Friday, 22 October 2010

Tackling the 'palm oil problem' by Helen Buckland, SOS UK Director

The world’s voracious appetite for palm oil - an ingredient found in up to half of all packaged supermarket products in the UK - is fuelling the destruction of some of the most biodiverse rainforests on the planet, home to countless species, including the critically endangered Sumatran orangutan (see Whilst every individual has the right to make choices about the food they eat and the cosmetics they use, I feel that a boycott of products containing palm oil is not the answer to saving Indonesia’s forests, for a number of reasons.

In order to boycott products containing palm oil, you need to know which ones to avoid – which is not easy. Palm oil is usually a hidden ingredient in food and cosmetic products, listed simply as “vegetable oil” on packaging, so it is currently almost impossible to make informed choices about what you buy at the supermarket. 

Even armed with a palm-oil-free shopping list, protesting with your wallet may have some unintended consequences. Oil palms are the most productive oil seed in the world – more than 10 times as much oil is produced from a hectare of oil palms as other crops. If companies are forced to switch to alternative oils, even more land could be put at risk by increasing demand for oils which need larger plantations. Soybeans, for example, tend to be grown under a similar model to oil palms: huge monocultures, often at the expense of tropical forests in South America. We do not want to export the problem - saving the Southeast Asian rainforests from conversion at the expense of the Brazilian Amazon, swallowing up even more forest in the process. We simply want forest conversion to stop.

Palm oil is a “wonder crop” when it comes to meeting the huge global demand for vegetable oils, accounting for more than a third of the world’s supply. Countries such as India and China rely on huge palm oil imports to meet their populations’ nutritional needs, bringing billions of dollars to top producer countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia. As long as the world needs vegetable oil, there is no question that the palm oil industry will continue to grow; what we need to be concerned with how this expansion happens.

The development of new oil palm plantations does not need to entail forest destruction. While precious ecosystems are being devastated, millions of hectares of abandoned land lie idle, available for cultivation.  It is estimated that the amount of land growing oil palms in Indonesia could quadruple without impacting forests (, enabling the industry to grow whilst drastically reducing its environmental footprint.

The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil ( was established to create a clear set of standards for reducing the environmental impacts of the industry. Change has been slow, and it’s not a perfect system, but oil certified as sustainable according to these standards has started to trickle into the world market.

Many millions of hectares of forests have already been lost to the palm oil industry. It is absolutely critical that the conversion of forests is stopped. We need more research into how to increase output on existing plantations, as current yields are in many cases well below their potential, and this would reduce the need for cultivating more land.  Environmentally-sensitive land use planning, improved productivity, responsible investment by banks and purchasing by manufacturers and retailers are all crucial to halt the conversion of Indonesia’s forests for agricultural development.

So what can you do to help? If you know a certain product contains palm oil, and would rather not to buy it on that basis, make sure that you write to the company that makes it and tell them. You can also demand that companies use only certified sustainable palm oil, and to clearly label this on their packaging. Making your voice heard really can make a difference – several big companies have already made commitments to cleaning up their palm oil supply after hearing from their customers about this issue (see for a list).  We can all also pressure our elected officials to make decisions that help conserve our planet's limited resources and threatened biodiversity, and save precious species, including the orangutan, from extinction.

For further information on the environmental and social impacts of the palm oil industry see:


Tuesday, 12 October 2010

The power of the flagship species

How protecting one species can help protect thousands more – and aid in the fight against climate change too.

As awareness about our impact on the world around us grows, so does the power of the flagship species – emblematic animals which draw attention to an urgent environmental issue, or a critical habitat under threat.

Take the Sumatran orangutan (Pongo abelii), a critically endangered species, and deforestation of the Leuser Ecosystem in northern Sumatra, one of the most biodiverse forests in the world. While these iconic animals consistently win hearts and minds thanks to their intelligence, unique character and striking similarity to humans, many people don’t realise just how much we can achieve through their protection.

Like the more numerous, but still endangered, Bornean orangutan (Pongo pygmaeus), Sumatran orangutans are a fantastic flagship species for Indonesia’s forests, incredible animals that can act as ambassadors for this unique habitat and all the other wildlife within it.  

By protecting orangutans and their rainforest home, we can help literally thousands of other species, from the world’s smallest fish - Paedocypris progenetica, discovered just a few years ago, to the world’s longest snake, the reticulated python. Then there are the Sumatran tigers, elephants, rhinos, clouded leopards – the list goes on.

Orangutans also play a crucial role in forest regeneration. Spending most of their time up in the trees and with a diet consisting of over 400 different plants and fruits they spread seeds over great distances, helping maintain the diversity of the entire ecosystem.

