The Oil For Apes Scandal


I really like orangutans and I mean really, really like them. They are my favourite animal followed by the hippopotamus so it saddens me that due to agricultural deforestation, illegal hunting and the increase in palm oil plantations and demand they may become extinct in the wild jungles of Indonesia in as little as 10 years. The image above displays the more common sight seen nowadays. A baby clings to its mother after severely been beaten by locals, tied up and thrown in a small cage without food or water, left to die. The man of the jungle’s forest are disappearing and often go starving in search of food due to illegal logging companies tearing down their habitat to grow crops like palm oil. Farmers are often paid for the death of an orangutan, to them they are vermin eating their crops.

In reality, orangutans are the most intelligent primate and our closest blood relative, the only mammal that is self-aware (apart from humankind) and uses tools and problem thinking techniques to survive. Moreover, the orangutan has the longest reproductive cycle on the planet, only giving birth to one baby every 8 years and is dependant on its mother for an average of 8 years after birth. The bond between mother and child is similar to that of humans and separation has been shown to cause lifelong psychological damage to both mother and baby. It has also been documented that when a young dies, the mother continually carries the corpse for months in despair whilst trying to revive the young. Along with chimpanzees, gorillas and bonobos, orangutans are great apes, sharing 97 per cent of their DNA with humans, having split from us a mere 13 million years ago. They exist only in these forests of Borneo and Sumatra, and it is their arboreal nature that leaves them so vulnerable to deforestation.

The primatologist Dr Willie Smits estimates that orangutans can distinguish between 1,000 different plants, knowing which ones are edible, which are poisonous, and which cure headaches. In her book Thinkers of the Jungle, the psychology professor Anne Russon recalled that one orangutan keeper took three days to solve the mystery of who’d been stealing from the fridge. It turned out that an orangutan had been using a paperclip to pick the lock of its cage, and then hiding the paperclip under its tongue.

In spite of this, humankind’s destructive ways continue to endanger these sensitive creatures for one specialist ingredient – palm oil.

Palm oil, a vegetable fat is extracted from the fruit of palm trees is treated and used for a variety of products including many processed foods, biodiesel and fabric conditioners. In fact, 1 in 10 supermarket products contain this tree-felling, wildlife-wrecking ingredient. Under current licensing and marketing laws, product branding only has to state vegetable fat but not the source or specifically the type. For example, it’s in our favourite bread (Warburtons, Hovis and Kingsmill), our butter (flora and clover), our cereal (Special K, Crunchy nut cornflakes), Cadbury’s and galaxy chocolates, dove soap and Persil. These are only examples, never mind supermarkets’’ own brands and all other products. We are all in fact eating a small slice of the rainforest, specifically Sumatra and Borneo which has one of the largest biodiverse ecosystems on earth until now.

Some 38 million tonnes of palm oil are produced globally, about 75 per cent in Malaysia and Indonesia. Borneo’s 11,000 square miles of plantations produce 10 million tonnes a year while Sumatra’s 14,000 square miles yield 13 million tonnes. Since 1990, the amount of land used for palm-oil production has increased by 43 percent. Demand is rising at between six and 10 per cent a year. China’s billion-plus population is the biggest consumer, importing 18 percent of global supply. About 16 percent arrives in the EU. Palm-oil plantations are barren places. When vast blocks of palms are planted in straight lines, stretching for mile after mile, 90 percent of the wildlife disappears. To make matters worse, due to rising demand, the price of palm oil has increased 88 percent and thus Indonesia are clearing thousands of acres of pristine rainforest to plant the crop. The image below displays the extent of deforestation in Borneo 1950-2010, and projection towards 2020.

So how badly affected are orangutans? Hardi Bantiantoro from the Centre for Orangutan Protection had this to say:

“I find dead orangutans, they have starved to death. There is no food, no water,” he said.  He tells me that on the Indonesian island of Kalimantan (formerly Borneo); more than ten orangutans are starving to death each day because of palm-oil driven deforestation. “The situation for orangutans today is very, very critical. The experts say the orangutans will be extinct in 2015. The orangutans will be extinct in next three years unless the government takes extreme action to save them. But instead they are planning convert 455,000 hectares of forest [in Kalimantan] into new plantations, mostly palm oil,” he said.

The workers on those plantations see orangutans as nuisances that trample and eat their crops. “The plantation workers have to protect the oil-palms. That is their job. To them the orangutan who is hunting for food is only a pest,” said Baktiantoro, clicking through slides on his laptop of orangutans whose fingers and hands have been mutilated by plantation workers, and others chained to workers’ dormitories.

The future looks bleak for the man of the forest, companies are deceiving us with their so called “sustainable” ingredients, deforestation continues as do plant oil production but there is hope! Charities and organisations like WWF, the orangutan foundation, the orangutan appeal and the international animal rescue organisation are all putting pressure on logging and palm oil companies to stop expanding further into the rainforests and local governments in Indonesia are currently setting up new, tougher licensing laws for such heartless companies whilst conservation of orangutans is becoming established. For now government laws enforce that caught orangutans are chucked in cells similar to jails to keep them off the crops. These cells are degrading, disgusting and drive the animals to zoochosis. They are often abused and continue their long lives in confinement until death.

