More than 20,000 orangutans have been poached, killed by loggers or sold into the illegal pet trade in the past 10 years, according to a new report (pdf) from Nature Alert, Ltd., in Bath, England, and the Jakarta, Indonesia–based Center for Orangutan Protection (COP) that says not a single person in Indonesia has been prosecuted for these lucrative crimes.

The population of the endangered Bornean orangutan (Pongo pygmaeus) is currently estimated at fewer than 50,000 by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species—half what it was 60 years ago. The Bornean orangutan's cousin, the critically endangered Sumatran orangutan (P. abelii), has an estimated population of just 7,300 animals—an 80 percent decline in the past 75 years.

International trade in orangutans is forbidden under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), and orangutans are protected in Indonesia, where it is illegal to kill, capture, transport or even injure one of the rare apes.

And yet, the killings continue. "The problem is, the law is never enforced, largely because the Ministry of Forestry has never shown any interest in serious wildlife or habitat protection," says Sean Whyte, director of Nature Alert.

As to why so many orangutans have been killed, it basically boils down to one word: greed. It's not the orangutans themselves that have commercial value. Rather, it's the land that they live on, which is being burned down to make room for massive (and often illegal) palm oil plantations. Palm oil is a common ingredient in many processed foods. Around 90 percent of the world's palm oil comes from Indonesia and Malaysia.

"Indonesia's forests are being destroyed at a rate equivalent to six football fields a minute," says Richard Zimmerman, director of Orangutan Outreach in New York City, which helps to raise funds for the COP and helped to fund the new report. "When you fly over Borneo today, all you see is mile after mile of oil palm plantations where only a few years ago you would have seen pristine tropical rainforest. The forest is simply gone. And every creature living in it has been slaughtered."

When forests are cleared, adult orangutans are often shot and killed, but not before they are otherwise mistreated. "These peaceful, sentient beings are beaten, burned, mutilated, tortured and often eaten. Babies are torn off their dying mothers so they can be sold on the black market as illegal pets to wealthy families who see them as status symbols of their own power and prestige. This has been documented time and again," Zimmerman says.

The palm oil plantations are "miles and miles long," he says. To make matters worse, "it's a monocrop that destroys the soil. When satellite imagery is taken of the region, you see scorched earth where the forests have been destroyed."

Hardi Baktiantoro, director of the COP, puts that into context, with the following prepared statement: "The palm oil industry must be one of the worst, maybe even the worst, environmentally damaging industries in the world."

Nature Alert and the COP are calling on the government of Indonesia to start enforcing its existing laws and to stop issuing new permits for logging or palm oil plantations in area where orangutans live.

Until Indonesia takes action, all three groups say that people around the world can help by not buying products that contain palm oil, and to ask their retailers not to sell those products. "Consumers have real power, if only they will use it," Whyte says. "In the U.S. especially, we need lots more people to start questioning their retailers. In Europe it has been successful and this past week in New Zealand, Cadbury's have promised to remove palm oil from their chocolate."

"Awareness is first and foremost, especially in this country," Zimmerman says. "So many people have no idea what palm oil is, where it comes from, or why it's a problem."

Image: Dead orangutan being carried off of a palm oil plantation, courtesy of the Center for Orangutan Protection