Some of the world’s largest palm oil companies launched a programme on 13 June to protect critically endangered orangutans and other wildlife on the island of Borneo.

The palm oil company members of the Palm Oil & NGO (PONGO) Alliance include Musim Mas, Sime Darby and Wilmar. They are working with the Orangutan Land Trust and other environmental experts and NGOs to manage orangutans, whose numbers have halved over the past 50 years.

The animals, the largest population of which lives on Borneo, are threatened by poaching, illegal logging and intensive agriculture, and traditional logic has dictated that their protection and palm oil cultivation cannot realistically go hand in hand.

However, new research conducted by Borneo Futures for the Orangutan Land Trust and Wilmar has showed that there are ways for orangutans and the palm oil industry to coexist.

In a joint statement, the palm oil companies that joined the PONGO Alliance said they acknowledged their responsibility for ensuring that palm oil cultivation was done with minimal impact on local biodiversity and committed to promoting the use of sustainable landscape management, or the landscape approach.

“The PONGO Alliance’s approach is to engage with all stakeholders on the ground, including palm oil companies, local governments and local communities to implement best management practices for the protection of orangutans and wildlife in the oil palm landscape,” said Ginny Ng Siew Ling, forest sustainability manager at Wilmar International.

This approach does not look at one particular palm oil or other concession, the PONGO Alliance stated, but at the entire eco region as wild animals did not stay within the boundaries of one particular concession or plantation.

“Our research shows that the collaborative approach at the landscape level can become a game changer for wildlife conservation,” said Erik Meijaard, an independent researcher at the Centre of Excellence for Environmental Decisions and the founder of Borneo Futures.

Orangutans could live in palm oil plantantions, the PONGO Alliance argued, if developers set aside at least 10% of the plantation area as intact forest areas covering with corridors between them to act as orangutan habitats.

In addition, they had to enforce a zero tolerance policy on orangutan killing in their areas and train their staff to properly manage the habitat areas.

The PONGO Alliance recognised that Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) certification and corporate “No Deforestation, No Cultivation on Peatland, No Exploitation” policies had a positive impact on the survival of orangutans.

However, Borneo Futures’ research showed that approximately 10,000 of the great apes still lived on non-certified palm oil concessions and were at the risk of extinction if these habitats were not properly managed.

“The next step now is to scale this up and sit down with all palm oil companies having orangutans on their concessions in Borneo to discuss a joint action plan,” added Meijaard.