Of course it’s not just plants and animals that benefit as a result; millions of people are dependent on these unique ecosystems too. As well as supplying food, fresh water, fuel and natural medicines, the forests are also crucial for soil fertility, flood control, prevention of fires and more.

The forests of Indonesia - and of Malaysia, home to Bornean orangutans – are also crucially important in the fight against climate change. The ancient forests of Sumatra and Borneo are vital carbon sinks - especially those on deep peat soils. Deforestation leads to the release of centuries’ worth of carbon stored in the soil and in the trees themselves. Around 20% of global greenhouse gas emissions come from the clearance and burning of forests, more than those from transport, and Indonesia is losing its forests faster than any other country.

The loss of their rainforest home is the greatest threat pushing the orangutan to the brink of extinction; as forests are burnt, logged and converted to plantation agriculture, the call for their protection becomes ever more urgent. Around half of Sumatra’s forests have been lost in the last 25 years. By working with communities living next to the last remaining orangutan habitat, restoring damaged forests, and supporting local government in protecting the Leuser Ecosystem, we offer a lifeline to Sumatran orangutans, and the thousands of other species they represent.

Visit www.orangutans-sos-org. You can help protect Sumatran orangutans and their rainforest home from just £2 per month. Thank you.

Photo: Nick Tignonsini


Thursday, 17 June 2010

Follow the OranguVans and See The Difference

We know boasting isn’t the British thing to do, but we’d like to break with tradition for just a minute.

Some months back, we teamed up with a new not-for-profit video site called See The Difference (STD), and we were one of the very first charities in the UK to get involved. With STD, you can choose a charity project that means something to you (and, not being funny, but ours is totally awesome), know exactly where your money goes and then See The Difference you make as we will post feedback updated clips on on each project. Cool, huh?!

We got together with the team at See The Difference to make three initial videos, which we will show you over the next week or so (or just watch them all on See The Difference). The first one we will share with you shows you our OranguVan project. Many communities living near forests in Sumatra don’t know the importance of conservation. Equipped with a mobile environmental library and conservation cinema, our OranguVans travel around the island to teach locals about the forest, and the impact of deforestation on Orangutans and people.

Click on the picture below to see our video.

We worked closely with the STD producers to make it the very best we could… and, not being modest, we think we did a brilliant job!

So, now we’ve done a bit of bragging, it’s your turn! We wouldn’t want you to feel left out…

Imagine getting proof that you helped change the world? That’s got to be worth a decent amount of bragging right? Plus, you’ll be one of the first people ever to get involved!

If you do nothing else after reading this, please do go and watch our video… leave a comment, and go a bit crazy with the Share buttons! Post it to your Facebook, email it to friends, print out the page and glue it around town… whatever floats your boat!

Get vocal! It’ll be sooooo much easier for us to purchase a new OranguVan with your help!


Thursday, 3 June 2010

Orangutan Sculpture

Jason Hanaman is an American sculptor specialising in orangutans. He has created a sculpture of Abdul, an orangutan Lucy helped rehabilitate many years ago and 25% of money raised through sales is donated to SOS.

The story of Abdul
Abdul died in April 2008 after being shot by a local farmer. He was killed because he was raiding crops. This is further evidence that human-orangutan conflict is on the increase as the forest shrinks. Abdul was 19 years old when he died; a wild orangutan’s natural life span is around 50 years. He arrived at the Bohorok centre as a 4-year-old in 1993, when it was an active rehabilitation centre. SOS founding director, Lucy Wisdom, was actively involved with Abdul’s rehabilitation process. He was fully released into the wild in 1998, but found his way back to the Bohorok centre 7 months later. Looking healthy and mature, he was now sporting a beard. He was again released in 1999 but a few months later turned up at the centre. Lucy says, “In some ways it was reassuring to see him back, looking so well and knowing he had survived the past few months independently in the wild”. Most of his first four years were spent in a cage.

Abdul back in Bukit Lawang relaxing on the grass when he was still alive
Abdul was a good teacher for younger orangutans on the rehabilitation programme. Lucy said “I remember Abdul getting a pointy stick and working it into a hole in a tree. When he withdrew the stick it was covered in wild honey, which he promptly licked off, then repeated the process. Several younger orangutans watched him intently and copied his technique. I had no idea there was honey in this tree; it was in an area I often visited with my young charges as the lianas were good for climbing practice. After that I used it to teach orangutans about wild honey extraction.”

The Sculpture
Two versions are available
One is cast stone with a bronze coating and patina. Limited to 150 castings, price: $100
The other is an eco cold cast bronze made with environmentally friendly aqua resin and bronze powder. Limited to 100 castings, price: $150.
Size: 7 inches tall, 6 inches wide.

