana leaves, and though there are signs warning tourists against feeding, such aggressive encounters are common, with 11.4% resulting in bites.
Macaques have the widest distribution of any non-human primate (Thierry, 2007), and their home ranges frequently overlap with humans and tourist sites (Fuentes, 2004). Conflict between humans and macaques often leads to injury in both species, and there is a great risk of disease transmission; macaques can carry diseases that can transfer to humans, including simian foamy virus, herpes B and simian retrovirus, and humans carry influenza and respiratory pathogens that can spread to macaques (McCarthy et al, 2009). Wild Tibetan macaques can be seen by tourists at two sites in China, Mt. Emei and Mt. Huangshan. Examinations into macaque-human interactions at these sites show that humans initiate contact with macaques far more than macaques do with humans, with pointing, waving, making facial threats and slapping the railings the most common observed human behaviors (Ibid). Although humans and macaques were found to provoke each other, many of the human behaviors observed were repeated, indicating tourists were deliberately antagonizing macaques and waiting for a reaction (Ibid). The macaques at Mt. Emei regularly rob food and other possessions from visitors, injuries are common and 10 people even died in a period of 8 years as a result of conflict encounters (Ibid). Such observations have also been seen at macaque tourist sites in Taiwan and Gibraltar, where humans initiate contact with the monkeys far more than macaques do with humans (Ibid; Hsu et al, 2009).
Aggressive primate encounters can not only be a danger to the tourists involved, but the increasing habituation of primates and corresponding boldness can create problems for local people; monkeys that have been habituated to the presence of tourists often seek out contact with humans, and raid crops and garbage bins (Muehlenbein et al, 2010). In Gibraltar, the increase in tourist activity around the resident Barbary macaques from 1960 onwards, to around 800,000 people per year, led to a rise in illegal provisioning, and taxi drivers and tour guides encouraging closer interactions between macaques and tourists, often so tourists could get better photos (Fuentes et al, 2007). Today, people in the tourist industry have a vested interest in conserving the macaques, but many residents in Gibraltar complain that they raid bins and occasionally kitchens looking for food, and have actively called for them to be removed and for some to be culled (Ibid).
Local people often suffering as a result of conservation projects is not a new phenomenon; the development of national parks and protected areas have traditionally excluded local people from those areas, affecting their income and traditional subsistence methods, and creating negative attitudes to conservation (Hartter & Goldman, 2010). Ecotourism has aimed to rectify this, however, by bringing economic benefits to local communities.
Kibale National Park is a 79,500-hectare park in Western Uganda (Hartter, 2009) and its population of wild chimpanzees attract tourists to the area (Lepp, 2008), which is one of the most densely populated in Sub-Saharan Africa (Lepp & Holland, 2006), with 262 individuals per km2 on the west side of the park, and 335 individual per km2 on the east side (Hartter, 2009). The predominant subsistence crops in the area are bananas, maize, beans and cassava (Ibid). Authors working in the area have shown that 74% of local people have reported problems with crop raiding and wild animals killing small livestock, with red-tail and vervet monkeys the most common nuisance animal, with other species of monkey and elephants also cited as problems (Ibid). A tourism project has been developed in the small, rural village of Bigodi, which borders the park, which attracts an average of 75 tourists per month and centres on an area of swampland which had always been considered a nuisance to locals but offers visitors a perfect view of different species of monkeys and birds (Lepp, 2008). Despite the high levels of poverty in the area and the need for income, residents were initially deeply anxious of allowing tourists into their community, and considered the project a plan by westerners to steal land and resources (Ibid). Although residents’ views have since warmed to tourism, conservation of the swamp has seen wildlife increase and a corresponding increase in the levels of crop raiding (Ibid). Although tourism has been successful and provides employment for young men, farming is still the principal subsistence strategy in the village, and crop raiding therefore not only threatens people’s subsistence and economic activities, but has been noted to effect education in the village, as children are made to miss school to guard crops (Ibid).
Such findings are not isolated. More than one million people visit Costa Rica every year, and the tourism industry is heavily promoted and has an annual turnover of over $1,200 million (Koens et al, 2009). Nature tourism in the country is considered successful, but an examination of four tourist sites in Costa Rica found that, at two sites, the development of infrastructure for tourism purposes had resulted in vegetation damage, disturbance to wildlife, and had increased the risk of erosion, with a corresponding loss of biodiversity, and air pollution had increased as a result of higher numbers of vehicles entering the area (Ibid). The economic improvements tourism can bring vary depending on who owns accommodation and services used, and whether money stays in the area, but an increase in tourism was seen to bring increased education, medical care and increased levels of female empowerment (Ibid), although community organisation had diminished, alcohol and drug consumption had increased and some areas had seen in an increase in crime (Ibid).
The examples shown in this article demonstrate some of the challenges and complexities inherent in tourism involving species that are often endangered and highly intelligent, opportunistic and capable of aggression (Hadiswoyo, 2008) and live in areas of high human densities and low economic activity. They are not, however, representative of all primate ecotourism projects.
