Because of trapping, hunting, and deforestation, wild orangutan populations have fallen 70 percent over the last 60 years.
Story by Elissa Sursara
When I found Max, he couldn’t walk. He was disorientated and terrified, and the burns to his feet and body were severe. He was one of several hundred orangutans displaced by forest clearing outside Indonesia’s Tanjung Puting National Park in 2006. He had become separated from his family after plantation workers cruelly herded escaping orangutans back to the burning jungle—and away from precious plantation land.
No more than one year old, Max had fought successfully against the trapping, hunting and forest clearing industries that endangered his short life. But with one last breath, he finally lost his battle, becoming one of several thousand orangutans killed annually by a barbaric agricultural farming process, and becoming a victim of a different kind of oil spill: the trade in palm oil.
Palm oil monoculture is “palming” off orangutans in giant numbers, pushing the once abundant species closer than ever to extinction. Today, less than 60,000 orangutans exist in the wild and scientists and biologists conclude that the species’ numbers have disappeared by more than 70 percent over the last 60 years as a combined result of trapping, hunting, and deforestation.
These same scientists predict the species could be extinct by 2023.
Deforestation forest fires—used as a method of land clearing for the construction or expansion of palm oil plantations—run a high risk of unmanageability and typically burn out of control in the often dry and dense conditions of Indonesia and Malaysia, irreversibly degrading the important habitats of tigers, elephants and endangered orangutans like Max.
Palm Oil: The Other Kind of Oil Spill
Although it is difficult to draw a direct relationship between the growth of palm oil and the conversion of forests, roughly 66 percent of Indonesia’s palm oil plantations and 87 percent of Malaysia’s plantations have involved documented forest conversion.
Palm oil plantations are used to harvest and process palm oil, an edible plant oil derived from the fleshy middle layer of the fruit of the oil palm. Not unlike other vegetable oils, palm oil acts as a cooking ingredient in both tropical cooking and the larger commercial food industry, and may be prevalent in products purchased by up to 75 percent of everyday Western consumers.
As of 2010, it was the most widely used and consumed edible oil in the world, holding approximately 32 percent of the oil market.
Often listed discreetly as “vegetable oil”, palm oil is found in some 200 international brands, including McDonald’s, Ben and Jerry’s ice cream, Girl Scout cookies, Kentucky Fried Chicken and KFC packaging, Avon personal care products, Clinique cosmetics and skincare, Tim Tams, Mars Incorporated chocolate and confectionary, and in Mary Kay, Covergirl, Lancôme, Sephora and Urban Decay cosmetics and face washes—just to name a few.
Do the Green Thing for Orangutans: “Palm Off” Your Palm Oil
Turning the cheap and popular commodity into a commercial liability is the surest way to safeguard the future for orangutans and other species affected by commercial palm oil production—and it’s easy!
Look out for palm oil by keeping an eye on the label: Ice cream, pet food, cosmetics, chocolate, chips, and personal and household items with the highest percentage of saturated and transfats or containing stearic, isopropyl or elais guineensis acids are products that may contain significant amounts of palm oil. Researching and eliminating items guilty of endangering orangutans—and choosing sustainable alternatives—will contribute greatly to the lessening in the supply and demand of palm oil products and safeguarding orangutan habitats and populations.
OC edit by Tom Mills