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Companies Face Criticism In Campaign Against Rainforest Destruction

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Wildlife advocates say orangutans are losing their  habitats due to the destruction of rainforests.
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Wildlife advocates say orangutans are losing their habitats due to the destruction of rainforests.

In 1950, 12 percent of the Earth was covered by rainforests. Today, that number's been cut in half, and large corporations continue to cut down giant trees.

"When you go to Sumatra, you just see barge after barge after barge of trees just coming out of the forest," says David McLaughlin of the World Wildlife Fund.

He says orangutans are on the run because their forest homes are disappearing.

At the International Center for Animal Rescue in Borneo, veterinarian Carmela Llano-Sanchez helps care for 27 animals, many of them babies whose mothers were killed by loggers.

"These are only the ones that we have found. There are many more we don't find. There are many that die during the process. [For every one] that you see means at least one mother is dead because it's impossible to get a baby orangutan without killing the mother," Llano-Sanchez says.

Another vet, Charlottesville native Jenny Jaffe, recently helped care for a baby that was found on the jungle floor, dehydrated, malnourished and suffering from cerebral malaria.

"So it had convulsions and could not see, and I really thought she would not make it, but she got around-the clock care, and now she's doing a lot better. She eats like a horse. The sad thing is that she still cannot see. We tried putting her in the playground and she can climb. It's amazing," she says.

But because the baby is blind, she will never be released into the wild, and the vets frankly admit there are fewer and fewer places where orangutans can be safely released. Sumatran tigers are also in danger because of consumer demand for cheap paper made from rainforest trees.

"We are really making a trade off here between tigers or toilet paper," McLaughlin says.

And it turns out some of that toilet paper maybe manufactured in Virginia. Last year, the state spent $250,000 to lure Mercury Paper's headquarters to a site along I-81 in Strasburg. The company promised to create 150 jobs at its existing plant, and Gov. Bob McDonnell welcomed them, despite the fact that parent company, Shanghai-based Asia Pulp and Paper, had recently defaulted on billions of dollars in loans and still owed the U.S. government more than $50 million.

A sister company, which produces palm oil, recently promised to stop cutting down virgin forest after Greenpeace published the names of its customers: Kentucky Fried Chicken, Nestle, Unilever and other consumer brands. Now, the pressure is on Asia Pulp and Paper, with toymaker Mattel under fire for allegedly using APP's cheap packaging material from the rainforest.

Greenpeace launched its latest campaign with a viral video in which an animated Ken doll breaks up with Barbie after viewing pictures and video on a TV talk show.

Mattel says it's investigating and has told its suppliers to stop buying from Asia Pulp and Paper. Here in Virginia, Mercury Paper says its raw materials come from providers who plant over 1.5 million trees every day to supply a stream of renewable, eco-friendly fibers. No agency has verified that claim, and Mercury's CEO did not return our calls. On the ground in Indonesia, the environmental group Eyes on the Forest reports Asia Pulp and Paper has been unwilling to establish sustainable operations that don't rely on the clearance of natural forests.

Hausman went on a fact-finding trip with the International Reporting Project for this story.

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