The Orangutan Crisis
Author: Kaleigh Rhoads Last Updated Sept. 2012
I feel a pressing need to share with all of you the horrific atrocities that orangutans face in Sumatra and Borneo. No, it’s not only orangutans that are affected by this but I am focusing on them because they are particularly close to my heart. Many other species such as tigers, gibbons, rhinos, and elephants face severely declining populations due to the destruction caused by the palm oil industry.
So what is palm oil? Palm oil is one of the world’s most widely used vegetable oils. It can be found in thousands of everyday products from margarine, to bread, to lipstick, and soap. Ironically it is used in many vegetarian and vegan products despite being the greatest threat to orangutan survival.
Why is Palm oil so destructive? Even though oil-palms are perfectly capable of growing on degraded land that is already clear of any rainforest, many companies choose to clear massive amounts of occupied rainforest habitat so that they can make extra money by selling the wood to international markets and then using fire to clear the rest of the land. Human rights violations are not at all uncommon as local communities' property rights are often infringed upon by plantations. These forest fires cause polluted soil, water, and air unsuitable for local human communities as well as kill or displace around 5,000 orangutans every year. With only 30-40,000 orangutans currently remaining in the wild, if palm oil continues to be harvested in these ways orangutans are predicted to be extinct in the wild in the next decade.
When displaced orangutans manage to survive forest fires and come into contact with humans they are shown no mercy. They are tortured and slaughtered and some companies even offer bonuses for killing orangutans that end up on palm oil plantations. When mothers are killed, babies are sold into the illegal pet industry. Those orphans that are lucky may end up at an orangutan rehabilitation center.
What about certified sustainable palm oil?
There are companies such as the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil(RSPO) that have excellent guidlines for the production of non-destructive palm oil. When I asked the program coordinator at Orangutan Outreach what their position on RSPO was this is the response that I recieved: "They have excellent guidelines that, in all honesty, appear to be just that...guidelines. Not laws that are governed or enforced. We have contacted several companies that are members of the RSPO. We pretty much get the same response from all of them when asked how they can guarantee their oil comes from RSPO certified/rainforest-safe providers...They can't guarantee it. Most of the time they receive palm oil from several sources and they simply can't trace it back to sustainable suppliers. You basically get a mix match batch of palm oil."
So what can you do about it?
Boycotting palm oil may not be a permanent solution to the problem but as the consumer we can take a stand and let companies know that until sustainable standards are upheld and made transparent we will not contribute to the demand for palm oil. Palm oil can be listed under at least 30 different names on ingredients lists. If you have an iphone, there is an app available called the chemical maze which can help you determine if palm oil is in a product. If you don't have an iphone click here for a list that you can print out and carry with you.
Want to do more to help the orangutans?
Well one way to help is by supporting these orangutan rehabilitation centers. You can do this in many ways such as donations, shopping in their online store, or by symbolically adopting an orangutan.
When you adopt an orangutan you receive pictures, their back story, and regular updates on their progress. I adopted an orangutan from Nyaru Menteng, and orangutan rehabilitation center in Borneo. Her name is Kesi. She came to Nyaru Menteng with only one arm and a large wound on her foot because she was still hanging onto her mother when she was killed with a machete. There were concerns that she would never be able to partake in orangutan activities such as climbing trees with her handicap but eight years later she is able to climb, build nests, and more. I love receiving updates on what she has been up to and seeing new pictures of her. I even told my mom this was her new granddaughter! To adopt an orangutan orphan visit: redapes.org/adopt
Another way I am looking forward to helping after I graduate from college is by travelling to Borneo to volunteer at an orangutan rehabilitation center. What could be better than helping the orphans first hand? To find out more about volunteering visit: redapes.org/volunteer
Another way you can contribute and learn more is by travelling through an eco tourism company such as thegreatprojects.com. This company offers a variety of expeditions to Sumatra and Borneo where through tourism you can learn about the habitat, wildlife, and issues at hand, as well as providing residents with a sustainable way to make a living off the land without destroying it.
If you don’t have any money to donate or time to travel across the world there is still a major way that you can help.
You can write letters to companies and the stores that distribute these companies’ products and explain to them why using non-sustainable palm oil in their products is so detrimental. There are plenty of non-destructive methods for harvesting palm oil and any company that fails to prove that their palm oil is from non-destructive sources must be considered to be contributing to the extinction of the orangutan. By demanding a commitment to non-destructive palm oil we can contribute to the conservation of orangutans as well as many other species.
Click here to see the letter that I wrote. You can copy it or just use it as an example to write your own.
Click here to see a list of companies that I wrote to. This is just a starting place. I KNOW there are a lot more. Please contact me if there are any additional companies that you'd like me to write to as well.
If you would like to learn more about how to get involved please take a look at our projects for Orangutan Caring Week 2012 or click here for frequently asked questions about this issue. You can also contact us for more resources.