RSPO Support Fuels GRASP Efforts to Protect Critically Endangered Orangutans

Nearly a year after smoke and haze blanketed Borneo and threatened thousands of critically endangered orangutans, emergency funds provided by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) have helped protect those populations and their rainforest homes against future crises.

RSPO donated $100,000 USD to the Great Apes Survival Partnership (GRASP), which distributed those funds to key partners on the ground to counter the crisis. As a result, wild orangutans were rescued and released, orphans were brought into rehabilitation centres, large tracts of forest land were re-planted, and the ability to fight fires was improved through equipment and training.

GRASP divided the funds among four Borneo-based partners: International Animal Rescue (IAR), the Orangutan Foundation (OF), the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation (BOSF), and the Borneo Nature Foundation (BNF).

“GRASP is extremely grateful to the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil for its support in battling the effects of the fire and haze a year ago,” said GRASP programme coordinator Doug Cress. “RSPO emphasized its commitment to the sustainable development of palm oil by helping GRASP and its partners protect orangutans, and made it clear that future crises should and could be avoided.”

Fires are traditionally lit in the forests of Borneo to clear land for agricultural development. In many cases, fires spread uncontrollably into surrounding forest, resulting in vast orangutan habitat loss. Often this brings them into closer contact with human settlements, where past instances have led to human-orangutan conflicts.

The 2015 crisis was fueled El Nino meteorological conditions that whipped the fires beyond control, resulting in a regional disaster that affected 28 million people in Indonesia and ultimately spread across eight Southeast Asian nations.

“The annual haze that engulfs the region highly concerns the RSPO, due to its link with the slash & burn practices that are common in unsustainable palm oil production. Fighting the haze is a shared responsibility, and no single player or action can resolve the issue alone” said Darrel Webber, Chief Executive Officer of RSPO. “It is urgent and imperative for all players to look and act beyond our boundaries to lay out a collective concrete plan in our efforts to stop the forest fires and make sustainable palm oil the norm.”

Since funding was granted, IAR successfully rescued 12 and relocated nine wild orangutans back into the wild; OF reported eight rescues, successfully planted large areas of seedlings for forest restoration and supplied equipment for guard towers in fire-sensitive areas; BOSF reintroduced five orangutans back into the forest of East Kalimantan; and BNF established locally led fire-fighting patrols in the region, and engaged with leaders in local communities to promote awareness of the importance of orangutan conservation.

Drones were also  deployed as a new approach for checking signs of smoke in areas which are less accessible by foot. IAR and BNF reported huge benefits for mobilizing fire-fighting responses using this technology. The tracking of orangutans, which can cover huge distances in the vast forests, was also enhanced.

Increased involvement of the Indonesian government in fire prevention also presented opportunities for greater cooperation. After the deadly fires of last year, some companies involved in starting fires were punished, some to the extent that their licenses were revoked.

Fire prevention efforts are essential not only for orangutan conservation. Peatland, due to its high density of carbon-rich matter, contributes dramatically to carbon emissions when burned. Therefore, improved responses to forest fire prevention are beneficial on a global scale.