Orangutans, Palm Oil, and Saturated Fat

Did you know over 80% of the habitats where orangutans once freely roamed have been destroyed? In the last year alone, over 6,000 of them, the world’s largest arboreal animal, have been killed. Their habitat is diminishing and they are still lost to illegal poaching, but why?
Borneo is the third largest island in the world and the largest in Asia. It is home to one of the oldest rainforests, and there are mangroves, peat swamp and swamp forests, ironwood, and other forests on the island. Many endangered animals such as orangutans, elephants, and rhinos call it home but sadly, numbers are dwindling, along with the other biodiverse wonders of this great island.

Just hanging around…

The main export of Malaysia is “crude oil,” and that oil comes from palm oil trees. Palm plantations can be found throughout Southeast Asia, and Indonesia and Malaysia are the biggest growers. Palm and palm kernel oil is like liquid gold. ​Palm fruit trees grow in areas along the equator and include both palm oil and coconut trees. The oil produced from both the palm kernel and coconut are similar. Palm oil trees produce a fruit that is red and orange in color when ripe and has a thick oily flesh, this oil is high in palmitic fatty acid and is about 50 percent saturated fat. Because of it’s red color, this oil is said to have a higher antioxidant capacity than other oils, and it is sometimes used in margarine spreads and other products. Palm kernel oil, however, is derived from the kernel inside of the oily fruit of the palm oil tree. This oil has a different fatty acid profile and is higher in saturated fat, comparable to that of coconut oil.
​Palm kernel oil has become a popular oil and it is quite ubiquitous- it is found in a variety of products from foods, to cosmetics, and it is even being used as a biofuel.
The roads in Malaysia are lined with palm oil trees. They are in neat rows and stretch deep into the darkening forest. I first noticed them in southern Myanmar, and in Malaysia, you can’t miss them, they are everywhere. I did some research and the results left me uneasy.

Crude oil mill in Southern Myanmar. (Taken from the bus, sorry for the blur)!

Over 3.5 million hectares of land have been cleared to make way for palm oil plantations. Indonesia and Malaysia produce 90% of the world’s oil, so many of the species that inhabit these areas are pushed off or killed as a result of deforestation.

Fields with new palm oil trees.

On the island of Borneo, and likely in some other areas as well, there are a few animal rehabilitation centers. I visited one such place called the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center and got to see these animals, along with “pig-tail” macaques in their natural environment.

Sepilok Orangutan Sanctuary Entrance

The center was established to rehabilitate the animals rescued from the pet trade, and since its inception, they have admitted 760 orangutans, of which 81% went through rehab, and 66% were successfully released into wild. Due to a diminishing habitat, orangutans are more vulnerable to illegal poaching for the pet trade. The burning of the land also drives them out of the forest in search of safer places. I was told that Sabah, the northern district in Malaysian Borneo would preserve 60% of it’s land, Indonesia, on the flip side, continues to burn forests at an alarming rate. Subsequently, some of the orangutans have “emigrated” from their home country.
I had an interesting, albeit brief, chat with one of the staff members at the sanctuary about the underlying causes of WHY the orangutans are at the center to begin with. Agriculture on the island is a controversial issue. Malaysia and Indonesia are both developing countries and both the palm oil and rubber plantations bring much needed money and a source of income to the people, but that clearly comes at a huge cost. I for one, don’t have a solution to this situation. Avoid products containing palm oils, yes, but some say it would lead to deforestation for other reasons, like logging, for example. From a health standpoint however, it is good practice to limit palm oil consumption as it is high in saturated fats. In fact, the USDA, the WHO, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the Academy for Nutrition and Dietetics, the American Heart Association, the British National Health Service, Dietitians of Canada, and likely many more organizations do not recommend regular intake of palm kernel and coconut oils due to their high content of saturated fat.
I enjoyed my visit to the rehabilitation center. The animals truly have a home there that is free of boundaries. They are fed a “bland diet” (mostly bananas and other fruit) twice a day to encourage foraging on their own and while many of them are friendly (as they were often kept as pets), there’s a strict hands off policy. So many places in SE Asia exploit animals, so I’m grateful for organizations like this that promote their welfare.
I’m not a die hard animal rights activist nor am I an expert when it comes to agriculture. I do, however, know a bit about nutrition. When it comes to saturated fat, I encourage you to limit intake, and because deforestation makes me so sad, I also encourage you to read labels and limit your intake of palm oils.

My face when passing all the oil palms from the bus window.

There are some sustainable plantations out there, but much of them (from what I’ve read) are not properly regulated (because of the ?that palm oil brings in). If you’re so compelled, do your own research. As time goes on and more rainforests are cleared, there will hopefully be more pressure and focus on these issues- before it’s too late. And if you ever get a chance, pay a visit to Sepilok. Your entrance fee of 30 Malaysian Ringgit (about $7 USD) helps keep the sanctuary running.