What You Buy at the Supermarket Could Endanger Africa’s Apes

Our demand for palm oil has encouraged the spread of plantations to African forests inhabited by gorillas and chimpanzees.
Jul 10, 2014· 1 MIN READ
Katharine Gammon has written for Nature, Wired, Discover, and Popular Science. A new mom, she lives in Santa Monica.

The spread of palm oil plantations in Southeast Asia has ravaged forest-dwelling orangutans, whose population has dwindled to 7,300 individuals in the wild. Now a budding palm oil boom in Africa threatens that continent’s great apes.

Demand for palm oil, which is considered a healthy alternative to butter, has skyrocketed in recent years, becoming an ingredient in scores of products, from chocolate to shampoo to biodiesel. About half of the stuff you buy from your local supermarket contains palm oil, according to the World Wildlife Fund.

In a study published in the journal Current Biology, Serge Wich, a biologist at Liverpool John Moores University in the U.K., found a 42 percent overlap between gorilla and chimpanzee habitat and land that is suitable for palm oil plantations. More worrying, nearly 60 percent of land that has already been set aside for palm oil cultivation is inhabited by apes.

But Wich said that simply kicking our palm oil addiction is not a solution for saving the apes.

“Oil palm is the most productive vegetable oil producer there is,” said Wich, who has spent 20 years studying orangutans in Southeast Asia. “If we shifted to soy, we would need to clear more area. It might be in Southeast Asia, but it might be in the Amazon, and we might lose other species. The best thing to do is to make sure that the areas where oil palm currently is have the highest possible production.”

Wich said that companies should also cultivate palm oil on land that has already been cleared rather than cutting down virgin forests. That can be a hard sell, though, as it means growers often must assemble parcels of land from several owners rather than just dealing with the government for a permit to log a forest.

If a forest must be cleared, companies should minimize plantations’ environmental impact, said Wich.

“It may sound weird for a biologist who cares about apes to say, but I’m not against oil palm,” he said.

Palm oil agriculture can bring economic opportunities to impoverished regions, he explained. Some plantations are being established without pushing out apes. “Change is happening, but it needs to go much faster, because the deforestation is still happening at a very rapid rate,” said Wich.