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The Great Ape Scandal

By Stanley Johnson. Published in The Telegraph, Saturday 21st January 2006

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SPECIAL REPORT The orang-utan could be extinct within 12 years and human greed is to blame. Its natural habitat is rapidly disappearing because of the spread of plantations devoted to producing palm oil – a cheap ingredient found in hundreds of products sold in British supermarkets. As Stanley Johnson discovers in Borneo, our weekly shop in the West is having a catastrophic impact on one of the world’s most fascinating species

The Telegraph, Saturday 21st January 2006

One afternoon, a few weeks ago, I stood in a clearing in a forest in the heart of Kalimantan, the Indonesian part of Borneo. The equatorial sun shone through gaps in the tree canopy above us, creating a patchwork of light and dark on the forest floor. Our guide put a hand to his lips, warning us not to make a sound.

We waited three, four, five minutes, while a wild boar rooted around in the nearby brush and mosquitoes homed in unerringly on unprotected expanses of skin. Then we heard it: the low, haunting call of the male orang-utan.

I gazed up into the trees, trying to see where the sound was coming from. The forest seemed dark, impenetrable. Suddenly, high up in the canopy, I saw the branches move and, as the sun pierced the foliage, I caught a glimpse of a distant red-gold shape, heading our way.

There was movement to the left and right as well, as other orang-utans swung by. There must have been 10 or 20 animals altogether, and for two hours that afternoon we were privileged to be able to watch them go about their extraordinary business.

The Telegraph, Saturday 21st January 2006

No surprise, then, that locals call it a “wonder oil”. It has now pipped soybean oil as the world’s largest vegetable-oil crop.

Aside from humans, there are four types of great ape in the world: gorilla, chimpanzee, bonobo and orang-utan. I have seen them all in their natural habitat. For my money, the orang-utan, with its strength and subtlety, its luminous intelligence and, above all, its glorious russet beauty, must come at the top of the list.

How can it be, I asked myself, as I stood there in that forest clearing, that the human race, in its greed and vanity, is driving this magnificent creature to the edge of extinction? , Once the number of orang-utans in southeast Asia could have been in the hundreds of thousands. Today, fewer than 60,000 orangutans remain in the wild, and these are found only on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra, where they are classified as "endangered" and "critically endangered". An estimated 5,000 of them are lost from the wild every year. You don't have to be a genius to work out that the orang-utan could be extinct within the next 12 years.

The most shattering aspect of this story is that a finger of blame can be pointed unerringly at food manufacturers and supermarkets in Britain and the products that they make and sell, and that we buy. Let's be clear about this. The biggest single threat to the orang-utan is the destruction of its forest habitat, and the most important reason for the destruction of the forest has been the spread of palm-oil plantations in Borneo and Sumatra.

Palm oil is a nightmare for ethically-aware shoppers who are trying to do their bit for the environment. It is often labelled as “vegetable oil”, which makes it almost impossible to avoid. To make matters worse, it is everywhere: as many as one in 10 products sold in Britain’s supermarkets — including margarine, ice cream, pastry, chocolate, crisps and chips - contains palm oil. It is also found in beauty products such as mascara and body wash.

More worryingly, between 1995 and 2002 there was a 90 per cent increase in the use of palm oil in the European Union. The EU imported more than 3.8 million tonnes, accounting for 17 per cent of the global trade. Almost a quarter of that comes to the UK, which is the second biggest importer of palm oil in Europe after the Netherlands. At least 100 UK companies either import or buy palm oil. These include producers of cakes and pastry, such as Allied Bakeries; of sugar confectionery, such as Cadbury Schweppes and Nestlé; of snacks, crisps and chips, such as United Biscuits and Walkers Snack Foods. Most important of all are the UK supermarkets. These are the major end-users of palm-oil, Tesco chief among them.


And where does all this palm oil come from? According to Friends of the Earth (FoE), 87 per cent of UK companies have no idea. Perhaps they should consider this: in 2004. Malaysia and Indonesia together accounted for 85 per cent of global palm-oil production and 89 per cent of global exports.

