For years, environmentalists have been warning that the world’s seemingly insatiable demand for palm oil, the reddish oil extracted from palm fruit that’s used in thousands of everyday products from margarine to cosmetics, poses a major risk to animals in the southeast Asian rainforests that are being cleared for palm cultivation. In Indonesia — a major palm oil producer which Nature reports is losing rainforest at the most rapid rate on the planet — hundreds of endangered orangutans have been killed by plantation workers, according to this disturbing BBC News report.
Now, a newly-published study in Cell Biology warns that the growing push to clear forests for palm oil cultivation in Africa may spell doom for that continent’s great apes as well. In some African countries, 80 percent of the land suitable for palm cultivation overlaps with the habitat of chimpanzees, bonobos and other apes.
“There is an urgent need to develop guidelines for the expansion of oil palm in Africa to minimize the negative effects on apes and other wildlife,” Liverpool John Moores University primate researcher Serge Wich and colleagues conclude.
Friends of the Earth warns that palm oil cultivation is a threat in particular to the Cross River gorilla, one of the least known and most endangered ape species. Only about 250 of the creatures still survive on the border of Nigeria and Cameroon — an area where palm oil producers happen to be developing 50,000 acres of new plantations.
But environmentalists aren’t trying to get consumers to stop using palm oil products altogether — a mission that might be quixotic, considering how much of the stuff that we have grown accustomed to using. Worse yet, replacing palm oil with sunflower, soybean or rapeseed oil might actually exacerbate the problems, since those crops aren’t as efficient as palm in terms of oil yield. So instead, they’ve been pushing manufacturers to switch to the use of certified sustainable palm oil, which is grown on plantations that were cleared before 2005.