From a low-flying helicopter, conservationist Marc Ancrenaz peered down at the homogeneous rows of trees in a Borneo palm oil plantation and spotted something that made his heart sink: an orangutan nest. Until that moment 15 years ago, he had never seen one so out of place, away from its traditional rain forest habitat. “I thought, at this time, that these animals were doomed,” because it would be difficult for them to find sufficient food in such a setting, says Ancrenaz, who is scientific director for the France-based orangutan-conservation group Hutan.

But as he continued to encounter orangutan nests in plantations over the years, Ancrenaz realized that the animals were, in some cases, thriving and even successfully reproducing in these areas. “It was really a surprise to us,” he says. Ancrenaz and his colleagues now suggest that the very palm oil plantations that are famously eating away at the apes’ forest habitat across Borneo—a large island divided between Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei—could somewhat perversely provide a stopgap for a species that has dropped precipitously from more than 240,000 individuals in 1999 to just 100,000 today, according to research published in 2018 in Current Biology.

In a new paper published in Biodiversitas, the team argues that instead of undertaking “rescue” operations—in which orangutans found on plantation and agricultural land are physically relocated to ever dwindling fragments of pristine Bornean forest—conservationists should try to bolster the animals’ survival where they are. Not everyone who works in orangutan conservation agrees, though, and there are hurdles to overcome—particularly, minimizing conflict with humans.

Though there is little data on the relocated orangutans’ long-term survival, the new study paints a bleak picture: “Some reports from long term release sites suggest that medium to long term survival rates for reintroduced orangutans may be lower than 20%,” the authors write. Reasons for those rates could include the relocated animals engaging in fights with other orangutans nearby or experiencing difficulties adapting to a sudden change in surroundings—for example, the apes having to discover new locations of fruit trees and other food sources.

Remains of palm fruit eaten by an orangutan. Credit: HUTAN KOCP

Supporting orangutans already in plantations, through measures such as ensuring they have access to nearby forest and food resources, might help. There is, however, still much work to do in understanding how orangutans fare outside of their ideal habitat. Some of it has already begun: Cheryl Knott, an anthropologist at Boston University and founder of the Borneo-based Gunung Palung Orangutan Project, who was not involved with the new paper, is studying how living in logged forests and other altered environments affects primates’ diets, overall health and behavior.

Ancrenaz and his colleagues acknowledge that relocations are unavoidable in some situations, such as when an orangutan is clearly unable to support itself in a plantation or when it has been captured and kept in a cage. And not everyone agrees that the relocations that are being undertaken are unnecessary or harmful to the animals. “There’s no NGO that’s going out and rescuing orangutans for the sake of rescuing them,” says Ashley Leiman, founder and director of the Orangutan Foundation, which occasionally carries out relocations in Borneo, and who was also not part of Ancrenaz and his colleagues’ work.

If orangutans that take up residence in plantations and near farms are to be left there, conservationists will need to overcome the fact that many people in Borneo view these primates as pests that eat crops and chew on oil palm shoots. “They don’t see the orangutans as special,” says Liana Chua, an anthropologist at Brunel University London, who has researched local attitudes toward orangutans but was not involved in the new study. Although it is illegal to kill an orangutan or keep one captive in Borneo, those laws are poorly enforced and do not stop human residents from taking revenge when they feel an animal has damaged their property, Chua says.

One way to ease such tensions could be to compensate farmers for orangutan-inflicted destruction, says study co-author Serge Wich, a conservation biologist at Liverpool John Moores University in England. Additionally, palm oil companies could be urged to tolerate the presence of orangutans if there were enough consumers willing to pay more for their products than ones from producers who do not prioritize orangutan conservation. Similar approaches have been tried in Africa, with low success because of corruption. But Chua and some other researchers think compensation programs could work in Borneo if there were clear guidelines defining who is responsible for making payments and under what circumstances. She says listening to local residents and offering sensible reimbursement could help to change mindsets because it would acknowledge communities’ own needs. “That’s what communities really want,” Chua says, “that respect and acknowledgement.”

Ancrenaz suggests another strategy: putting physical barriers around village crops by, for example, organizing regular patrols or strategically constructing drainage canals (orangutans cannot swim). Similar methods have been tried with other species in places including Sri Lanka, where electric fences were erected to keep elephants at bay. In one village that tried the technique, elephants have been successfully deterred for six years running. None have been killed during that time.

Chua proposes that awareness campaigns could recruit popular local celebrities to spread the word via social media that orangutans are an important species. A similar campaign launched by the U.K.-based conservation group International Animal Rescue, aimed at curbing the trend of keeping slow lorises as pets in Southeast Asia, got 800,000 people to sign an online pledge not to support the illegal pet trade, according to a spokesperson. Some owners even contacted the organization to surrender the animals after seeing the campaign video.

Whatever strategies are deployed, given that orangutans continue to be forced out of the forest, it is clear that conservationists—as well as the people of Borneo—will have to adjust their thinking, Chua says. She thinks doing so is possible—“but it’s going to be tough,” she adds.