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September 6, 2012
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EARTHA STEWARD: Palm oil trade wiping out orangutans

Orangutans are one of my favorite animals. Although I've never had the privilege of seeing them in the wild, I studied primates as an undergrad. I often dreamed of being the next Birute Galdikas or Jane Goodall. The big apes are the reason I am so passionate about conservation.

Across the globe, monkeys and apes, like many large mammals, are facing extinction. The most disturbing part of the problem is that there's not just one solution because there are a number of threats. From loss of habitat and forest degradation to war and bushmeat, we're not giving our closest "relatives" much of a fighting chance.

Here at the conservation center, we encourage sustainable lifestyles and buying behaviors that support healthy environments here and overseas. Often, we aren't aware of purchasing practices here locally that dramatically impact people, animals and places thousands of miles away.

Sustainable agriculture isn't restricted to our backyards. We've all heard that the food we eat may be shipped from South America, Europe and Asia. What about the ingredients of day-to-day products like those found in skin care, soap, cooking oil, cosmetics, ice cream and even chocolate?

Palm oil is a type of vegetable oil that is extracted from the African oil palm tree. Fast on the heels of soybean oil, it is quickly taking over as the "world's most widely produced edible oil," according to Borneo Orangutan Survival (BOS). BOS also stated "Rainforests are being cleared at the rate of 300 football fields per hour to make way for oil palm plantations."

Two species of orangutans live on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo in Indonesia.

According to the World Wildlife Federation, of the 11 million hectares of global palm oil plantations, 6 million are found in Indonesia. Because orangutans are unique to the islands of Indonesia, there are only around 60,000 estimated in the wild.

The orangutan population is disappearing at alarming rates because of two reasons: loss of habitat and food due to forest clearings/burnings and increased access to poachers and traders. Both of these are a direct result of the palm oil trade.

The explosion of palm oil plantations is related to product purchasing - simple supply and demand. If the world continues to support palm oil with their dollars, corporations will continue to fund palm oil plantations. More palm oil plantations mean more rainforest clearings and ultimately, the loss of orangutans.

You can help the orangutans by purchasing sustainable palm oil or palm oil-free products. Both Borneo Orangutan Survival and the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo have handy pocket guides to purchasing palm oil-free products. The most important thing to do as a consumer is to support companies who are members of the RSPO (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil) - Tell RSPO manufacturers you want 100 percent certified sustainable palm oil.

Unfortunately, palm oil has been advertised as a "green" vegetable alternative and is often found in natural food stores. Labels aren't always accurate in their description of vegetable oil. A rule of thumb is if the oil has saturated fat, it is more than likely palm kernel oil, palm oil or coconut oil. Cosmetics containing palm oil often label the product as Elaeis guineensis. According to BOS, "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 sulphates."

The truth is, this same story can be told over and over again for another species somewhere else in the world - banana plantations, corn fields, cattle farms, coffee, spices ... the list goes on and on.

Until each community takes control of their own food system and until each citizen demands sustainable agricultural practices, we will continue to witness the loss of our most favorite animals and places. I only hope that I'll be able to see the orangutans in their natural environment in my lifetime (and for lifetimes to come).

Ask Eartha Steward is written by the staff at the High Country Conservation Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to waste reduction and resource conservation. Submit questions to Eartha at

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The Post Independent Updated Sep 6, 2012 05:22PM Published Sep 6, 2012 05:21PM Copyright 2012 The Post Independent. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.