“Palmed Off”: Is our Dinner Killing Orangutans? ~ Elissa Sursara

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Source: orangutan.org via Alex on Pinterest

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, 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!

1) 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.

2) Raise your political voice: Lobbying and petitioning Indonesian, Malaysian and Papuan New Guinean governments to enforce environmental and wildlife protection law is a quick and simple way of applying political pressure on the worldwide need for palm oil regulation. Your signature on active petitions will call for the fruition of strict regulations on existing palm oil plantations in both Western and developing countries, forcing owners and workers to comply with standards of sustainability and animal welfare.

3) Get active for orangutans: Existing in abundance, orangutan conservation organisations—including the World Wildlife Fund, the Australian Orangutan Project, the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation ProgrammeOrangutan Foundation InternationalDeFORESTaction, the Kinabatangan Orangutan Conservation Project and the Orangutan Conservancy—need volunteers, symbolic adoptive parents and generous donors to support important initiatives seeking to care for orphaned, displaced and wild orangutans. Learn more about becoming an activist for orangutans and volunteering.

Will you stop using products that contain palm oil?

*This article first appeared on Take Part.

Australian conservationist Elissa Sursara is an ecologist and broadcaster of environmental film, television, print media and radio. Her public endeavors and collaborations with major organizations, including the WWF, have succeeded in the building of social, political and financial support for threatened species and habitats around the world. She is the ambassador for the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, Australia Zoo and the WWF Earth Hour among others. You can connect with Elissa on twitter and facebook.




Editor: Bryonie Wise

Like elephant animals are people too on Facebook.

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anonymous Nov 25, 2012 5:59am

[…] here’s 10 yummilicious photos. Remember: if it’s not local, or organic, if it involves palm oil or gmos, it may technically be vegan, but we’re still causing human suffering (farmers’ […]

anonymous Nov 20, 2012 7:32pm

[…] ‘Palmed Off’: Is Your Dinner Killing Orangutans? ~ Elissa Sursara […]

anonymous Oct 28, 2012 2:36pm

[…] ‘Palmed Off’: Is Your Dinner Killing Orangutans? ~ Elissa Sursara (elephantjournal.com) […]

anonymous Oct 26, 2012 8:48pm

@jhepstein, Yes there is sustainable, cruelty free harvested palm oil which we should support. As you would expect, when producers use the sustainable route, the oil is slightly more expensive (not very much more expensive, just a little). However, the market works something like this. People from more developed countries criticize palm oil for being hazardous to the environment. In response, producers in poorer countries spend time and money cultivating more sustainable palm oil but have to sell it at a slightly higher price. But when they do that, there is no demand for the sustainable version because large buyers only care about getting what is cheapest. So in a way, these producers who often rely on palm oil as a source of livelihood have no choice but to produce in the less sustainable way. I must admit that I am not an expert. Just a student who chose to do research on both sides of the matter and delve deeper into the issues rather than believing sensationalist stories.

anonymous Oct 26, 2012 8:43am

Wow! Thanks for the heads-up awareness of this new eco-tragedy! I shall be on the alert!

anonymous Oct 26, 2012 5:40am

Are there sustainably harvested Palm Oils?

As a vegan, this is disconcerting. I want to guarantee cruelty free if possible.

If not, perhaps we should float some barges near the equator, replete with soil, and grow us some Palm trees! Sugar cane too. And coffee.

anonymous Oct 25, 2012 9:57pm

I try to live green as much as possible and hence have followed the palm oil debate closely. However, after much research, I have discovered that there is much more to the palm oil debate than meets the eye and a lot that you read on blogs etc. are mere sensationalism. Firstly, palm oil yield per hectare is about 10 times more than that of soybean oil and at least 3 times as high as other major oils. This means with a lot less land use, you get a lot more oil which means a lot less pollution and runoff to streams etc. Furthermore, the oil palm industry provides livelihoods for many poor people in developing countries. I am in no way denying that there is deforestation involved and that orangutans are sometimes displaced. That does happen. However, you have to be reasonable when considering the tradeoff between clearing a little bit of forest and the welfare of millions of people who depend on palm oil as their livelihood. Finally, (and this is the kicker) countries like Malaysia an Indonesia have started producing sustainable palm oil in order to protect the welfare of the orangutan. However, there is no demand for this sustainable version from Europe, the US etc. Interesting fact: at the same time that it was discovered that soybean oil that has been hydrogenated contains trans fat, the orangutan palm oil story went viral. Coincidence?