Palm oil & biodiversity loss
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
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
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.