Tourism vs Palm Oil in Borneo

In February we attended a family wedding on mainland Malaysia and took the opportunity to visit Borneo to see orangutans.

We travelled to Sandakan in the Malaysian state of Sabah to visit the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre.  In the reserve we saw the feeding of baby orangutans in the orphanage.  Here, the orangutan handlers constantly patrolled to encourage the babies upwards onto feeding platforms, climbing frames and ropes rather becoming habituated to running around on the ground.  In their natural environment their mothers would be keeping them high in the canopy.

Next door to the orangutan reserve is the Sun Bear Conservation Centre.  Here we watched two sun bears team up to chew through a dead tree until the trunk fell with a crash.  They did this to more easily feed on the termites in the rotting wood.  Whilst we were standing on the high boardwalk, a mother orangutan with tiny baby clinging to her stomach travelled along the canopy metres away at eye level, stretching carefully from branch to branch.

Our guide, Jumaidi, told us that orangutan mothers take their young for an introductory circuit of their territory.  The baby stared long and hard at these strange human and sun bear creatures.  The sun bear reserve is contiguous to the orangutan reserve which currently hosts 90 orangutans (30 of them babies in the nursery) in the 43 sq km of protected forest.  The aim of the local sanctuaries is, where possible, to release sun bears and orangutans into the wild.

From Sandakan, we travelled by boat up the Kinabatangan river to a riverside lodge in Sukau village.  Here we took river cruises to watch the wildlife on the banks.  We saw proboscis monkeys (rarer than orangutans), silver and grey langurs, long-tailed macaques, squirrels, tortoises, monitor lizards and crocodiles and a huge variety of birds, such as the national bird of Malaysia, the rhinoceros hornbill.

Orangutans appeared everywhere.  In the small area of forest behind the lodge we saw an orangutan mother with a large baby and on the Kinabatangan river we saw a sizeable flanged male.  There were other solitary orangutans on the river bank, and a family group in the primary rainforest around the Gomantong bat caves. 

Jumaidi explained to us that the tree cover in the area was almost entirely secondary forest, other than primary forest on inaccessible limestone cliffs.  The area had been logged some decades ago, but the forest has regenerated to provide the tall trees and mixed understorey needed for good wildlife habitat.   Orangutans typically feed on more than 300 plant species.

In recent years, forest clearance is carried out for palm oil plantation.  Palm trees grow to the height of 15-20m producing palm fruit after 6-10 years. Palm oil trees decline in productivity after 30 years of age, requiring replacement. Mono-crop, mono-height plantations do not offer the variable canopy needed for wildlife.  Orangutans and monkeys do forage on oil palm shoots and fruit at the boundary between plantation and forest but this causes tension with land owners.

The Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary covers the area immediately alongside the river - a ‘protected corridor’.  Rope bridges allow apes and monkeys to cross the river and tributaries.  Palm oil plantations along the Kinabatangan are required to leave this forest margin along the river bank to allow free passage of wildlife.  However, from our boat we could see sections where palm oil plantations reached right to the river bank - the corridor does not be appear to be universally respected.

So our impression of plentiful wildlife was naïve.  All these species are being driven to the river bank as other habitat is destroyed.

Jumaidi explained that local landowners have recently been making decisions on how to develop nearby land.  They had decided to opt for a “rainforest backpackers lodge” rather turn to plantation. Tourist development at least retains viable habitat as lodges and cabins are constructed amongst the trees. 

These development decisions are based upon financial considerations.  Tourist numbers are increasing - sustainable, ethical tourism can play a key role.  It is a crucial time for conservation in this area of Borneo:  orangutan numbers are down to 11,000 in the state of Sabah, 1,000 of those in Kinabatangan.

A major new road bridge across the Kinabatangan river at Sukau was halted last year (2017) after protests from conservationists.  David Attenborough was drawn into the debate commenting that “I am immensely pleased to hear that plans to build a bridge over the Kinabatangan River at Sukau have been cancelled. This region is recognized worldwide as being a vital enclave for threatened wildlife and it is indeed good news that the safe passage of orangutans, pygmy elephants and other endangered wildlife will not be threatened by the bridge and all that would have come with it.”

On our way back to Sandakan, we saw a palm oil container ship moored in the harbour – a reminder of the threat to the wonderful flora and fauna we had seen.

Whilst we were away, orangutans reached the front page of the BBC website with the headline “More than 100,000 orangutans killed in Borneo since 1999”.  The headline refers to orangutan numbers in wider Borneo including Malaysia (Sarawak and Sabah) and Indonesia.  Orangutan numbers are now estimated to be somewhere around 100,000, with the risk of a further crash.

The chief culprit, palm oil, is the cheapest vegetable oil to produce; it is used in food, toiletries and as a “biofuel”.  Palm oil is in 50% of packaged products in supermarkets; it is hard to avoid.  The situation may be changing; in April 2018, the supermarket Iceland announced that it is re-formulating its own-label range to be palm oil free by the end of 2018. 

Greenpeace, which has campaigned against palm oil for over a decade, hopes that the Iceland “media storm” will influence other consumer goods manufacturers and retailers to explore palm oil free alternatives.