Palm Oil and the Plight of the Orangutan: visiting the orangutan sanctuaries of Sumatra and Borneo

An orangutan in Gunung Leuser park, near Bukit Lawang

Orangutan means ‘man of the forest’ in the Malay and Indonesian languages. But where does the man of the forest go when the forest is gone? There are a number of places in Southeast Asia where you can see both the answer to this question and the reason it must be asked in the first place, while coming face to face with these magnificent creatures. Two of the easiest to visit are Bukit Lawang (in Gunung Leuser National Park, Sumatra, Indonesia) and Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre (Sabah (Borneo), Malaysia).

Palm oil and the orangutan

Orangutans are found on these two different islands (in two different countries), but face the same problems in both; their natural rainforest habitat is being destroyed to produce palm oil and by illegal logging. In their natural states, the islands of Sumatra and Borneo were covered in dense jungle, the world’s greatest deposits of rainforest after the Amazon and Congo basins, with the accompanying wealth of flora and fauna that includes (but is far from limited to) the orangutan. These days, however, most of it is gone, surviving mainly in the protected pockets of national parks like Gunung Leuser, or in the deepest depths of the islands’ mountainous interiors where logging roads have not yet reached. The rest was felled, the timber sold off, the forest cleared to make space for the oil palm plantations.

An orangutan in Gunung Leuser park, near Bukit Lawang

Travelling along the highways, it’s actually quite awe-inspiring (and not in a good way) to see the miles upon miles upon miles of oil palms standing in their neat and anything-but-natural lines; the scale of the endeavour is immense, all those thousands of square miles of mighty rainforest transformed into straight rows of evenly spaced palm trees. Perhaps it might seem that oil palms are at least a better replacement for rainforest than cattle farms or city blocks would be; they are trees, after all. However, it’s estimated that only ten to fifteen percent of rainforest wildlife successfully adapts and survives the transition from rainforest to palm plantation. Furthermore, for the wider issue of climate change, oil palm plantations can’t remotely fill the role of the rainforest as a carbon sink, and nor can secondary growth forest; once virgin rainforest is gone, it’s gone. And for the larger fauna like the Sumatran tiger, Sumatran rhinoceros, and the orangutan, the loss of the forest is nothing short of disaster on an existential scale.

Sadly, for the Sumatran tiger & rhinoceros it is probably already too late; the orangutan clings on (the Bornean orangutan is listed as endangered, the Sumatran orangutan as critically endangered), and might very well even be able to adapt successfully to life among the palms were it not for the farmers’ guns. But to the oil palm companies, these great apes are little more than great pests, beasts which eat their product and reduce their yield; the simplest solution? Shoot them.

Cutting down on palm oil

So what is palm oil and why do we need it? Well, simply put we don’t need it; but it is a most useful and flexible product – palm oil is found in the majority of cosmetics and confectionary produced the world over, and is present in around half of all items on the supermarket shelf. A Mars a day may help you work, rest, and play (or more likely develop type II diabetes), but prior to 2014 it also killed the rainforest and pushed the orangutan closer to the brink. Somewhat encouragingly, in response to public concern and consumer pressure, Mars introduced a palm oil policy in 2014 with the stated aim of using sustainable palm oil in all its products. Palmolive shampoo? Honestly, fuck that shit. Is your silky hair more important than the survival of the orangutan? Maybe you do think it is, and if so I’m unlikely to change that; but the majority of people, if really forced to choose, I’m confident would not wish to wipe out these creatures for the sake of cheap beauty products and chocolate bars. Palmolive have been slower to respond than Mars, but have at least made a commitment to switch to sustainable palm oil by 2020. And this is the thing really – alternative ingredients can be used, but the alternatives are more expensive; sustainable palm oil can be used, but that is more expensive to produce and NGOs question whether even the so-called sustainable palm oil is genuinely sustainable – certified sustainable palm oil is hopefully better than uncertified palm oil, but it’s surely still better to find a product which is palm oil free, full stop (if you can). So what it all really boils down to is the profit margins of multinational corporations, and our wallets as consumers. To cut palm oil deforestation, either we have to pay more, or the companies have to make less.

