ELSMERE — It might be happening on the other side of the globe, but students at All Saints Catholic School have taken a special interest in the deforestation of an Indonesian island and its effect on an endangered species.
The school is participating in the UNLESS Project, sponsored by the Philadelphia Zoo. This year, the zoo is focusing on the devastating effects of deforestation on the Sumatran tiger. The tiger and other species are losing their habitat on the island of Sumatra because forests are being cleared to make room for oil palm tree plantations.
Palm oil, according to Philadelphia Zoo educator Dani Hogan, is the world’s most widely produced vegetable oil. It is the primary cooking oil in Asia and is found in most packaged goods in the United States, such as cookies, and also in household goods like shampoo and toothpaste.
The demand for this inexpensive product has prompted European, American and some Asian companies to clear about 50 percent of the forests in Sumatra over the last 30 years, Hogan said. Oil palm trees, which are not a habitat for native species, have replaced the natural forests.
“It takes a lot of trees to make this much oil. The problem is that oil palm trees grow best in areas where there is a warm, wet climate, which would be rainforests. So that means that large areas of rainforests are being destroyed in order to plant oil palm trees,” Hogan told a class of eighth-grade students via Skype earlier this month.
UNLESS is an annual project at the zoo, and All Saints, a STEM school that stresses science, technology, engineering and math courses, has participated in each of the school’s three years of existence.
The 69 eighth-graders are doing projects to raise awareness of the tigers’ predicament. Some are making cookies shaped like the animal. Others are making bracelets and handing out flyers. One is making a video that will be posted to YouTube, said Ellen Tannenbaum, a science teacher at All Saints.
“They’re going to do projects to make the public aware of the endangerment of the species,” she said. “Everything they sell will be accompanied by fact sheets.”
The entire school has responded to the UNLESS project, said Mary McCann, an eighth-grader. This is a full-year endeavor at All Saints. As part of UNLESS, the eighth grade will visit the Philadelphia Zoo during Catholic Schools Week.
“At the zoo, the money that we raise, we’re going to give to them,” Mary said.
While the eighth grade took part in the Skype session and will visit the zoo, “the whole school is taking part in this, pre-k through eight. Every class has different projects,” Tannenbaum said.
Mary and her classmate, Eric Hendrixson, said when they were in sixth grade, orangutans were the focus, and Mary’s group did a presentation. Last year, UNLESS concentrated on the polar bear.
“I like that they keep changing it up with different animals to keep the interest,” Eric said.
Hogan said the goal is not to end palm oil production, but to get companies to get their supply from producers who use sustainable methods. This is better for the environment, but not the final solution. Currently, she said, 14 percent of palm oil is sustainable, which involves reusing already deforested land, and cutting down fewer trees.
It is important to let companies know this is important, she said. There is a need to pressure them without threats or boycotts.
“We want to support them and use positive advocacy to encourage them to make the right decision. We believe if enough people get together and make these very small changes where they write a single letter to Kellogg or they change one snack a day, it would make a big difference for tigers,” Hogan said.
The students had a chance to interact with Hogan following her presentation. One asked about the impact ending deforestation would have on jobs in Sumatra. Hogan said a lot of people in Indonesia rely on the palm oil industry to feed their families, but ending deforestation would create jobs in forest management, law enforcement and other areas. Some jobs would be lost, but those would be from the foreign companies.
In response to another student, Hogan suggested some talking points on any information sheets handed out with products the students sell. One that should resonate with people is a concrete number: that without action, Sumatra will be completely deforested in 20 years.
People “realize that at that point in the near future, an entire island with thousands of species could be gone because of this one industry, I think that’s where it’s going to hit home with them,” she said.