Posted: 11 February 2013. Updated: 14 September 2016
The cultivation of palm oil is considered a major threat to wildlife but, despite this, little research has been done to establish how biodiversity is affected by palm oil plantations.
The orangutan has become the symbol of the devastation that the palm oil trade can bring to a region, destroying habitats and leaving huge areas of deforestation in its wake. In their native homes of Indonesia and Malaysia, on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra, a number of orangutan attacks and deaths have been linked to palm oil production.
Illegal fires, created to clear land for palm oil plantations, are responsible for multiple loss of life – one such fire was thought to have killed a third of the orangutan population, over 100 individuals, in the Tripa swamp in Sumatra. As a result of fires during 1997-98, the IUCN estimated that the population of the endangered Bornean Orangutan was reduced by a third; a devastating loss.
Although palm oil is primarily used as an ingredient in foods and cosmetics, alternative uses for the oil and by-products are being investigated, especially the potential role of palm oil as a source of biofuel. This can only increase demand for the oil, and the threat of further habitat loss.
The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was founded in 2004 to promote the use of sustainable palm oil. Despite its seemingly good intentions, the RSPO has been criticised by academics and environmentalists for its pro-industry bias, for compromising its mission and for not taking a stronger stance against deforestation and the draining of peat swamps.
Action must be taken now to ensure that tropical habitats are safeguarded, before it is too late.