An orangutan mother & infant in Gunung Leuser park, near Bukit Lawang

Since visiting Sepilok in 2004 (and then Bukit Lawang in 2008), I’ve been making a conscious effort to reduce the amount of palm oil I purchase. And you know what, it’s bloody difficult; the damn stuff is everywhere. Here’s a WWF list of products that contain it, and I’d be willing to bet good money that every single one of you reading this has used or eaten something on that list in the last couple of days.

So how do you avoid it if it’s in everything? Well, here’s another list, this one of palm oil free and sustainable palm oil products. They do tend to be more expensive; but if you give a shit, that’s the choice you have to make and it’s the main tool you have available to try to influence the big companies – the Mars policy linked to above shows that they do hear this. Vote with your wallet. Of course, you can go further and try to pressure them through emails and letters, and I would strongly encourage you to do so – see here for more on that.

Spending a significant amount of time overseas as I do though, there’s also the matter of being able to even read the labels, and in fact whether the labels even fully list the itemised ingredients in the first place. But after visiting Sepilok and learning about all this, I knew I had to try from that time on to help the orangutan in any way I could; hence I haven’t eaten one single Mars bar since 2004 (though have started eating the odd Snickers again since 2014), and hence this blog post. If I can persuade even one person who reads this to make an effort to seek out palm oil free products, or at least products using sustainable palm oil, the time writing it was time well spent.

Visiting the Sepilok Orangutan Sanctuary

The Sepilok Orangutan Sanctuary and the Gunung Leuser park offer areas of protected virgin rainforest where orangutans can safely live without crossing paths with the palm oil companies; they ask the companies not to shoot any orangutans straying onto their property, but to instead call the park staff who then go and sedate the orangutan and move it to the park. In Sepilok’s case, it’s actually a rehabilitation centre for orphaned orangutans that you visit; a gradual process is required to get them healthy and back out to the forest, reducing their dependence on humans and encouraging them to return to natural behaviour as far as is possible. During the rehabilitation process they do become used to humans and come to rely on them for food, especially those who are very young when they arrive; so it’s far from an ideal solution, and Sepilok readily acknowledges this fact. But it’s still a better solution than the farmers’ guns.

The sanctuary has a feeding platform in the forest, to which the orangutans can come back for meals after their release from the rehab centre; though they initially do rely on this, the idea is that they will gradually move further and further into the forest reserve, and come back less and less for meal times at the centre. Apparently this usually works quite well, though certain individuals never manage to break their reliance on the centre – again, it’s usually those who are very young when they first arrive.

For visitors to Sepilok, it’s these feeding times that enable you to see the orangutans (there are around 80 orangutans living in the sanctuary, with around half a dozen coming to the feeding platform at the time of our visit); and just as there is a feeding platform where the staff lay out the food for the orangutans to dine, there is a neighbouring viewing platform for us homo sapiens to jostle for the best spots to snap the best photos. And to be honest, it is a bit of a zoo, but one where we are the exhibit – you do wonder what the orangutans make of us all. I got fed up with all the elbows after a while and went to chill out at the back of the platform, when this little one suddenly dropped out of the tree right next to me:

Orangutan at Sepilok sanctuary, Borneo

I had a good 30 seconds to quietly marvel before everyone else cottoned on and rushed over to get a close-up, at which point she scratched her arse and climbed off into the trees again. Seeing the orangutans this way may not seem like an ‘authentic’ experience, but then the whole thing is by its very nature unnatural; orangutans don’t normally live in such dense populations, and it’s much better for them to fear humans than to see them as a food source, but the orangutans are here because they’ve lost most of their natural habitat, and this place is helping them as best it can. It is a complete tourist gong show on that viewing platform, but by going and taking part in it you’re helping the sanctuary to continue to exist and to continue the good work they do to save these animals. The sanctuary also does a great job with educational materials and presentations, offers guided walks along the forest trails, and if you’re visiting Malaysian Borneo you can easily include it along with an ascent of Mt Kinabalu (the day we descended from the summit we were able to jump on a bus to Sepilok from the Kinabalu park gate and visited the orangutan sanctuary the following day). If you also plan to go scuba diving at Sipadan, then Sepilok is a natural place to stop between Kinabalu and Semporna (the town for Sipadan).

