Orang utan lovers cry foul

Muguntan Vanar, Malaysia Star


KOTA KINABALU: Orang utan conservationists are upset with World Growth, a US non-governmental organisation, for “dismissing” the threat posed to the ape population by oil palm plantations.

“Genetic studies in Sabah show that the orang utan population has declined by 50 to 90% over the past few decades,” said Sabah-based wildlife biologist Dr Marc Ancrenaz.

“This severe decline is due to several causes such as hunting and pet trade, but the foremost reason is forest loss when the forest is cut down and converted for agriculture,” said Dr Ancrenaz, who heads the French non-governmental organisation, Hutan, which works with Sabah Wildlife Department for orang utan conservation.

The World Growth website contained a report titled Collateral Damage: How the Bogus Campaign Against Palm Oil Harms the Poor, which outlined several claims about oil palm plantations which the NGO described as misleading.

Dr Ancrenaz said there was no doubt that forest conversions created losses to the biodiversity and there was a need for all parties – the pro-conservationists and anti-conservationists – to work together.

The orang utan group and the palm oil group, he said, were both so “passionate” that it made it difficult to have an impartial view of the actual situation on the ground.

“We all need to work together to identify solutions,” he added.

Dr Ancrenaz said oil palm plantations covered 14,000sq km of Sabah (about 20 times the size of Singapore) and the oil palm needed to be planted in lowland below 500m.

These lowland forests, he said, used to be inhabited by orang utan and other wildlife.

“We found about 1,000 orang utans in lower Kinabatangan sanctuary but this habitat is highly ‘broken up’ in isolated patches of forests that are surrounded by plantations,” he said.

Dr Ancrenaz added that they found a surprising high number of orang utan nests within extremely isolated and degraded tree patches located within oil palm plantations and in mangrove forests that had been cut off from mainland forests by the development of oil palm plantations.

However, he said the discovery of the orang utan within oil palm plantations was not a sign that they had adapted to the new landscape.

“The orang utan have not adapted to this landscape. They cannot survive in the present conditions. It is equivalent to asking a human being to survive on eating potatoes,” he added.

Dr Ancrenaz said the solution was to create a “corridor of life” for the orang utan to move from one area to another.

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