One of the world’s leading orangutan experts has called on Australian food manufacturers to speed up efforts to ditch unsustainable palm oil, warning that the situation “has never been so desperate” for the threatened primates.
Dr Ian Singleton, head of the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Program, said the apes, with the Sumatran elephant, rhino and tiger, were facing a “major extinction event” due to plans to open up a critical reserve for logging and construction.
The vast Leuser ecosystem in northern Sumatra is the only place on Earth where orangutans, elephants, rhinos and tigers co-exist.
Despite this, the regional Aceh government has approved a plan to allow roads, palm oil plantations, logging and mining in the ecosystem. Construction work has started, despite objections put forward by the central Indonesian government.
Singleton warned the situation was “dire” for the threatened species, warning that the development plan would completely wipe out the Sumatran rhino, and leave just a few hundred orangutans.
There are an estimated 6,700 Sumatran orangutans, primarily in the dense rainforests on the north of the island. But their numbers have been severely depleted by forest clearing, largely for palm oil plantations. This has led to apes wandering on to newly established farms, where they are regularly beaten, tortured and killed.
Singleton, with Zoos Victoria, is urging companies based in Australia to commit to certified sustainable palm oil, which is not sourced via the destruction of orangutan habitat. Palm oil is used in many products, from food to toothpaste.
So far, just two businesses – Robern Menz and Thomas Chipman – have moved to 100% sustainable palm oil. Ferrero and Arnotts have said they will move to sustainable palm oil by the end of the year, says Zoos Victoria.
Other businesses plan a much slower transition, including Unilever, Nestle, Cadbury, Kellogg’s, Mars, Coles and Woolworths. And Colgate-Palmolive has made no commitment to shift its supply, Zoos Victoria says.
Singleton, who is on a speaking tour of Australia, said: “If Aceh’s plan is approved by the central Indonesian government, its implementation will have devastating environmental and social consequence, and make a mockery of Indonesia’s claimed commitments to reduce carbon emissions from the forestry sector.
“The livelihoods and wellbeing of thousands of people also rests on the protection of important ecosystems such as Leuser, in Aceh. These internationally protected areas are of great significance to the world’s biodiversity but they are being levelled to make way for palm oil.
“Until all Australian food manufacturers who use palm oil have switched to only sourcing [certified sustainable palm oil] then they cannot hand on heart say that they are not driving the environmental crisis in Aceh. It’s time for Australian companies to step up and make sure they deliver on their commitments.”
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