Gunung Leuser national park, Sumatra

Gunung Leuser National Park

Jungle hiking in Bukit Lawang

The setup at Bukit Lawang in Sumatra is a little different; Gunung Leuser National Park covers a much larger area than the Sepilok reserve, some 8,000 square kilometres (it’s one of the largest tracts of surviving virgin rainforest in Southeast Asia today, though still just a tiny portion of what it once was part of), and the rehabilitation centre isn’t open to visitors. Instead, you can arrange guided jungle hikes into the park where you can hopefully encounter some orangutans – these are semi-wild animals which have been released from the rehabilitation centre but continue to live in the forest close by. There are around 5,000 orangutans living in the park, from a total estimated population of just 14,000 Sumatran orangutans in the wild.

For tourists, the towns of Bukit Lawang and Tangkahan are by far the most accessible parts of the park (and pretty much the only accessible parts if you’re not going full Indiana Jones and mounting an expedition); Tangkahan is also famous for jungle hiking, but if you want to see orangutans your odds are better in Bukit Lawang.

Bukit Lawang, Sumatra

Bukit Lawang

Unlike at Sepilok, the apes aren’t coming to you; you’re going to them, and it’s up to your guide to figure out where they are and help you to find them (and there’s no surefire guarantee that you will do so). This, combined with the fact you’re only in a crowd of however many are in your hiking group, and also the effort you put in to hiking and sweating through the jungle, makes it a more rewarding way to actually see and encounter orangutans. We spotted four altogether (two solo apes, plus a mother & child), and two of them actually came down from the trees to greet us; and, sadly, to beg for food. That’s the downside to the less organised nature of these encounters compared to Sepilok; there are regulations on not feeding the orangutans in Bukit Lawang, as the idea is for them to find their own food and get back to as natural a lifestyle as circumstances allow, but apparently many guides break these feeding regulations in order to help guarantee sightings, thus damaging the good work being done by the centre. Our guide was actually a bit of a creep, in that he was was constantly trying to use rubbish pickup lines on the single girl in our group, but he did have excellent forest knowledge and a very principled approach to the orangutans – he wouldn’t feed them, expressed anger and frustration with those guides and tourists who do, and made very clear to us that we were not to offer them any food either. He was also adept at pointing out all the other wildlife around us, especially tropical birds (he could mimic many of their calls) and two species of monkeys (one inquisitive and running all around us, the other shy and easy to miss).

Bukit Lawang was almost entirely destroyed in 2003 by a flash flood (itself the result of illegal logging), but has since rebuilt itself as an attractive riverside town. You can also do river tubing, though it’s a harmless bit of fun rather than the notorious tubing of Vang Vieng infamy.

Access to Bukit Lawang is by road from Medan. In my experience, this can be a rather interesting journey! (The road is apparently being repaired now (2017), so hopefully will be a smoother drive in the near future)

As an overall travel experience, I’d say a jungle hike in Bukit Lawang is better than a visit to Sepilok, and any orangutan encounters there are more likely to be up close and personal; but as an educational experience and a chance to directly contribute to a worthy cause, Sepilok is excellent. I would certainly recommend including Sepilok as part of any Borneo trip or Bukit Lawang as part of any Sumatra itinerary, and visiting both of them if you are visiting both Sumatra and Borneo. And more than anything, I want to leave you with these three (four) words: fuck (unsustainable) palm oil. You don’t need palm oil more than the orangutan needs the forest. Look at this company scorecard and this product list (for the UK) for the best product choices, failing that look out for products with RSPO certification (not a clear-cut sign of sustainability, but surely better than nothing), and make your purchasing decisions accordingly.

Other orangutan sanctuaries

In addition to Sepilok and Bukit Lawang, there are a number of other orangutan sanctuaries and rehabilitation centres you can visit including the Semenggoh Centre just outside the city of Kuching in Sarawak (the other state of Malaysian Borneo), and several in Kalimantan (the Indonesian portion of Borneo) – this page has a good map showing all the rehabilitation centres and sanctuaries in Borneo and Sumatra.

Have you been to Sepilok or Bukit Lawang? Any comments or questions about palm oil? Leave a comment below!


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