The Abdul sculpture

25% of money from sales of the sculpture will go to SOS (and 25% to Orangutan Republik)
Domestic shipping within the US: $12
International shipping: $30

To order your sculpture please e-mail:

Enjoy! XX


Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Orphan Orangutan Rescue

On Monday evening our team in Sumatra received a report from a local farmer in Meka Makmur village, of an orphaned orangutan.
The story is conveyed by Putup (a RARE-OIC staff member); the farmer found the young orangutan in his durian tree. After hearing the orangutan crying, and searching for his mother, he decided that the orangutan was stressed as he had been "abandoned" by her. The farmer therefore climbed the durian tree, and gently teased the orphan to the ground. He then placed the orangutan in a small hut on his farmland before returning home for the evening.
The next morning the farmer returned to his hut bringing fruit and sweet tea for the orangutan. The orphan lived in this hut for a day or so until the farmer built him a small cage. One week later the farmer got in touch with Puput, telling him he had an orangutan and how he had come across it.
Miran from OIC was part of the urgent response team

That day we deployed two of the Human Orangutan Conflict Response Unit team, Rabin and Rudi, to verify this report. They joined Puput to go to the farmland where they found the orangutan and confirmed it is a one-year-old male. Within a couple of hours the team had removed the orphan from his cage and headed to an orangutan rescue and rehabilitation centre.

It is important to remember that infant orangutans are highly dependant on their mothers for survival and development, they stay with her for at least five years in order to learn enough to survive in the forest. The care of such a young orphan needs to be conducted by a trained orangutan rescue centre.

In order to obtain an infant for the pet trade, the mothers are killed. It has been estimated that for every infant that survives the process of capture and transport, at least 3 others will have been lost, and each of these infants also represents the death of an adult female orangutan. We do not know what happened with this infant’s mother, if she was killed accidentally or on purpose. The one thing we do know is that she would have never voluntarily left her baby’s side, and she would have put up a fight if someone tried to take him away.

The young orphan is now in safe hands, in the care of the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme (SOCP) at their rescue centre just outside Medan.

Here at the SOS, we are continuously fundraising in order to keep all our projects rolling. It is important to find more money for human orangutan conflict mitigation, as well as our ongoing conservation work.

There are many ways you can help fund our projects: become a member, make a donation, leave a legacy, or fundraise for us. You can see more photos from the rescue on our Facebook page.

Background information:
Organizational information:
The Human Orangutan Conservation Response Unit (HOCRU) is trained specifically to deal with situations where orangutan and human interests conflict. It is a collaboration between SOS, the Orangutan Information Centre (OIC), SOCP and the Government. HOCRU works closely with our OIC community conservation team, identifying current and potential problems and how best to solve them. All SOS projects in Sumatra operate trough the Orangutan Information Centre (OIC), and SOCP deals with all rescues and rehabilitations of orangutans in Sumatra.

Illegal trading:
In theory, orangutans are protected in Sumatra by legislation dating from 1931, which prohibits the owning, killing, or capture of orangutans. In practice, poachers still hunt them, mostly for the pet trade. In international law, orangutans are listed on Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), prohibiting unlicensed trade due to the conservation status of the species in the wild. However, there is a huge local, national, and international demand for infant orangutans to be kept as pets. The maximum penalty for keeping an orangutan captive is 5 years in jail and 100 million rupiah fine (approx £7,500).


Monday, 24 May 2010

Elephant day out

Saturday was the big "Meet the Artists and Conservationists" day in London. We packed our bag full of business cards and headed to town. Luckily for us it was a lovely day, probably one of the hottest days this year, so Londoners and tourists alike headed to the parks for a nice picnic and day out. The turn-out was really great, we must have talked to well over 100 people, telling them about our photo competition, about what we do, about the plight of the orangutan and life in general. Hoping more people will start sending us their photos now so that we get a nice selection before the competition closes on the 30th june. 

Everybody loves Harapan

Even the Mounted Branch of the London police force


Thursday, 13 May 2010

Harapan, the painting

And the story about Harapan continues...
We have started getting photos from people who have visited Harapan in Green Park. We are hoping to get loads and loads of photos of you and Harapan so keep sending them in and we will start posting them on our facebook page in a couple of weeks time. For those of you that don't know, we launched a simple photo competition which is open to all, a couple of weeks ago, all you really have to do is go see our elephant in London. Anyway, the lovely Rebecca has just sent us a photo of the painting she is making for the winner of the photo competition. We here at SOS really like it and wish we could have a copy for the office but it's a one off only and will be going straight to one of our photo loving, elephant treasure-hunting supporters!
What do you guys think about it?


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