Orangutan, Forestry, Oil palm and expanding economies

Few species have had as much international conservation focus as Orangutans. They certainly are stunning animals and there is no doubt when you see them in the wild it is an uplifting and amazing experience. I have seen both Bornean and Sumatran Orangutan in the wild, and I will admit that my heart races every time I see them. We need to remember, however, that the plight of the orangutan is representative of the broader plight of much of the (less charismatic) tropical biodiversity of south east Asia. With the decline of Orangutan we actually see an even more pronounced decline of species far less sensitive to changes in primary jungle. In effect Orangutan are just the poster children for the wide spread decline of numerous less sexy creatures.

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The extensive and rapid transformation of the landscape of Borneo and Sumatra from primary jungle to secondary jungle (broad scale selective logging) or, even more extreme, removal of the jungle all together to be replaced by other land-uses (primarily oil palm plantations) has received extensive international focus. This focus has primarily been associated with the decline of orang-utan due to deforestation for oil palm plantations.

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Needless to say, the exploitation of these jungles has also allowed the nations involved to expand and modify their economies.  And yes, some individuals have become extremely wealthy along the way. The issues associated with biodiversity conservation and rapidly expanding economies in southeast Asia (largely based on natural resources and agriculture) are complex.  It is hard to ask nations not to clear their forests for agriculture when much of world has already done the same. In fact the state of forest cover in Victoria, Australia (my home) is not a great deal better, and we have certainly converted enormous areas of land to agricultural pursuits. I am not going to provide any solutions here to the problems; all I will say is that it is complex and as such solutions will need to be multifaceted. If we, and I mean we as a global society, want Borneo to remain a global biodiversity hotspot, “we” need to provide a mechanism that allows the governments of Malaysia and Indonesia to make more money out of jungles than timber or oil palm. And then their is the Amazon and…….

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It is the complex nature of conservation, land-use change and economics in Borneo that draws me to this region. For the last 3 years I have taken a team of Deakin Environmental Science staff and students to Malaysian Borneo to investigate the issues for ourselves. Our undergraduate study tour unit (SLE353) takes students to Borneo, meeting the indigenous communities, into jungles, experiencing wildlife and of course the people involved in conservation as well as oil palm. It is challenging but at the same time life changing. It is critical to look at issues from a wide range of perspectives before even trying to think about solutions.

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One thought on “Orangutan, Forestry, Oil palm and expanding economies

  1. The palm oil truck photo. Last year I accompanied a PhD student to Medan as a science and cultural adviser. As we flew into Medan over the palm oil plantation ecological deserts I casually overheard two excited tourists sitting adjacent to me “Oh wow, look at that, all those palms, it’s just like paradise”……………………………I did a bit of a face palm (pun lol).

    Anyway, fantastic initiative taking students to Borneo John; I can’t help but feel envious!!

    Liked by 1 person

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