Great ape ecotourism remains challenging, and as demonstrated by Tanjung Puting and Bukit Lawang, is difficult when the subject is an ex-captive, but tourism with other great apes has had some notable successes; tourism is regarded as one of the reasons the number of mountain gorillas are increasing (Redmond, 2008), and gorilla trekking is the most popular activity for international tourists travelling to Rwanda (Spenceley et al, 2010), with 16,937 people travelling to the Virunga National Park in 2008 to see the gorillas (Ibid). The tourism industry around this park in Rwanda is estimated to be around $42.7 million, in terms of turnover for accommodation, tour operators, shopping and other excursions, and the park itself directly employs at least 180 people (Ibid). The success of gorilla tourism, in business terms, and the increasing economic viability of the mountain gorilla population have led protecting them to be considered economically important for the government and local businesses (Redmond, 2008). Such an attitude has also been seen in Tanjung Puting in Indonesia, which suffered widespread logging during the crisis that followed the resignation of General Soeharto in 1998; at its height, it is believed up to 800 ramin wood logs were being taken out of the park every day (EIA, 2003). The only part of the park that remained relatively undisturbed was the Camp Leakey study area, the principal tourist area in the park (OFI, 1999; G. Shapiro, personal communication).
The threat of disease transmission remains a concern in all areas where humans and non-human primates come in to contact; as well as habituated gorillas, chimpanzees living at the famous Gombe National Park in Tanzania have been shown to be at risk of tuberculosis from people, and have suffered in the past from polio and a respiratory disease that killed 11 chimpanzees (Wallis & Lee, 1999), and a female researcher in the Ivory Coast caught the Ebola virus from an infected chimpanzee in 1994 (Goldberg et al, 2007). While exposure at tourism sites is always a risk, it could be reduced by the enforcement of existing rules that govern primate viewing, or strengthening of those that are unsatisfactory; Homsy, 1999, recommends limiting the number of visits to gorillas, reducing the number of tourists per group, increasing the distance between humans and gorillas, enforcing rules on eating, litter and faeces disposal and stronger enforcement of rules forbidding tourists exhibiting illnesses.
Enforcing existing rules would also help mitigate aggressive encounters at sites involving monkeys. All reserves in Gibraltar that house macaques have signs stating that feeding them is illegal, punishable by a £500 fine, and warning humans of potential dangers (Fuentes et al, 2007). In Bali, while staff tentatively try and discourage contact between humans and macaques, they rarely directly intercede, unless aggression occurs (Ibid).Singapore has an education and awareness programme in areas where humans and macaques come in to contact, and sometimes enforces fines and penalties for people caught feeding them (McCarthy et al, 2009). As interactions have been shown to be more aggressive when food is involved, similar rules and enforcement should be developed at all ecotourism sites. Enforcement of rules is often difficult for park rangers, for cultural reasons (pers. obs), and could possibly lead to arguments with tourists, but strongly regulated tourist sites would likely decrease aggressive encounters and make primate viewing a much safer activity; Grossberg et al, 2003 specifically recommend education and enforcement as a way of reducing human-howler monkey conflict in Belize.
The greatest success for ecotourism projects will likely come from the involvement of local people. Increasing efforts have been made to ensure local people benefit from wildlife tourism (Aharikundira & Tweheyo, 2011), but communities adjacent to protected areas still suffer from high levels of conflict and, particularly, crop raiding (Ibid; Distefano, 2005). Bwindi National Park in Uganda has a large population of mountain gorillas and a lucrative tourism trade, but habituated gorillas regularly raid local farms (Aharikundira & Tweheyo, 2011). To mitigate this conflict, gorilla conservation organisations have organised special response units to help protect crops and limit retaliatory action, which authors show have reduced raiding and attacks on humans (Ibid). Such projects enjoy community support (Ibid). However, local people complain that park authorities are so focused on gorillas that they remain indifferent to crop damage by other animals, which is often more severe (Ibid).
As the case studies have shown, primate tourism sites can often bring development which negatively impacts on the environment, and the influx of large amounts of people can change traditional cultural and social behaviours, lead to an increase in crime, and can lead to an increase in prices that exclude local people from areas they have traditionally used (Koens et al, 2009). However, they have been shown to also bring medical facilities and increased education (Ibid) and can help the poor; revenue from tourism in Rwanda has not only helped alleviate poverty and provide employment (Spenceley et al, 2010) but has also contributed to reconciliation and peace in the country (Alluri, 2009).
An examination in to ecotourism sites worldwide by Matthews, 2002 showed that the most successful ecotourism projects were those with the most efficient management structure, that efficiency was improved by the involvement and training of local people, and that resources had to be shared equally to improve attitudes to conservation areas and reduce conflict in and between communities, and that those sites struggling with community support were those lacking community development projects, had inefficient management and where resources were denied to local people and revenue was often taken out of the area. This research is corroborated by evidence from the macaque tourist sites in Bali and Gibraltar; in Bali, despite aggressive encounters and instances of crop raiding, local people remain tolerant of the macaques and supportive of the ecotourism project, largely because the majority of tourism revenue remains in the village and is distributed by the village council for infrastructure and cultural projects, while in Gibraltar, a richer and more developed area, the government receives all entrance fees and revenue from the tourist sites, and local support has wavered (Fuentes et al, 2007).
On paper, ecotourism can appear relatively simple. In reality, it is a difficult process that in many cases struggles to combine habitat and wildlife conservation with the reasonable expectations and needs of the local people who depend on that habitat, and often come in to conflict with its wildlife. Only by including local people in the conception and management of ecotourism projects and making sure revenue is distributed equally can such projects be successful, and only by eco-tourists strictly adhering to the rules and regulations of tourism sites can such sites fully safeguard animals from diseases, abnormal behavioural changes and heightened levels of aggression.
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