The single greatest threat facing orangutans today is the rapidly expanding palm oil trade. Rainforests are being cleared at the rate of 300 football fields per hour to make way for oil palm plantations.
While there are millions of hectares of degraded land that could be used for plantations, many oil palm companies choose to instead use rainforest land to gain additional profits by logging the timber first. Palm oil companies also frequently use uncontrolled burning to clear the land, resulting in thousands of orangutans being burned to death. Those that survive have nowhere to live and nothing left to eat.
What is palm oil?
Palm oil is a form of edible vegetable oil obtained from the fruit of the African oil palm tree. It is believed to have recently eclipsed soybean oil to become the world's most widely-produced edible oil.
It is used in many food, cosmetic and household products. More recently it is being touted as a biofuel - despite evidence that the use of palm oil-based diesel actually increases greenhouse emissions.
Why is palm oil a threat to the orangutans?
The increased demand for palm oil, which is grown only in tropical environments, is fuelling destruction of the rainforest habitat of Sumatran and Bornean orangutans, pushing those endangered species even closer to extinction. Estimates show that if something isn't done soon to stop the spread of oil palm plantations into the forests, orangutans will be extinct within 10-20 years.
What products contain palm oil?
Many everyday products contain palm oil. It is found in ice cream, chocolate, biscuits, crackers, chips, margarine, fruit juice, batters, soap, toothpaste, laundry powders, detergents, cosmetics and pet food to name but a few. It is also found in a wide array of products sold in natural food stores.
It is often difficult to know whether palm oil is in a product as it is usually simply labelled "vegetable oil". However the label must declare the amount of saturated fat in the product. If the product has saturated fat, you can safely assume that the vegetable oil is palm kernel oil, palm oil or coconut oil.
Palm oil in cosmetics is labelled Elaeis guineensis. Other ingredients which may be palm oil based include sodium lauryl sulphate, cetyl alcohol, stearic acid, isopropyl and other palmitates, steareth-2, steareth-20 and fatty alcohol sulphatesl.
For a list of products which are palm oil free, click here.
Is there such a thing as sustainable palm oil?
The answer is yes but less than 7% of total production is currently certified as sustainable. Furthermore manufacturers are proving reluctant to pay the premium associated with this product.
Manufacturers may claim to be using sustainable palm oil because they are members of, or supplied by members of, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil. However, this in itself is no guarantee as members only need commit to "working towards" producing a sustainable product.
What can I do about palm oil?
There are a number of things you can do:
- Check the ingredients - if the product contains palm oil (usually labelled as vegetable oil or fat), check with the manufacturer as to whether it is certified sustainable palm oil (CSPO). If yes, you can be comfortable that the product is "orangutan friendly". If not, seek an alternative product.
- You can also write letters to retailers and the government expressing your concerns and demanding change. You'll find sample letters on the Palm Oil Action Group site (www.palmoilaction.org.au)
- Visit Nick Xenophon's Truth in Labelling website (www.truthinlabelling.com.au) for progress on the campaign to have palm oil compulsorily labelled in Australia.
- Inform your family, friends and colleagues of the issue.
Public pressure can bring change. We know it can work. Witness the decision by Cadbury to remove palm oil from its dairy milk chocolate range in Australia and New Zealand as a result of complaints from the public.
For more information about palm oil and Melbourne Zoo's Don't Palm Us Off campaign, click here.