Environmentalists, however, are calling it “cruel oil”. In the decade between 1992 and 2003, the orang-utan habitat declined by more than 5.5 million hectares, while the palm-oil plantations across Borneo and Sumatra increased by almost 4.7 million hectares.

There is a direct link between the two statistics. The expansion of palm-oil plantations has been achieved to a large extent by converting primary forest.

It is not hard to understand why. Even though there is plenty of degraded land on which to plant trees, selling the timber from the forest that you have cleared to make way for a plantation can do wonders for the bottom line. Add to this the ever-increasing demand for biofuels. Ironically, palm oil is currently being hailed as an environmentally-friendly alternative to fossil fuels because it can be mixed with diesel to produce a part-biofuel that does not require engines to be converted.

Last September, Malaysia announced a joint venture with private partners to build three plants that will make this new fuel for export to Europe. Western businesses and governments will rush to exploit this new, seemingly laudable demand for biofuel, and more forests in Sumatra and Borneo will be destroyed.

As Thoreau once wrote: “We have found the enemy and he is us.”

One of the reasons I went to Borneo was to gain a first-hand impression of the grave situation facing the orang-utan. Ashley Leiman, director of the Orang-utan Foundation, invited me to accompany her to Tanjung Puting, a national park that occupies 400,000 hectares, or 4000 square kilometres, in Central Kalimantan. Tanjung Puting is widely considered to be one of the crown jewels of the Indonesian national park system and of major biological importance. It is host to 29 species of mammals, 17 species of reptiles and 220 species of birds. Most importantly, it is the home of one of the largest groupings of orang-utans in the world, with a population of at least 5,000 animals.

“If we can’t save the orang-utans in Tanjung Putting,” Ashley asked, “where can we save them?”

Tanjung Putting, technically speaking, is a lowland peat forest of a type that once covered much of southern Borneo. It may not have the vast overarching canopies of the Amazon or Congo, but the effect is still dramatic enough. On our journey up-river into the park, we twice saw groups of proboscis monkeys, high up in the trees overhanging the river. We saw kingfishers, hornbills, and brahmini kite. We even saw a huge salt-water crocodile, three of four metres long, with jaws that looked as though they would make easy work of a Dayak dugout.

We arrived in Camp Leakey early in the afternoon. The place is aptly named. Apart from his own fame as a discoverer of Early Man, Professor Louis Leakey identified, trained and otherwise encouraged three extraordinary female primatologists.

Dr Jane Goodall rose to fame as a result of her studies of chimpanzees at Gombe in Tanzania. Dian Fossey’s devotion to the mountain gorillas in central Africa is already the stuff of legend, not least because of Gorillas in the Mist. The third of the “Leakey girls”, Professor Birui Galdikas, is no less remarkable. Although she was lecturing in Canada at the time of our visit, her spirit dominates Camp Leakey and, indeed, Tanjung Puting National Park as a whole.

Galdikas and her former husband, Rod Brindamour, arrived in Tanjung Puting in November 1971 with two small canoes carrying their possessions and provisions. They set up camp in a bend of the Sekonyer River to begin what has become one of the longest continuous mammalian studies in the world.

Galdikas also set up the Orangutan Foundation International, which, with its sister organisations such as the Orangutan Foundation in Britain, has supported the ongoing research on apes in Tanjung Puting for decades. There has been a practical side to this work, too. The foundation has liaised closely with the Indonesian authorities to wage an unceasing war on illegal logging, which, until a few years ago, was having a serious impact on the national park.

The foundation, with the aid of a grant from the United States Agency for International Development, has put in place no fewer than 17 guard posts. We did not see them all during our time in Tanjung Puting — some of them are two or three days’ march into the forest — but we saw enough to realise that this kind of action is crucial. If you can stop illegal logging, you can protect the habitat not only of the orang-utan but of so much else besides.

