In this section discover what palm oil is, what it's used in, how it's grown, and the impact its current production has on the environment and on wildlife.
What is palm oil?
Palm oil comes from the oil palm plant, native to West Africa. It was introduced to Indonesia and Malaysia in the early 1900s. Today these two countries produce over 85% of the world's palm oil.
What is palm oil used in?
Palm oil is now an ingredient in at least one out of every 10 supermarket products, including food, cosmetics, cleaning and bath products.
How much demand is there for palm oil?
Such is the demand, the world's consumption of palm oil is doubling every 10 years.
By 2020, palm oil production is projected to double to 48.6
million tonnes. The majority of this growth in production will take
place in Indonesia, and by this time Indonesia is expected to more
than triple the area until oil palm cultivation, potentially
reaaching 16.5 hectares.
How is palm oil produced?
In Indonesia and Malaysia, where over 85% of the world's palm oil is produced, virgin rainforests and peat swamp forests are logged, cleared and burned to plant oil palm plantations.
While there are millions of hectares of degraded land available that could be used for oil palm plantations, the majority of companies choose to first log virgin rainforests to make additional profit from selling this valuable forest times (e.g. kwila). They then plant this deforested land with oil palm plants. An estimated 73 - 88% of all timber logged in Indonesia is illegal.
How much forest is cleared every year for oil palm plantations?
Indonesia alone converts 3,400km2 (340,000ha) of forest into oil palm annually. That's 54 rugby fields every hour!
Between 1985 and 2007 nearly half of Sumatra's forests
disappeared, and in the past decade nearly 80% of deforestation in
Sumatra's peat swamp forests (highest orangutan density) was driven
by the expansion of oil palm plantations.
Reference: September 2011 United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) report: Orangutans And The Economics Of Sustainable Forest Management in Sumatra http://www.grida.no/publications/organgutans-sumatra/
Given the current rate of deforestation, it is predicted that
98% of lowland forest in Indonesia may be destroyed by 2022.
Reference: UNEP 2007 report: Last Stand Of The Orangutan http://www.grida.no/publications/rr/orangutan/
The destruction of these rainforest and peat swamp forest ecosystems is threatening the survival of the Sumatran and Bornean orangutans, the Sumatran tiger, Asian rhino, Asian elephant, and hundreds of other species.
Less than 6,600 Sumatran orangutans remain in the wild
today. It is predicted this critically endangered great ape
could be the first of the great apes living today to go extinct in
the wild - with local populations disappearing in Sumatra as early
Reference: UNEP September 2011 report: Orangutans And The Economics of Sustainable Forest Management In Sumatra http://www.grida.no/publications/organgutans-sumatra/
What about certified sustainable palm oil?
Auckland Zoo welcomes the criteria established by the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) and the development of a programme to certify plantations that are producing sustainable palm oil.
However, while criteria developed by the RSPO are commendable, they largely remain an aspiration to the majority of palm oil producers. The RSPO is an industry-led group, not an independent body, so it is still not a 100% guarantee that palm oil is from a sustainable source.
There are some certified sustainable palm oil plantations around, but only 4% of the world's palm oil is certifiably sustainable, and this cannot be traced back to the plantation that produced it.
Sustainable palm oil means rainforests have not been recently cleared and biodiversity has not been harmed. Unfortunately, sustainable palm oil is more costly than other palm oil, and many companies are choosing the cheaper option.
The orangutan is a great ape that's genetically 97% the same as us. It is known as the 'gardener of the forest' because of the vital ecological role it plays as a seed disperser of hundreds of tree and plant species.
The IUCN Red List of threatened species lists the Sumatran
orangutan as Critically Endangered and the Bornean orangutan as
Endangered. The Oil for Ape Scandal report states: "If forest
conversion for oil palm continues, the palm oil industry will be
significantly contributing to the extinction of both species of
Reference: September 2005 report "The oil for ape scandal; how palm oil is threatening orangutan survival" www.foe.co.uk/resource/reports/oil_for_ape_summary.pdf
The IUCN Red List also lists the Sumatran tiger, and Sumatran and Javan rhino as Critically Endangered, and the Asian elephant as Endangered.
Together, these animals and hundreds of other threatened and ecologically important species play a key role in keeping forest ecosystems healthy - for animals, plants and people.
The South East Asian islands of Borneo and Sumatra are home to:
All these species depend on South East Asian rainforests in order to survive. When their homes are destroyed, unlike us, it is not as simple as moving somewhere else. At the current rate of deforestation (54 rugby fields an hour!) there is nowhere else for these animals to go. They perish slowly by starvation, or they come into inevitable conflict with plantation owners as they search for food, and are either killed or sold illegally as pets.
The wild population of Bornean orangutans is optimistically estimated 30,000 - 40,000. There are less than 6,600 Sumatran orangutans in the wild, making them one of the top 25 most endangered primates in the world.
Orangutans give birth just once every six to 10 years, making them the world's slowest breeding animal. They are the only Asian great ape and the largest arboreal mammal on Earth. It is predicted orangutans could be extinct in the wild by 2022 if deforestation and the burning of peat forests continues.
Critically endangered and only found on the island of Sumatra, there are now fewer than 400 Sumatran tigers left in the wild - leaving this species on a knife-edge fight for survival.
To find out more about tiger conservation, visit www.21stcenturytiger.org
There are three species of Asian rhinoceros - all critically endangered. The Indian rhino is doing the best of the three species but is down to about 2,000 animals. The Sumatran rhino has only 300 or fewer individuals left. Sitting on the brink of extinction, the Javan rhino is down to only 50-60 individuals. Already on the brink of extinction, any pressure from oil palm plantations expansion is likely to push these species over the edge.
To find out more about Asian rhino visit www.asianrhinos.org.au
Elephants are in trouble throughout Asia. Total numbers are estimated at about 30,000 remaining in the wild. Populations are fragmented and scattered throughout South East Asia - i.e. Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam, Myanmar, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Laos, Cambodia, China and India. The trouble facing elephants now is that although overall numbers sound okay, elephants are rarely found in numbers needed to sustain future populations, and those remaining are increasingly coming into conflict with humans as agriculture infringes on wild habitat. The future for elephants is an uncertain one.
As advocates for wildlife, Auckland Zoo believes the only way to save these species and forest habitats and slow the uncontrolled expansion of oil palm plantations is to reduce palm oil consumption, and therefore demand for palm oil.
Auckland Zoo is committed to avoiding or minimising the use or sale of products that contain palm oil, and is working towards its ultimate goal - to be palm oil-free.
Through the Auckland Zoo Conservation Fund, Auckland Zoo supports wildlife conservation projects in Sumatra that help protect and conserve the Sumatran orangutan, Sumatra tiger, Asian rhino, Asian elephant and a range of other species and their habitats.