Primate Rescue Center

Concerns for Apes as Palm Oil Industry Expands Into Africa

Erika Fleury July 21, 2014

First it was the orangutans that suffered as oil palm plantations stretched their way across South-East Asia. Now a new study has shown the great apes of Africa face a similar threat as the burgeoning oil palm industry expands into the region.

Associate Professor Lian Pin Koh, a conservation biologist with the University of Adelaide, says the global thirst for palm oil, found in many everyday products such as chocolate, popcorn, soap, and cosmetics, has led to the saturation of South-East Asia with oil palm plantations. Now, he says, the big oil palm companies are looking to Africa to expand their operations. "In a way the growing of oil palm is very good for Africa because it will help in building their economy," says Koh, who was a co-author of the study. "But from what we have learnt from South-East Asia and the environmental damage there, we are now very worried about the extension into Africa."

Koh says the cultivation of oil palm spread so rapidly through areas like Indonesia and Malaysia that it had drastic consequences on orangutan populations. He says many species of ape could face a similar fate if the growth of the industry into central and western Africa continues at the same pace. "As the farmers and big companies encroached into the forest, these organgutans had nowhere else to go... there were many instances where orangutans were poisoned, shot or chased out of the plantations," says Koh. "We do not want to have history repeat itself."

To determine the threat of oil palm cultivation to great apes, Koh and his colleagues mapped the distribution of great ape species throughout Africa and then worked out how much of their habitat was suitable for growing oil palm. They found that as much as 42 per cent of land suitable for growing oil palm occurs in areas where great apes are found. Of particular concern was the finding that almost 60 per cent of the land that has already been given to companies for oil palm cultivation occurs within great ape habitat.

The researchers also found that not all ape species will be equally affected, with chimpanzees, western gorillas and bonobos being most at risk. The situation could be particularly dire for bonobos, with 99 per cent of their habitat being suitable for growing oil palm.

Although Rodney lives with us at the PRC, his African brethren are at risk due to palm oil expansion onto the continent.

Koh says the results of the study, published in the journal Current Biology, show that action is urgently needed to minimise the impact of oil palm expansion into Africa. "We need to have clear management regulations developed before more oil palm companies move into Africa." One possibility the researchers suggest is to improve the yield of oil palm on those plantations already operating in Africa. "There is a high yield gap that could be closed, particularly with the transfer of technology from companies and government agencies in South-East Asia to those in Africa. And by closing that yield gap we would be able to increase production without much expansion of land," Koh says. The researchers also note that a global carbon market could provide financial incentive for conserving great ape habitat rather than converting it to plantations.

As for the rest of us, Koh says we can all play a role in protecting Africa's great apes by being more selective in the products we purchase. "Consumers can be proactive and go online and look up where their products might be coming from. They can help put pressure on the oil palm industry to move towards more sustainable production practices."

- The ABC

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