Shoppers' thirst for palm oil threatens to wipe out orangutan

The demand for a cheap ingredient found in thousands of products, from shampoo to biscuits, is contributing to the extinction of the orangutan, warn conservationists. One in 10 mass-produced foods on Britain's shelves is estimated to contain palm oil, a bulking agent and preservative, but supermarkets and food manufacturers have been accused of doing too little to ensure their supplies are not threatening forests that are vital to the survival of Asia's only great ape.

An estimated 5,000 orangutans are killed each year in Malaysia and Indonesia by the burning of vast tracts of virgin forest to supply the world's growing demand for palm oil. Building roads to the plantations has made the situation worse, by opening up the jungle for poachers, who kill orangutan mothers and sell their babies as pets to Asian families.

WWF, formerly the World Wildlife Fund, estimates that 80 per cent of orangutan habitat has been lost in the past 20 years. Experts warn that at current rates of deforestation, the orangutan will be extinct in the wild in just 12 years. Its disappearance would set a dismal precedent for the survival of other endangered animals such as the polar bear and the tiger.

"The orangutan is one of the monkeys closest to us. We still have a lot to learn about them," said Mark Attwater of the Orangutan Foundation.

Dr Willie Smits, of the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation, said the loss of the orangutan had hastened in the last three years, "and palm oil plantations take the brunt of the blame".

Conservationists say Britain, the second biggest importer of palm oil in the EU, could do more. They want the Government to make companies responsible for the environmental impact of their activities in the Company Law Reform Bill. Five major food retailers - Sainsbury, Marks & Spencer, Waitrose, the Co-op and Asda - have joined a not-for-profit organisation aiming to clean up the palm oil industry. But Britain's biggest retailer Tesco and the major store chains Morrisons and Iceland, have refused to join the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil.

Membership of the Roundtable, which has agreed what constitutes sustainable palm oil and hopes to certify ethically produced supplies of the ingredient within two years, costs £1,300 a year.

According to Friends of the Earth there are now fewer than 60,000 orang-utans left and the United Nations lists the Bornean orangutan as "endangered" and the Sumatran orangutan as "critically endangered".

The threat facing the orangutan is outlined in a report, The Oil for Ape Scandal, by five wildlife groups - Friends of the Earth, the Ape Alliance, the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation, the Orangutan Foundation and the Sumatran Orangutan Society.

The report says that year after year satellite pictures have shown vast fires raging through their habitat, clearing land to meet the global demand for hardwood and palm oil.

Demand is growing quickly for palm oil because of its cheapness and versatility. Friends of the Earth is not calling for a consumer boycott because the prevalence of palm oil would make such a call almost unworkable: it is often listed as "vegetable oil" on labels. But it wants retailers such as Tesco to do more.

Tesco said it was working with its three big suppliers of palm oil to secure sustainable sources. A spokeswoman said the grocer was also seeking to identify the sourcing of the "small amounts" of palm oil which did not come from its three major suppliers.

Ed Matthew, corporate responsibility campaigner for Friends of the Earth, said: "How on earth can Britain's biggest retailer not take this seriously?

"If we can't save the orangutan what hope do we have of saving the natural environment?"

The hidden ingredient

* More than 100 million tons of vegetable oil are produced worldwide every year, of which at least 30 million tons are palm oil.

* The UK is the second biggest importer of palm oil in Europe, after the Netherlands.

* Palm oil increases a food's shelf life.

* Palm oil is found in one in 10 supermarket products in the UK.

* 90 per cent of the world's palm oil exports come from the oil- palm plantations of Malaysia and Indonesia.

* Global palm oil production is projected to double by 2020 to meet increasing demands.

* Oil palm plantations are thought to be responsible for at least half of the observed reduction in orangutan habitat between 1992 and 2003.

* Orangutans used to be found throughout South-east Asia, but now only surviveonBorneo and Sumatra.

* Products containing palm oil include: Bread, biscuits, cereals, chocolate (including Cadbury's chocolate), cooking oil, cosmetics, crackers, crisps (including Walker's crisps), detergents, ice cream, margarine, soap, soup (including Heinz soups), toothpaste

* Tesco own-brand products containing palm oil:

All bread, all crisps, iced buns, value fry chips, vegetable gravy granules, lightly salted tortilla chips, sunflower oil spread, American oven chips, big chips, mushroom quiche, crinkle-cut fry chips, organic shorties, rough oat cakes, finest maple and pecan cookies, fish fingers, mixed nuts and raisins, organic ginger crunch, finest savoury biscuit selection, sage and onion stuffing, hot-cross buns, shredded vegetable suet, value chocolate spread, soap, value seafood sticks