Lust for oil is driving Borneo orang-utans to the brink

Herald Sun: 30 September 2009: Cheryl Critchley

Cheeky young orang-utan called Melvin is helping to inspire a Melbourne Zoo keeper to fight the palm oil merchants who threaten his survival. 

The five-year-old orphan has struck up a friendship with Fleur Butcher, who travels to his home in Borneo's Nyaru Menteng orang-utan rehabilitation centre each year.

"As soon as he sees me arrive . . . he comes over and says hello," Ms Butcher said yesterday.

Melvin is doing well but the overall situation is dire, with more orang-utans than ever losing their homes and families as native forest is cleared for palm oil plantations.

"Unfortunately 98 per cent of the orang-utans at Nyaru Menteng have lost their mothers to the palm oil industry," Ms Butcher said.

"The main thing is the lack of forest. It's escalating."

Ms Butcher, 37, said this year she saw a massive operation employing 7000 people razing a huge area of forest.

"In the middle of this palm oil plantation there are two small patches of forest," she said. "While the rescue guys are bringing orang-utans out of the forest the bulldozers are working next to us."

Nyaru Menteng has more than 600 orang-utans despite being built for 100-200, and more keep arriving.

This year Ms Butcher took a Melbourne Zoo welder and electrician. Nyaru Menteng staff also visit Melbourne Zoo on exchange.

To boost awareness, Melbourne Zoo is spearheading a "Don't Palm Us Off" campaign to pressure manufacturers to properly label palm oil on their products. It is often listed as "vegetable oil".

"I go into a supermarket and I don't know if I'm contributing to orang-utan destruction or not," Ms Butcher said. "We don't have that choice."

More than 85 per cent of the world's palm oil, which is used in many food products, comes from Malaysia and Indonesia. The industry kills an estimated 1000 orang-utans each year.

Cadbury recently reversed a decision to use palm oil in its chocolate, which Ms Butcher hopes others will follow for the sake of Melvin and his species.

Melvin is slowly learning how to look after himself, and for Ms Butcher, watching him progress proves all the hard work is worthwhile.

"As I go back each time I can see how well Nyaru Menteng is preparing him for the wild," she said. "The staff . . . are doing a great job but what they need is support."

Net link: Don't Palm Us Off: www.zoo.org.au/palmoil
Borneo Orangutan Survival (BOS) Australia: www.orangutans.com.au