How do a West African plant and you, a consumer in America, contribute to a growing wildlife crisis in Asia? The first part of the answer involves the African oil palm tree (Elaeis guineensis) that produces an edible vegetable oil from its fruit.
Palm oil is found in a wide range of products that you buy everyday: cookies, frozen meals, cosmetics, and shampoos to name a few. When you next buy your groceries, look at the list of ingredients to see how pervasive palm oil is – if you see palm kernel oil, palmitate, palmitic acid, or stearic acid, the product uses palm oil or a derivative of palm oil. In 2009, 33 million metric tons of palm oil was produced in Indonesia and Malaysia, helping to make it the most widely produced edible oil.
Over the weekend, I carried out an inventory of my own home to see how many products I have that contain palm oil. I found one: a package of maple pecan granola bars by Nature’s Path. The ingredient list indicated the palm oil was organic, and I’ve reached out to the company to see if it’s from a supplier that harvests it in a sustainable manner for wildlife. There’s one of two things you can read into my inventory. I am either fairly wildlife friendly in my shopping habits, or I am hopeless at shopping and have a fairly empty cupboard. The answer, I think, lies somewhere between the two.
It is a serious problem though. Each year, millions of acres of virgin rainforest in Borneo and Sumatra are cut down by palm oil companies and peat bogs are drained in order to plant new oil palm tree monocultures, devastating habitat for a wide range of animals including endangered species like orangutans and Asian elephants and displacing local indigenous communities. Interesting, you might be thinking, but what does this have to do with accredited zoos and aquariums? A fair question – and here is the answer.
The Cheyenne Mountain Zoo in Colorado Springs, Colo., is taking the lead among AZA accredited zoos in educating people about the issue and what steps individuals can take to ensure the palm oil they are consuming comes from sustainable sources. In February of 2011, the Zoo became the first zoo to join the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). The RSPO is a non-profit association of international stakeholders from across the palm oil industry, including producers, processors, retailers, and conservation groups. The goal is to develop and implement global standards for sustainable palm oil. To achieve RSPO certification, members must meet stringent environmental and social criteria and protect native wildlife in the process.
“We feel that Cheyenne Mountain Zoo’s palm oil awareness program has helped move certified sustainable palm oil forward, as our guests have become more knowledgeable consumers in how their choices and actions affect orangutans,” says Tracey Gazibara, vice president at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo. “Through our leadership in the AZA, many other zoos are utilizing our tool kit materials and sharing these crucial messages with their guests as well, enabling us to spread the word on a much larger scale than we could ever do on our own. Overall we are excited about the progress, but there is still a lot more work to be done.”
So, what’s the solution? Boycott products that have palm oil in it? That’s not what is being advocated because it is trans fat-free and, sustainably managed, it is a high-yield agricultural product that can provide important economic opportunities to impoverished communities – what is being asked is that you shop smart. You can print out a copy of Cheyenne Mountain Zoo’s Palm Oil Shopping Guide and buy products from companies that belong to the RSPO (650 companies from 50 countries are already members) or look for the new (as of June 2011) RSPO trademark on products in stores. If you’re shopping with a friend, take a moment to educate them about the issue – if you have the guide on you, it might add a fun dimension to the whole trip to see how orangutan-friendly you can be while shopping.
Conservation crises like this can grow unabated because people don’t realize how their simple actions – like purchasing granola bars – might have a ripple effect in other parts of the world.