01/06/2016 7:02 AM AEST | Updated 15/07/2016 12:53 PM AEST

We Can't Palm Off Responsibility For The Palm Oil Crisis

We need to choose products that contain sustainable palm oil.

Orangutans, both Bornean and Sumatran, are critically endangered, victims of a different kind of oil spill: the trade in palm oil.
Orangutans, both Bornean and Sumatran, are critically endangered, victims of a different kind of oil spill: the trade in palm oil.

While the Tanjung Puting National Park burned around her, wildlife worker and former lawyer Tess Armistad clicked her tongue and inched closer to a heap of burning debris. Terrified eyes peered back at her. Buried inside the peatland was a young orangutan displaced in the burning forest of the Kalimantan. The park -- home to some 6000 red apes -- had been set ablaze by planation workers in what began as a controlled fire to clear land for palm oil, but that, mismanaged, had been burning recklessly for days.

The workers had evacuated, leaving only a few volunteers from local rescue centers to extract accessible wildlife. As Amistad pulled the young ape to safety, set him upon her back and made her way out, she felt his grip become limp. His breathing stopped and there, in the heart of the palm oil fire, he succumbed to smoke inhalation and died.

Later, another palm oil fire would advance into the dense Borneo jungle and threaten a further one third of the world's orangutan population. Satellite photography shows more than 100,000 forest fires have burned through carbon-rich orangutan habitat since July 2014, with several hundred to several thousand of those encroaching vulnerable ape populations.

Orangutans, both Bornean and Sumatran, are critically endangered, victims of a different kind of oil spill: the trade in palm oil.

Palm oil monoculture is killing orangutans in record numbers. Today, fewer than 70,000 orangutans exist in small wild pockets in the rainforests of Borneo and Sumatra. Populations are patchy and lack diversity, with conversion of land for palm oil plantation believed to be the species' biggest threat.

Today, the wealthy palm oil industry is again at the forefront of environmental news, with NGOs calling for the boycott of palm oil giant IOI Group who controversially use palm oil tied to suppliers with links to tropical forest destruction. IOI are currently suing the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) for cancelling its membership and suspending them from labelling their palm oil as "certified sustainable." IOI is alleged to have failed to address complaints that their processing arm, IOI Lodgers Croklaan, had cleared forests and drained peatlands without a license.

Found in a large proportion of everyday products, palm oil (sometimes known as vegetable oil) is the edible oil derived from the fleshy middle layer of the fruit of the oil palm. It acts as a cooking agent and is a popular household ingredient. As of 2010, it was the most widely used edible oil in the world, holding approximately 32 percent of the world's oil market.

Palm oil can also be found in lipstick, pizza dough, instant noodles, shampoo, detergent, biodiesel, soap and packaged bread. It's often craftily labelled as palmitate, palm kernel, glyceryl and vegetable fat to trick consumers into believing a product might be palm oil free.

Scientists predict the average consumer uses at least one palm oil product per day.

"I dread to think what it will mean for orangutans, clouded leopard and the iconic hornbill," said Mark Harrison, the director of the research and conservation group Orangutan Tropical Peatland Project (OuTrop).

The dry peats set alight by palm oil plantation workers ignite easily and burn for days or weeks, smoldering underground and re-emerging far away from the original forest fire. Smoldered fires also produce high levels of harmful gases and particulates. By the time the fires are controlled, the habitat is severely depleted.

The WWF last year said there was no real reason for companies not be using 100 percent certified oil manufactured in factories and facilities.

But to save the orangutan, consumer support is just as important.

According to conservationists and NGOs, the consumer role in protecting wildlife is as simple as peeling back the label to look for products that read only "certified palm oil" and questioning products using vegetable oil without a particular clarification on its origin.

In short, if it's not NGO-certified, don't buy it.