There has been widespread coverage in European media of a new “academic paper” by a German student that contains hyperbolic descriptions of the decline of orang-utan populations in Borneo. Media reports and NGOs have linked the research to oil palm cultivation and the use of palm oil in Western countries.
The timing of the report is deeply suspect. Palm oil producers have aggressively pushed back against Europe’s discriminatory attempt to ban palm biofuels. Producer countries have also mounted a robust defense of national certifications schemes in the face of efforts by the European Commission to establish a regulatory regime that would advance additional trade discrimination measures.
As a result, Europe’s policymakers are on the defensive, and have begun to realise failed trade deals and possible retaliations for their exports to the region are a real possibility. In fact, Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom will be addressing this new reality when she is in Singapore this week for talks with her ASEAN counterparts.
So it is little surprising this report with alarming headlines and little substance has been released – supported most likely by domestic European oilseed competitors – as it attempts to advance a false and misleading narrative about the impending extinction of the Borneo orang-utan to help support the bans on Palm Oil. We’ve come to expect nothing less from our opponents in Europe and the environmental minions who do their bidding.
Considering the millions that have been spent researching, studying and protecting the orang-utan, a reality fact-check is in order.
Myth. The population decline is due to palm oil.
Fact. The report says that conversion of forests to plantations – for pulp and paper, farming and palm oil – plays a very minor role in the decline of orang-utan populations. The report actually states that hunting is the leading and major driver of orang-utan population loss. The palm oil connection has been pushed by groups such as Greenpeace, who want to effectively ban palm oil use in Western countries.
Myth. All orang-utan populations are under threat.
Fact. The research stated that in states such as Sabah, a number of the populations are stable, with other research suggesting that some populations are potentially increasing. This includes conservation areas and populations that are supported by palm oil companies. This points to the fact that better conservation management is actually working when appropriate resources are allocated to it.
Sabah, for example, has more than doubled its protected forest areas since 1999, from 839,385 ha to 1,906,896 ha. This has increased the area of orangutan’s protected habitats by 75%; it should be noted that according to the study, the estimated orangutan deaths in Sabah were relatively small. The researchers failed to note the policy measures undertaken by Sabah.
Myth. 150,000 orang-utans were lost in the past 16 years.
Fact. It is widely acknowledged that orangutan population estimates are not reliable and all population estimates are precisely that: estimates. The exception to this, according to the IUCN, is the state of Sabah, where comprehensive aerial surveys were completed. In other words, for an accurate ‘loss’ number to be determined, the original population has to be clearly understood. It needs to be recognised that the Voigt study is what is known as a study of metapopulations, i.e. an aggregation of data and factors contributing to population increases or declines, which are then modelled. There were no field counts or aerial surveys undertaken. Is this accurate? It is an approximation, not a census, and it needs to be understood as such.
The Sabah Wildlife Department has also pointed out that the study treats the distribution of nests and populations as homogenous, i.e. they are distributed evenly. This is simply not the case, and it severely distorts the study findings.
Myth: 6,100 orangutans were killed in Sabah.
Fact. Sabah arguably has the strongest research and conservation programs for orangutans. It has worked with other research institutions and NGOs. The Sabah Wildlife Department (SWD) has refuted the study and its findings. It has also noted that it was not consulted at all for the study. They reasonably ask the question: why not?
One point that SWD makes is there is great variation in nest numbers across the same area, depending on logging activity. SWD researchers noted that population numbers nearly doubled between 2007 and 2008 in a survey area; the reason for this variation was the end of logging activity. This variable needs to be considered when assessing populations; it appears not to have been taken into account by the researchers.
Myth. Banning palm oil or using certified oil will ‘solve’ this problem.
Fact. As both The Oil Palm and many researchers have pointed out over the past few years, the leading cause of orang-utan deaths across Borneo is poaching for bushmeat. As unpalatable as this may be for Western consumers, this is a simple fact. The use of palm oil that is RSPO certified or used in Western products will make little difference to orang-utan poaching rates, though it will give some palm oil companies an incentive to contribute resources to conservation programs – as noted by Voigt. The small impact is underlined by the fact that Western countries consume a small percentage of global palm oil, and these markets are the only ones where a debate about certification or banning is taking place. What will solve this problem is a serious examination of why local populations in Borneo – particularly Kalimantan – undertake poaching in the first place.
Myth. Borneo’s forests are about to disappear, taking orangutans with them.
Fact. Over the past 20 years, conservation advocates have made a series of extreme claims about rainforests in Borneo. In 2001, it was claimed all lowland forests in Borneo would disappear by 2010. Another claim was made in 2007 that the same forests would be gone by 2018. Clearly neither have happened. Any projections around orang-utan population based on total forest area need to be taken with a grain of salt.