NPR : News

Filed Under:

Spread Of Palm Oil Production Into Africa Threatens Great Apes

In recent years, consumers have grown increasingly aware that the explosion of palm oil plantations to supply food companies making everything from Pop-Tarts to ramen noodles has taken a heavy toll on the environment.

In Malaysia and Indonesia, where most of the world's palm oil is produced, environmental groups have been putting pressure on suppliers that convert rain forests into plantations.

Now it seems palm oil production in Africa is picking up, too. And the new farms there are threatening great ape populations in West and Central Africa, according to a study published Thursday in the journal Current Biology.

"Africa seems to be the new frontier," says Serge Wich, a primate biologist at Liverpool John Moores University and the lead author of the report. Sixty percent of African oil palm concessions — or land that's been set aside for the development of oil plantations — overlaps with the ape habitats.

Most of the areas in Southeast Asia that are suitable for palm oil production are already in use, Wich says. And as producers have scouted for new terrain suitable for growing palm, they've landed on Africa. That may be bad news for chimpanzees and gorillas in countries like Congo, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Gabon.

Although oil palms are native to Africa, they grow better in Southeast Asian climates, Wich tells The Salt. So palm oil companies that are moving to Africa have to use more land to keep up with the high yields of Asian plantations.

That may have an especially big impact on species like the bonobo — a kind of miniature chimp found mostly in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Wich says. Bonobos are already endangered, and much of their habitat overlaps with the palm oil land concessions.

Wich says he started looking into palm oil production in Africa after seeing the damage the industry did to ape habitats in Asia. "I've seen the impact of oil palms on orangutans in Borneo," he says. "And I began to get worried that the same thing would happen to African apes."

This doesn't necessarily mean we need to stop consuming palm oil to save forests, Wich says. "I think it's difficult to ask consumers to use less oil."

Plus, oil palms are a more efficient source of vegetable oil than say, soybeans or rapeseed, he says.

What palm producers could do is switch to more sustainable growing practices. Producers often prefer to chop down forests because they can sell the wood to pay for the overhead costs of developing a plantation. But "there are areas without forest where oil palm development can happen," Wich says.

As we've reported, in response to pressure from environmental groups, consumers and investors, companies like Kellogg and Dunkin Donuts have committed to using sustainable palm oil.

Glenn Hurowitz, the campaign director at Forest Heroes, a rain forest protection coalition, says the African rain forests and the apes that live there can be saved. "I'm cautiously optimistic," he says. "We're pushing for companies to adopt no-deforestation policies."

And some producers are listening. Wilmar and Golden Agri-Resources, both big palm oil producers working in Asia and Africa, have such policies.

Wich says that's a bit of good news for apes. "There is some progress but it's going very slowly," he says. "And oil palm development is happening very fast."

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

NPR

Military Veterans Take On Zombies In 'Range 15'

Range 15 is a new zombie movie made by war veterans for veterans. It's a dark comedy with a cast that includes a Navy Cross recipient, amputees and William Shatner.
NPR

Chef Eddie Huang On Cultural Identity And 'Intestine Sticky Rice Hot Dog'

Huang and his brothers, Evan and Emery, headed to China to reconnect with their culture, to eat lots and lots of food — and to cook. He's documented his travels in his new book, Double Cup Love.
NPR

Family of Kate Steinle Files Wrongful Death Lawsuit

The suit alleges San Francisco's "sanctuary city" immigration policies led to Steinle's death, allegedly at the hands of a man in the U.S. illegally. It also blames two federal agencies.
NPR

North Korea Linked To $81 Million Bangladesh Bank Heist

Experts say code used by hackers in recent attacks on banks appears to be the same as code used in an attack on Sony Pictures which the FBI says was carried out by North Korea.

Leave a Comment

Help keep the conversation civil. Please refer to our Terms of Use and Code of Conduct before posting your comments.