Palm oil & biodiversity loss

Of all WWF's priority agricultural commodities, palm oil poses the most significant threat to the widest range of endangered megafauna – including tigers, elephants, rhinos and orangutans.
Large-scale conversion of tropical forests to oil palm plantations has a devastating impact on a huge number of plant and animal species.

Specific problems include:

  • The destruction of habitats containing rare and endangered species.
  • The elimination of wildlife corridors between areas of genetic diversity.
  • An increase in human-wildlife conflict as populations of large animals – such as tigers, elephants and orangutans – are squeezed into increasingly isolated fragments of natural habitat.
  • Reduced biodiversity in plantations. For example, nearly 80 mammal species are found in Malaysia's primary forests. In contrast, disturbed forests have just over 30 mammal species, while oil palm plantations have only 11 or 12 (Wakker 1998, in Clay (2004) "World Agriculture & Environment"). Similar species reductions occur for insects, birds, reptiles and soil microorganisms.
  • Increased harvesting of animal species for food, the pet trade or other reasons by people lured to plantations as workers.
  • The indiscriminate use of poisons to eliminate rats within oil palm plantations, which also poison other animals attempting to recolonize plantations.

Affected in different ways

A variety of large mammals coexist in Peninsular Malaysia, Sumatra and Borneo– in precisely the areas where oil palm plantations are expanding.

These include tigers (Malaysia, Sumatra), Asian elephants (Malaysia, Sumatra, Borneo), Sumatran rhino (Malaysia, Sumatra, Borneo), orangutans (Sumatra, Borneo), tapir, and sun bear (Malaysia, Borneo).

Some of these species, such as rhinoceros and tiger, simply can't live in the types of disturbed areas that are created in oil palm plantations.

Others, like elephants and orangutans, can – but are considered a pest as they eat oil palm fronds and seeds, and so are often killed.

Poaching of orangutans in cleared areas for the illegal pet trade is also more prevalent. In addition, fires set to clear natural forests for oil palm plantations are thought to have burned thousands of these slow-moving apes to death as they were unable to escape the flames.

Indeed, the palm oil industry is one of the most important factors for the dramatic reduction of orangutan populations in Borneo.

Sources: Clay (2004)
"World Agriculture & Environment"; Ardiansyah (2006) "Realising Sustainable Oil Palm Development in Indonesia – Challenges and Opportunities" International Oil Palm Conference 2006; Wakke (1998) "Lipsticks from the rainforest: Palm oil, crisis and forest loss in Indonesia: the role of Germany" WWF

Elephants & plantations

Elephants not only "eat the profits" in oil palm plantations, but also damage the trees doing it. In some areas elephants have destroyed 20% or more of plantations as large as 5,000 hectares.

To keep elephants out, entire plantations are surrounded by deep trenches, electric fences, or barbed wire.

But elephants still often find ways in – like by walking up unprotected rivers and streams.

The conflicts are not always benign. In at least one instance, an elephant killed a plantation manager. It is not known how many elephants have been killed.

Priority species impacted by oil palm plantations

Rat problems

  • Rats are the most common mammals found within oil palm plantations.

    They are attracted to plantations to feed on oil palm seeds, and flourish  because all their natural predators are removed during the initial forest clearing.

    Snakes and other potential predators are traditionally systematically eliminated if they make any attempt to recolonize oil palm plantations.

    Once established, rats are very difficult to remove from plantations.

    In the past oil palm plantation managers used poisons indiscriminately to eliminate them. This indiscriminate use also poisoned other animals that were attempting to recolonise the plantations.

    Today, more enlightened companies raise and release owls and other predators to control rats on plantations.

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