As a science-based organisation with decades of experience in orangutan conservation work, WWF-Malaysia believes that it is our duty to provide accurate and factual information about these primates as part of our ongoing educational efforts. Orangutans are not hunters and do not have a ‘predatory’ attack mode. As such, it is very unlikely for a wild orangutan to want to climb down from a tree, just to get close to human beings and attack them.
The Bornean orangutan has been listed as critically endangered in the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) status since 2016, which means the species is facing a very high risk of extinction in the wild if population decline continues. The Bornean orangutan is the largest tree-dwelling mammal in the world. Known as one of the three species of orangutans, they belong to the only genus of great apes native to Asia.
Wild orangutans spend 90% of their time on treetops, occasionally descending to the ground, oftentimes in a situation where there is a lack of trees. Like any animal, orangutans will try to defend themselves whenever they feel threatened or in peril, for example when protecting their territory, food source, and their young. They usually display distress signs by making kiss-squeak sounds, throwing sticks or expelling bodily waste when they feel threatened.
The Bornean orangutans have faced its fair share of threats, causing its population to dwindle over the last few decades. In 1973, Borneo was home to an estimated 288,500 orangutans. By 2016, their numbers had dropped by almost two-thirds, to 104,700. The orangutan face threats in the form of conversion of forests for agriculture, mining and settlement, fragmentation, and are vulnerable to threats of forest fires.
Population surveys over the last two decades have shown that orangutan numbers have stabilised. This is done through multi stakeholder collaborations between WWF-Malaysia, the Sabah Forestry Department, the Sabah Wildlife Department and the Forest Department Sarawak. To date, there is an estimated number of 13,000 orangutans in the wild in Sabah and Sarawak, collectively. These numbers are considered stable and are believed to remain so, provided good forest and conservation management practices continue to be put in place. This is in line with the government’s policy of maintaining 50% forest cover that provides the habitat for orangutan conservation.
In Sabah, for example, the Bukit Piton forest restoration programme, which was started in 2007, is proof that conservation management works. The Bukit Piton Forest Reserve was a prime example of a severely degraded forest, and now, through a decade of restoration work, orangutans are often seen utilising the replanted trees for food and shelter and the presence of baby orangutans have been recorded – a sign that the restoration efforts worked and that the habitat is improving. Whereas in Sarawak, WWF-Malaysia is working to conserve orangutan habitats in Ulu Sungai Menyang, Batang Ai, by providing livelihood for the communities. This, in turn, removes pressures from communities to open up orangutan habitats and forests for large scale agriculture activities. The project started in 2016, and is currently ongoing.
For palm oil, the huge demand for its products and massive expansion in the tropics make it a major driver of deforestation and a huge threat to wildlife, such as orangutans, elephants and tigers. Palm oil cultivation and production, if done in an unsustainable manner, threaten the natural habitat of wildlife, and pose risks to fragile environments and biodiversity. However, WWF-Malaysia believes that the palm oil industry can develop sustainably without further damaging rainforests, harming communities, and endangering wildlife.
When cultivated properly and planted in the right places, the production of palm oil would not negatively impact the environment. This is why sustainable palm oil is important. To this end, WWF is working with various stakeholders and government agencies to develop standards and planting procedures that ensure sustainability of palm oil production. We advocate for oil palm plantation companies to embrace the three pillars of Living Landscape Approach, which are Protect, Produce and Restore. This Living Landscape approach has attracted responsible companies to participate by way of financing and setting land aside as wildlife corridors.
Today, sustainable palm oil is a global movement and has been a major driver of sustainability that has grown steadily over the years, adjusting to needs and requirements of the time. Bigger multinational companies have embraced the NDPE Policy based on “No Deforestation, No Peat and No Exploitation” along their supply chain. They have also established funding programmes to support conservation work throughout the world. This unity shown by the palm oil movement will enable governments and companies outside this movement to embrace sustainable palm oil production.
Therefore, WWF-Malaysia would like to reiterate the efforts that have been put in by multiple parties to conserve the orangutans, and the steps taken to ensure the sustainable production of palm oil. We would like to state that it is not a human versus primate issue, where the ultimatum is to kill or be killed. Rather, it is about tolerance, acceptance and co-existence. The now stable orangutan numbers show that both humans and wildlife can live in harmony with nature.