Trick-or-Treat, what's left for orangutans to eat?

With Halloween and the holiday season swiftly approaching, please consider being responsible and informed consumers when buying candy for trick-or-treaters or as gifts for friends and family. Palm oil is often an ingredient in sweets, however palm oil plantations have grave impacts on the environment. These plantations are prevalent in Southeast Asia, and palm oil trees (Elaeis guineensis) are replacing and causing the deforestation of tropical rainforests in this region. These trees may look pretty and seem “natural,” but they pose a significant threat to biodiversity. An increase in palm oil demand and the plantations’ rapid expansions are not only plaguing Southeast Asia, but tropical forests globally (for a more extensive review of the effects of palm oil on global tropical biodiversity see; Fitzherbert et al., 2008).

Figure 1 from Fitzherbert et al., 2008 states, “Global distribution of oil palm and potential conflicts with biodiversity: (a) areas of highest terrestrial vertebrate endemism (ecoregions with 25 or more endemics are shown); (b) global distribution of oil palm cultivation (harvested area as percentage of country area); (c) agriculturally suitable areas for oil palm (with and without forest); and (d) oil palm-harvested area in Southeast Asia. In (b) and (d), Brazil, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand are subdivided by province, but other countries are not. Data are for 2006, except for the Philippines and Thailand, where 2004 data are the most recent available.”

In Sumatra and Borneo, orangutan species suffer greatly due to deforestation. Sumatra is home to Pongo abelii, commonly referred to as the Sumatran orangutan, and Borneo is home to Bornean orangutan (Pongo pygmaeus), both of which are critically endangered on the IUCN Red List. The major cause for Pongo species decline is habitat modification. Habitat modification, specifically habitat loss, is mainly attributed to logging, urbanization, agriculture and building roads. A recent surge of palm oil plantations rising throughout Sumatra and Borneo has resulted in orangutans being left with little to no natural habitat. What habitat that does remain is often severely fragmented, making it difficult for this large primate to subsist, mate and travel between these isolated pockets of rainforests (Cowlishaw, G., & Dunbar, R. I., 2000). Orangutans may also be caught in fires that are used for clearing land to develop palm oil plantation.

Orangutan social structure, social organization, and mating strategies make it difficult for these dwindling populations to repopulate. Orangutans are mainly solitary, foraging on a mostly frugivorous diet throughout relatively large range (Kappeler, P. M., & van Schaik, C. P., 2002). In general, a dominant or flanged male will have an extensive range with multiple females (with smaller ranges) within his range that he mates. However, there are alternative mating strategies (Utami et al., 2002). They also have long life histories and the longest interbirth interval of great apes, so they are slow to reproduce. Females have their first infant at approximately 15 years old and have about eight years between births, that’s a lot of maternal care! Since reproduction is such a time-consuming process, habitat loss and illegal hunting pose a major threat to their population’s ability to rejuvenate. Unfortunately, a lot of infants and juveniles are left orphaned as a result of hunting and/or are traded on the black market as pets as well.

Palm oil is one of the most globally demanded resources and is prevalent in many household products. With heightened demand, the threat to orangutan habitats increases. Nantha and Tisdell (2009) examined the economic factors and conservation efforts of Bornean orangutans. Sadly, they determined that two main economic factors are thwarting conservation efforts. First, the “opportunity cost” for conserving orangutans is high compared to the value of palm oil. To simply put it, orangutans require large home ranges, but that land can be used to produce a lot of palm oil instead. Second, the “public-good value” of orangutans is low, meaning conservation of these species and their habitats does not yield any value for the public in these nations. To counteract these economic factors, Nantha and Tisdell (2009) suggest ways to reduce the opportunity costs and increase the public-good value of orangutans and their habitats. One option that may prove successful in reducing deforestation is payment for reduced carbon emissions. Studies suggests that this strategy may be particularly beneficial in the remaining carbon-rich forests and orangutans preferred lowland habitats in Sumatra (Garveau et al., 2009).

Ultimately, it’s crucial that the high demand for products that contain palm oil diminishes so deforestation decreases. This factor, along with increased conservation efforts can help protect the biodiversity hotspots of Southeast Asia and hopefully give orangutans and their tropical neighbors a fighting chance. Therefore, I urge you to consider buying candy and other household products that are palm oil free or from companies that guarantee sustainable palm oil production!

You can start by buying candy without palm oil! here

And you can learn more about sustainable palm oil from Roundtable Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) here for more food items to consume and avoid, and here for more details on RSPO. Some more details can be found at the Palm Oil Awareness Initiative here.

Deforestation in Borneo


Cowlishaw, G., & Dunbar, R. I. (2000). Primate conservation biology. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Fitzherbert, E. B., Struebig, M. J., Morel, A., Danielsen, F., Brühl, C. A., Donald, P. F., & Phalan, B. (2008). How will oil palm expansion affect biodiversity?. Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 23(10), 538-545.

Gaveau, D. L., Wich, S., Epting, J., Juhn, D., Kanninen, M., & Leader-Williams, N. (2009). The future of forests and orangutans (Pongo abelii) in Sumatra: predicting impacts of oil palm plantations, road construction, and mechanisms for reducing carbon emissions from deforestation. Environmental Research Letters, 4(3), 034013.

Kappeler, P. M., & van Schaik, C. P. (2002). Evolution of primate social systems. International Journal of Primatology, 23(4), 707-740.

Nantha, H. S., & Tisdell, C. (2009). The orangutan–oil palm conflict: economic constraints and opportunities for conservation. Biodiversity and Conservation, 18(2), 487-502.

Utami, S. S., Goossens, B., Bruford, M. W., de Ruiter, J. R., & van Hooff, J. A. (2002). Male bimaturism and reproductive success in Sumatran orang-utans. Behavioral Ecology, 13(5), 643-652.

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