The A To Z Of Southeast Asia – O

Wild Orangutan in Borneo, Indonesia, credit Dimitry B on Unsplash


Known for their distinctive red fur, Orangutans share 94.6% of their genes with humans and their name in Malay literally means “man of the forest”.

They are native to the lowland rainforests of Indonesia and Malaysia but are now only found in parts of Sumatra and Borneo.

They feed on wild fruits and spend almost all of their lives in the trees where they live although Borneo orangutan do venture onto the ground more often than their relatives.

All species of Orangutan are critically endangered, the major threats being deforestation, hunting for food and where they move in agricultural areas and being kept as pets. The felling of trees to plant palm oil plantations is a significant reason for the threat to orangutans.

Wild Orangutan in Borneo, Indonesia, credit Dimitry B on Unsplash


There are three species of Orangutan. The Borneo and Sumatran Orangutans and the newly identified, in 2017, Tapanuli orangutan of which there are only 800 known individuals and are the most endangered of all great apes.

A hundred years ago there were estimated to be 230,000 orangutans. Now their numbers are no more than 104,000 Bornean orangutan and 7,500 Sumatran orangutan.

Responsible Tourism

Unfortunately there are tour companies and orangutan centres who care little about the orangutan or understand how they should be treated.

Like some elephant parks in Thailand, some centres will capture wild animals to ensure that they a constant supply of animals, especially babies. Pick your orangutan experience with care.

  • The best centres will make their responsible tourism policies clear on their website and promotional materials. They will often make this a key part of their marketing. They will generally tell you how their income is used to protect and rehabilitate orangutans. If in doubt ask.
  • Look for tour operators who donate a percentage of fees to conservation, rehabilitation or reforestation programms.
  • Never visit an orangutan experience which offers feeding or touching of the animals. In fact you should only observe them from a distance. If they become used to human contact it becomes near impossible to return them to the wild. They are also susceptible to many human diseases than can have serious implications for the animals.
  • If there is any evidence that animals are tied up, in cages, are being made to do tricks or shows, avoid this centre, it is not treating the animals ethically.
  • Try to use ethical, local tour operators. Spending your money in this way encourages more local to protect the animals and their habitat as it becomes a significant source of income.

Orangutan Spotting

Danum Valley Conservation Area

In Sabah, Malaysia and probably the most accessible of the national parks featuring many walking trails through the forest near to a good range of hotels and resorts.

Wild Orangutan in Borneo, Indonesia, credit Dimitry B on Unsplash

Tanjung Puting National Park

Wild orangutans love the forests and mangroves and you can spot them in their natural habitat by taking a tour on the Sekonyer River by one of the local boats, Klotok’s. The area also gives you the opportunity to visit highly regarded wildlife research facilities.

Betung Kerihun National Park

In Sarawak, on the Malaysia – Borneo border is this incredible area where many villages live in Long Houses suspended above the flood level of the river. Explore by long boat or by bicycle with a guide for the best chance of seeing orangutans and other wildlife.

Gunung Palung National Park

With less tourism in the area, the experience here is much more basic and the jungle is much denser making travelling far more difficult. Spotting orangutan can be difficult but with the right guide and a little patience you should be rewarded.

Palm Oil

Palm oil is an edible vegetable oil that comes from the fruit of oil palm trees. Oil palm trees are native to Africa but were brought to Southeast Asia just over 100 years ago as an ornamental tree crop. Indonesia and Malaysia now make up over 85% of global supply.

Palm oil is in almost in 50% of the packaged products we find in supermarkets, everything from pizza, doughnuts and chocolate, to deodorant, shampoo, toothpaste and lipstick. It’s also used in animal feed and as a biofuel in many parts of the world. It is incredibly versatile, is odourless and colourless and can help give products a longer shelf life.

However palm oil production is a major reason for the deforestation of some of the world’s most biodiverse rainforests. The destruction of natural habitat affects not just orangutans but also Sumatran rhino and pygmy elephant.

Wild Orangutan in Borneo, Indonesia, credit Dimitry B on Unsplash

The loss of forest and the conversion of carbon rich peat soils is resulting in millions of tonnes of greenhouse gases being released into the atmosphere, contributing to climate change. 

Unfortunately replacing palm oil will other oils will not solve the problem as alternative oils would cause other issues and move the impact elsewhere.

It is also an important part of many emerging economies and smallholder farmers who depend on the crop.

Palm oil can be produced more sustainably however. The Roundtable of Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was formed in 2004 in response to increasing concerns about the impacts palm oil was having on the environment and on society.

Wild Orangutan in Borneo, Indonesia, credit Pat Whelan on Unsplash

The RSPO has a production standard that sets best practices producing and sourcing palm oil. RSPO represents the largest, independent, third-party standard for the more sustainable production of palm oil. Certified palm oil protects the environment and the local communities who depend on it for their livelihoods, so that palm oil can continue to play a key role in food security.

In 2018 the RSPO standard was strengthened and it now represents an essential tool that can help companies achieve their commitments to palm oil that is free of deforestation, expansion on peat, exploitation and the use of fire.

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Published by flyingdogtravel

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