The extinction of the 1st great ape will be a sad day. That day will bring further complications to the rainforests, ecosystems are very fragile and any slight distortion may have consequences for the rest of the wildlife. What we have to remember is that it’s through our own faults – too much pressure on world resources, agricultural and technological advancements, the population crisis, poverty and being the biggest predator on earth. Unlike the rest of the wildlife population, we exploit, abuse, kill and destroy animals and their habitats for many reasons, they only kill to survive. When you think about it, all wildlife would be flourishing if we were the 1st to become extinct. I hope orangutans don’t join the extinct list among the many others we have already killed off.

All I can say is I’m glad to have seen orangutans for myself, in a zoo but nevertheless in a few years time they may only be a memory of what once lived and a story for our grandchildren.

Palm oil facts

90 per cent of Sumatra’s orangutan population has disappeared since 1900. They now face extinction

90 per cent of wildlife disappears when the forest is replaced by palm, creating a biological desert

98 per cent of Indonesia’s forests may be destroyed by 2022 according to the United Nations

43 of Britain’s 100 top grocery brands contain or are thought to contain palm oil.

For more information on how orangutans are treated in Indonesia, read this blog. Particularly down the right hand side. If this doesn’t

convince you to care or do anything about such a topic, you are heartless.

Cathryn Gribben


1 Comment

It’s eyes stare through me into the distance, as it stands statuesque as if to look into the horizon but not actually take the views in. It stands still never trying to move anywhere, and if by some impulse it did, the shackles and chains networked round its legs wouldn’t allow movement of any more than a few feet. But it doesn’t want to move – it has probably never known freedom more than likely being born into this suffocating invisible cage. The only freedom this intelligent and aware animal is awarded is the regimented and strictly enforced yomp through a select token collection of grasses and trees to satisfy the visiting Westerners taste for the exotic.

Elephant sanctuary” the various mahouts repeatedly   refer to this place as, ironically while wielding their ominous sharply spiked bullhooks. Like a suspenseful horror, the issue of the bullhooks is a hushed topic yet the symbolism of them paints a very vivid picture. The relationship between the elephant as a wild animal and the idea of domesticating and training elephants is one that many people can argue that either could be better for the welfare of the elephants. Standing here in this dusty arena however, watching an elephant knock a ball into a net dressed in a tacky David Beckham saddle throw, while another robotically drags a massive tree trunk chained to it along the ground, it’s difficult to attach the words ‘welfare’ and ‘within the elephants best interests’ to this scene. Earlier in the day, me and the lovely Cathryn (love you xxxxx) had bathed in a nearby river with the elephants and their mahouts. The elephants had seemed to lap up this outing and for a short while, their robotic demeanour giving way to a subtle sparkle as they rolled and sprayed. However, even this was a controlled environment, continuing to operate within the acceptable parameters of their controlling mahouts. But even this brief relief for the elephants leads us on to consider the elephants’ treatment when the baying mob isn’t present.

This place is called a sanctuary, giving the impression that the animals taken into care here are encouraged to display natural behaviour and provided with a safe but free environment to stimulate the elephants. This is the case with most of the other sanctuaries for the variety of animals resident within them, yet this sanctuary seems less in the elephants’ interests and more in the novelty and monetary interests of the human side of this relationship. Elephants have been studied and shown to display levels of awareness regarding their environment and their social groups. What this means is that elephants, like people, can be negatively affected by situations or events that they may encounter. Elephants have been known to identify non predator danger as well as predators and to rescue their young, as well as mourning the passing of members of their family groups and have even been viewed returning to a particular family member’s place of death. Elephants exposed to traumatic environments or with their natural stimulus removed are often mentally affected, with their behaviour starkly reflecting this. Bullhooks, performing elephants, shackles, and existing to amuse a crowd. This isn’t a sanctuary, this is a circus.

Indeed, it would be unfair to take this as a sweeping statement about all elephant sanctuaries, but not all of these establishments are equal, some being more of a sanctuary than others. In many cases, the culprits casually brandish the word and wave it about, playing on the good reputation and regard that other beneficial sanctuaries create through a higher level of consideration for the animals, in order to draw the notoriously animal compassionate Western tourists in. Were the establishment to be called an ‘Elephant Entertainment Show’ or even ‘Performing Elephant Compound’, this would immediately activate the negative response of most Western individuals, yet calling it an ‘Elephant Sanctuary’ effectively bridges over this negative response to the reality that the elephants are performing manipulated animals to the extent that throughout the visit, the tourists will actually repeatedly tell themselves it is a sanctuary, clouding the reality in a pure white haze of ignorance. Because after all, ignorance is not only bliss, but it makes money too.

Ross Cairney