There are three species of orangutan: Bornean, Sumatran and Tapanuli. Orangutans are found in the rainforests of Borneo and Sumatra and, with over 500 different plants found in their diet, they play a critical role in their tropical forest ecosystems.
Due to habitat loss from deforestation and unsustainable palm oil farming, orangutan populations are declining.
Utah’s Hogle Zoo is a proud supporter of HUTAN Kinabatangan Orangutan Conservation Program, a French non-profit organization that is working to conserve Bornean orangutans in the Sabah region of Malaysia. Sabah is one of the only regions in the world where we have a good estimate of orangutan numbers in the wild. This is due to a series of comprehensive aerial surveys that were conducted in the early 2000s. These surveys concluded that there were 11,000 orangutans in the state—approximately 1/5 of the global population.
Through our close partnership with HUTAN, Utah’s Hogle Zoo has been working to help the Bornean orangutan thrive in its divided and ever-changing habitat. We have constructed bridges over rivers to mitigate deforestation, researched how orangutans adapt to large palm oil plantations, and invested in community education.
One of HUTANs first projects was the Orangutan Conservation Project, a grass-roots effort focused on research. The object of the project was to study the extent to which orangutans could survive in degraded forests. A team of villagers was recruited to follow wild orangutans and record how they were adapting to and surviving in their increasingly fragmented habitats. The Orangutan Conservation Project is now one of the longest uninterrupted orangutan studies in Borneo, accruing a total of more than 25,000 hours of direct observation. Study results have shown that orangutans can survive and even thrive in forests that have been exploited for timber if sustainable practices are followed. This is an incredibly important finding when you consider that most orangutans exist outside of protected wilderness areas.
In their natural habitat, it is often necessary for Bornean orangutans to cross rivers and other waterways in search of food. In the past, old growth trees with branches and vines spanned these rivers, facilitating orangutan crossings. However, due to an increase in logging, many of these natural “bridges” have been lost.
To address this issue, Utah’s Hogle Zoo partnered with HUTAN in 2003 to install the first man-made orangutan bridge over the Resang River. Since then, multiple bridge designs have been tested (using materials that range from old fire hoses to climbing webbing). These bridges are not just helping orangutans to thrive, but are also benefiting proboscis monkeys, squirrels, and other climbing animals.
An essential part of effective conservation efforts is species population monitoring. Orangutans are famously elusive and are only found at low densities throughout their range, which makes it particularly difficult and time-consuming to track species numbers. Starting in the early 2000s, HUTAN developed a new method to survey orangutans using helicopters. This has become a common practice in orangutan monitoring. HUTAN is currently working to combine data gathered from these surveys with the data from nest surveys, interview surveys, and camera-trap surveys to gain insight into orangutan population size and trends.
Based on the surveys done by HUTAN and the Sabah Wildlife Department, the local government decided to increase the protected wilderness areas in the state from 12% to 26%. Our goal is to fully protect 30% of the Sabah landmass.
In 2017, Utah’s Hogle Zoo purchased a monitoring vehicle for HUTAN and contributed necessary field gear for their rangers. We also funded the planting of over 16,000 seedling trees along degraded habitat that will be used by orangutans as ecological corridors.
We look forward to continuing our partnership with HUTAN through the long-term study of orangutans on the Kinabatangan flood plain. We hope to aid in making informed decisions regarding sustainable palm oil plantation practices and the ongoing reforestation to secure orangutan habitat.
At Utah’s Hogle Zoo, we support the conservation of orangutans through the intentional purchase of products that are made with sustainable palm oil.
Why not just boycott palm oil altogether? Well, there are a number of reasons. Palm oil accounts for 11% of Indonesia’s export earnings, with 1/3 of production attributed to smallholder farms. It is a wickedly efficient crop and can be harvested year-round, yielding up to 10 tons of fruit per hectare. Interestingly enough, oil palm requires ten times less land than the other three major oil-producing crops (soy, rapeseed, and sunflower). Should palm oil be boycotted in the West, palm oil farmers would simply switch their crops to less efficient oil crops—crops that require more land to yield the same return. This would only increase the rate of deforestation in Borneo.
So, instead of boycotting palm oil, it’s important to shop for products that source palm oil sustainably. In 2004, the Roundtable of Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was founded to develop sustainable standards that palm oil growers and manufacturers could adhere to. Guidelines set by the RSPO include: no clearance of virgin rainforest from 2005 onwards, impact assessments on new infrastructure, and bans on the use of fire for land preparation or pest control.
Palm oil is incredibly versatile and is found in everything from food to beauty products. By purchasing sustainable products, you help to protect orangutans around the world. To purchase products that are made with sustainable palm oil, download the Sustainable Palm Oil Shopping Guide app from Cheyenne Mountain Zoo.