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Michigan girl scouts take on saving endangered species in Asia

Rhiannon (L) and Madi (R).jpg
Rhiannon Tomtishen and Madison Vorva
Rhiannon Tomtishen (left) and Madison Vorva (right) are working to save rainforests in Asia.

Two Ann Arbor teens are trying to save Orangutans on the other side of the globe from becoming extinct. Orangutans have become an endangered species because of poaching and the rainforests they live in are being destroyed.

15-year olds Rhiannon Tomtishen and Madison Vorva became friends 4 years ago through Girl Scouts. Tomtishen says it their mission started when they decided to work together to earn a bronze award.

“It was sort of selfish. I did want to wear that nice shiny pin on my Girl Scout vest.”

Tomtishen says they were inspired by researcher Jane Goodall. Instead of researching gorillas, they chose the endangered orangutan.

Orangutans’ habitat is in the rainforest in Asia. Ecologist Doug Boucher says the primates have fewer and fewer places to live as the forest is cut down. 

“We traditionally think of deforestation as being done by peasant farmers, you know, cutting down a couple of acres of forest to plant their crops but in fact that’s not the case anymore.”

Boucher says big commercial farmers are using the land more and more to near the Amazon rainforest to raise cattle and grow soybeans; and in Asia to grow oil palm trees.

Oil palm trees have a high yield compared to olive trees, corn, or other vegetable oil. You can find it in bath and beauty products as well as thousands of processed foods.

Rhiannon Tomtishen recalls when they looked at the ingredient label and discovered palm oil is in girl cookies.

“We felt motivated to continue this project and I think we also felt that because we were girl scouts and because this was an issue in Girl Scout cookies, we thought we were going to be able to make a change.”

So far, the teens have not been able to persuade Girls Scout of America to get the palm oil out of their cookies. They have, however, been successful with Battle Creek-based cereal maker Kellogg’s.

Kellogg’s owns one of the two companies that makes Girl Scout cookies. Kellogg’s announced they’d begin purchasing green palm certificates. The certificates give farmers who don’t cut down rainforests extra money. At this point you can’t buy sustainable palm oil because it’s all gets mixed together before getting to buyers.

Tomtishen and Vorva have stopped eating girls scout cookies and refuse to sell them.

Lindsey Smith helps lead the station's Amplify Team. She previously served as Michigan Radio’s Morning News Editor, Investigative Reporter and West Michigan Reporter.