A Killer Ingredient:
Palm Oil's Threat to Orangutans
Orangutan Habitats Overtaken by Oil Palm Plantations
Indonesia and Malaysia continuously battle for the title of world’s largest palm oil exporter. In recent years, global demand for the product, derived from oil palms, has dramatically increased due to its popularity as biofuel and a healthier, trans-fat-free alternative to other cooking oils. With the sustained use of slash-and-burn techniques to transform ancient forest into vast monocultures of oil palms, the remaining habitat of these endangered animals is quickly burning away. Left with no place to go, many orangutans are scorched along with the forest, such as during a ruinous blaze in 1997-1998 that killed nearly 8,000. Driven from their well-concealed treetop nests, orangutans also fall into the hands of poachers who roam the jungle outskirts hunting displaced primates whose skulls and meat command a high price on the black market. Plantation workers, too, sometimes slaughter or capture orangutans caught eating palm oil seedlings, which they turn to after their traditional food sources disappear.
Great Apes Disappearing
As reported by the Orangutan Foundation, a leading conservation agency, about 4 million hectares of the 6.5 million hectares currently consumed by oil palms across Borneo and Sumatra were once virgin rainforest. By current estimation, 10 football fields of Indonesian rainforest disappear every minute, and by 2022 it is said that 98% of Indonesia’s forests may disappear, and orangutans along with it. With one of the animal kingdom’s lowest reproductive rates, giving birth only once every 6-10 years, orangutans cannot keep up with the rate of their destruction. Just over 20 years ago, over 300,000 great apes roamed the Bornean rainforests where today only 18% of this population remains.
If the orangutan disappears, an essential part of Sumatra and Borneo’s ecosystems vanishes with them. Like many birds, orangutans are responsible for distributing seeds of a wide variety of plants through their droppings. In fact, some seeds will only germinate if they have first passed through an orangutan’s digestive system. Consequently, orangutan survival is inextricability linked with the survival of their highly symbiotic environment.
However, there is no reason for total despair; there are things you can do to help save this magnificent creature. Organizations such as the Palm Oil Action Group advocate boycotting products containing palm oil or contacting your favorite companies utilizing the oil to request that they switch to sustainably sourced products. Similarly, Australia’s Zoos Victoria “Don’t Palm us Off” consumer awareness campaign urges shoppers to push for mandatory labeling of palm oil in all products. Similar organizations exist throughout the world creating awareness about the impact of palm oil and illegal logging on the Asian great ape population. Additionally, several revered groups dedicated to rescuing and rehabilitating orangutans pushed from their homes or kept illegally as pets exist both in Borneo and Sumatra (and accept volunteers!)
Keep Suryia’s friends swinging in East Asian canopies by joining the fight to maintain our orange cousins’ homeland. For starters, your child can begin life with a stuffed monkey, too! The Orangutan Foundation sells several cuddly options, with proceeds directed toward their conservation efforts. Or you could just add one to your own collection – who’s going to judge?
 “Palm Oil Crisis,” Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, accessed 5 June 2012, http://www.cmzoo.org/conservation/palmoilcrisis/.
 “Orangutan rescued in Tripa as palm oil plantations close in,” Orangutan Conservancy, accessed 6 June 2012, http://www.wildlife1.org/news/565-orangutan-rescued-in-tripa-as-palm-oil-plantations-close-in-.
 “Threats to Orangutan Habitat,” Orangutan Foundation, accessed 5 June 2012, http://www.orangutan.org.uk/conservation/threats-to-habitat.
 “Palm Oil Crisis”
 “Ten Things You Can Do: Save the Orangutans,” The Burning Season documentary activist portal, accessed on 5 June 2012, http://www.tenthingsyoucando.com/orangutan.htm.