Demand for a common vegetable oil found in one in 10 products on supermarket shelves is driving orangutan populations towards extinction, environmental campaigners warned yesterday.
Groups working to save the remaining orangutans in Southeast Asia predict the uncontrolled trade in palm oil could cause the extinction of the continent's only great ape in little over a decade.
They want to raise awareness of the threat among shoppers and are calling on the big supermarkets and the government to act.
Ian Redmond, the chairman of the conservation group Ape Alliance, said: "To the average shopper, the problem seems a world away."
"However, anyone who buys chocolate, crisps, bread, cakes, detergents, toothpaste, shampoo, lipstick or a host of other products may be an unwitting partner in causing the extinction of the orangutan," he said.
Orangutan numbers in the rainforests of Indonesia and Malaysia -- the only place they are found in the world -- have crashed in the last 15 years and are now below 60,000. Experts say an estimated 5,000 die each year as the remaining forest is chopped down to establish profitable palm oil plantations.
Palm oil is a major ingredient in many processed foods, although it is often labelled as vegetable oil. Imports in the UK, for example, doubled between 1995 and last year to 914,000 tonnes, making Britain the second biggest European importer after the Netherlands.
The British naturalist and broadcaster Sir David Attenborough, who visited Borneo earlier this year, said: "I was in areas where five years ago there was a wonderful rainforest and there's now a palm oil plantation. It's being chopped down all the time."
Ed Matthew, a campaigner with Friends of the Earth, said most palm oil entering the UK came from destructive plantations. This year the group asked 96 UK companies about their palm oil suppliers. Of 18 that responded, the majority did not know where their palm oil came from.