Having been very close to Asian elephants, I can atest to how amazing these creatures are! Interesting and shocking news from ENN
From the minute we have breakfast to the moment we brush our teeth and go to bed, the vast majority of us will be consuming palm oil without even realizing it, or realizing the damage to the natural world that this is doing.
Palm oil is a key ingredient in everything from cereal, biscuits and margarine to shampoo, lipstick and toothpaste. Our insatiable demand for these products is ripping the heart out of Asia’s forests and driving critically endangered animals to extinction.
This includes the Sumatran elephant, the most endangered of all the world’s elephants. With barely more than 2,000 left in the wild, forest clearance has already halved their population within one generation. Roughly 85 per cent of their habitat lies outside protected areas, mostly in the lowlands and gentle hills that are the first to be cleared for logging, mining, and paper and palm oil production. As the forest disappears, elephants take to the palm oil plantations and farms, bringing them into conflict with people.
The consequences are alarming: between 1984 and 2009, approximately 700 elephants were captured and placed in captivity. Most would die, until Elephant Family stepped in with the Veterinary Society for Sumatran Wildlife Conservation to transform their lives. Many others have been poisoned, the most recent being two found dead in Tesso Nilo National Park, Riau Province on 3rd June; they are thought to have eaten rat poison from a palm oil plantation nearby.
The equally tragic story of Raja the baby elephant is just the tip of the iceberg that threatens to sink the Sumatran elephant. The Ecologist Film Unit came across him recently while documenting the Sumatran elephant’s demise with Elephant Family; he was being held hostage by villagers demanding compensation for their loss of crops to elephants. He died a week ago despite our best efforts to rescue him.
These elephants might still be alive if their habitat had not been cleared so that we could have palm oil. Addressing this is not straightforward however. Palm oil is not often declared in lists of ingredients, but is hidden as a generic ‘vegetable oil’, or as one of its many derivatives, such as sodium laureth sulphate in personal care products.
Earth Hour, the annual event when thousands across the globe turn off lights and power to promote sustainability – was a success – read more at Learn From Nature. In the same moment, we hear reports of habitats under threat . Reports from The Independent
Fires raging unchecked in an Indonesian peat swamp forest could wipe out the remaining Sumatran orang-utans which live there, conservationists are warning. The forest is one of the last refuges of the great apes. The illegal fires, started by palm-oil companies clearing land to plant the lucrative crop, are believed to have killed at least 100 orang-utans – one-third of those living in the Tripa swamp, on the west coast of Sumatra‘s Aceh province. The rest could die within weeks, according to Dr Ian Singleton, conservation director of the Sumatran Orang-utan Conservation Programme.
“The speed of destruction has gone up dramatically in the last few weeks… This is obviously a deliberate drive by these companies to clear all the remaining forests,” Dr Singleton said. “If this is not stopped right now, all those orang-utans… will be gone before the end of 2012.”
Only 6,600 Sumatran orang-utans are estimated to be left in the wild, and the Tripa swamp – where they are most densely concentrated – is considered crucial to the species’ survival. But less than one-quarter of the peat forest remains; the rest has been converted to palm-oil plantations.
Satellite imagery showing 92 fires over the past week has horrified conservationists, who are awaiting a court ruling with far-reaching implications for the protection of wildlife habitats in Indonesia. The judgment relates to a lawsuit brought against the governor of Aceh by the local branch of Walhi, an environmental group. Walhi decided to act after the governor, Irwandi Yusuf, granted a new permit to one of the country’s biggest palm-oil companies, PT Kallista Alam. Walhi Aceh argues that the permit, which would allow another 4,000 acres of peatland to be destroyed, was granted illegally.
The judges are due to reach a decision next Tuesday. If they dismiss the challenge, other important habitats could also be threatened. Tripa is nominally protected by a presidential moratorium on new logging and palm-oil concessions, as well as by legislation governing the conservation area within which it is located.
There may now be as few as 200 orang-utans left in the Tripa forest, which shelters a dozen endangered species, including the white-handed gibbon, clouded leopard, Malayan sun bear, Sumatran tiger and giant soft-shelled turtle.
While the quasi-apocalyptic tumult over carbon pricing has dominated the Australian media for the best part of 2011, another fierce, albeit less high profile, environmental debate has entered its final stages – the labelling of palm oil on product packaging.
A long-running legislative saga, launched in the Australian senate in 2009 by independent Nick Xenophon, is being willed to the finish line by environmentalists Down Under.
An unlikely alliance between Xenophon, the Greens and the centre-right Coalition has passed legislation in the senate, despite it being rejected at committee stage. The truth in labelling – palm oil bill, which will require products to carry information on palm oil content, is now expected to be approved by the house of representatives.
But for conservation groups, the legislation is a long-overdue boost for the orangutan, which has been pushed to the edge of extinction by the rampant clearing of its natural habitat in Indonesia and Malaysia for palm oil cultivation.
Palm oil, which is also found in toothpaste and cosmetics, is labelled as vegetable oil on packaging in Australian shops.
A 2007 report by the UN found that 98% of natural rainforest in Malaysia and Indonesia could disappear by 2022, with palm oil production seen as a key driver of the destruction that sees the equivalent of 300 football pitches of forest wiped out each hour.
The impact upon the orangutan, the only Asian great ape, has been severe – it’s estimated that 1,000 a year die due to forest clearing in its heartlands of Borneo and Sumatra, with predictions that the species could be extinct in the wild within 20 years.
There are also concerns over the impact of palm oil-driven deforestation on climate change, with peat-filled soils, exposed by the removal of trees, releasing large quantities of methane into the atmosphere.
Indonesia has been ranked the world’s third largest emitter of carbon dioxide, behind the US and China, when deforestation is taken into account. But it is images of orphaned orangutans that has turned the issue into a cause celebre in Australia, which imports around 130,000 tonnes of palm oil a year.
The Don’t Palm Us Off campaign, which has been supported by Zoos Victoria, TV network Ten and an assortment of local celebrities, has proved a straightforward environmental cause for Australians confused by the endless carbon price ructions.
“The production of palm oil is essentially destroying the habitat and homes of orangutan species,” says Rachel Lowry, director of wildlife conservation at Zoos Victoria. “We have horrifying footage, images coming through to us almost daily here at Zoos Victoria.”
“We have staff that go across to Indonesia for skill share programs that are bringing back reports of orangutans being displaced, being killed, essentially returning to burning fields or fields that have been cleared [to put] palm oil crops in.”
However, opposition to the palm oil labelling requirements has been persistent. The Australian Food and Grocery Council, despite being a member of RSPO, claims that the changes will cost the industry “hundreds of millions of dollars” to implement and may even breach the Australia/New Zealand Food Treaty, which requires the antipodean neighbours to consult each other over amendments to food law. New Zealand is the world’s largest user of palm kernel extract, a palm oil byproduct, which it uses to feed cows.
While the minority Gillard government should be able to brush aside the concerns of industry lobbyists, the situation with Malaysia is a little more delicate. Tan Sri Bernard Giluk Dompok, Malaysia’s commodities minister, is currently in Australia to stress to MPs the economic importance of palm oil exports. Dompok insists that palm oil has been an “easy target” for campaigners in Australia, rebuffing evidence that the product causes environmental destruction.