On our last weekend in Kalimantan, we drove up-country to try to assess the extent of the palm-oil threat to Tanjung Puting itself. There were rumours of massive new oil plantations being planned, with proposals to grant concessions for five palm-oil plantations, totalling 16,000 hectares, inside the park. In addition, as much as 20,000 hectares of land could be lost outside the park. It might not be officially protected, but it is vital orang-utan habitat. Without it, Tanjung Putting will be totally isolated, with the sea on one side and a desert of palm oil on the other.

After heading north for two hours on bumpy, potholed, tarmac roads, we turned east towards the Seryan river. The tarmac soon petered out, to be replaced by rutted dirt tracks. You begin to understand the sheer scale of the palm-oil industry when you see the immense area of land in central Kalimantan, where primary forest has already been converted into plantation. More than once we passed long convoys of trucks loaded with bags of palm-oil nuts, as well as lines of tankers carrying the processed oil from the refineries down to the coast.

Our worst fears seemed to be confirmed when, just before sunset, we finally reached our destination, a remote guard post at the north-east corner of Tanjung Puting. It was clear that palm-oil plantations had already made substantial incursions into the park, and markers indicated that further, still deeper, incursions were planned.

That night we spread our maps on the floor of the hut. Stephen Brend, the Orang-utan Foundation’s senior conservationist, explained the situation as he saw it: “The marker stakes are now within one kilometre of the guard post here at Pos Ulin. If they go ahead, there will be palm-oil plantations right in the heart of the park, within less than 10 miles or 20 kilometres of Camp Leaky itself.”

We all felt numb. The scale of the current incursions, as well as the projected further “conversions”, which seemed to be almost a fait accompli, left us stunned. The “crown jewels” of Tanjung Puting were not just in jeopardy, they were being pillaged before our very eyes.

Is the situation for the rain forests of Borneo and Sumatra hopeless? To my mind, the answer is not hopeless, but certainly-critical.

UK and EU consumers can play a key role in helping to avoid further disasters. In February last year, Friends of the Earth wrote to 96 UK companies asking them to trace the source of all the palm oil in their products, to adopt minimum standards to ensure that it comes from non-destructive sources and to join the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), a joint initiative set up by WWF and businesses to “promote the growth and use of sustainable palm oil”.


Shamefully, only 18 of these 96 companies responded to FoE, and none of these was ablt to prove that it could trace all of its palm oil back to non-destructive plantation sources.

By September 2005, only 15 companies had joined RSPO. They include Cadbury Schweppes (Fruit & Nut, Crunchie etc) Unilever (Flora) and Anglia (which supplies palm oil to Nairn’s), as well as the Body Shop and the Co-op. Encouragingly for the initiative, the Boots Group and Asda Stores recently also applied for membership. However, Tesco, Britain’s largest and most successful supermarket chain, which sells hundreds of palm-oil products, has yet to apply.

A spokesman told The Daily Telegraph: “Tesco is committed to sourcing palm oil in a responsible and sustainable way. We’re engaging on the issue and have arranged a meeting with other retailers, through the British Retail Consortium, to consider the evidence and the progress made by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil.”

While the big retailers “consider the evidence”, we the consumers have to be ready to insist on a means of labeling that shows us whether products contain palm oil. We also have to put in place an accreditation system that allows products to be certified as “forest or orang-utan friendly” because they come from non-destructive plantations”.

And, what’s more, we have to be ready to boycott or stop investing in companies that refuse to join RSPO.

FoE suggests that we write to our MP’s to urge an amendment to the Company Law Reform Bill to ensure that supermarket directors take greater environmental and social responsibility for the products they sell.

The British Government can also help, by putting pressure on Malaysia and Indonesia. So can the EU. But at present the most effective weapon is consumer power: you and me in the supermarket aisles.

• For further information, contact the Orangutan Foundation (www.orangutan.org.uk; 020 7724 2912); Friends of the Earth (www.foe.co.uk); and the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (http://www.sustainable-palmoil.org).


By Stanley Johnson, Copyright © The Daily Telegraph, 2006. Published in The Telegraph 21st January 2006


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