Africa’s great apes threatened by growth in oil palm plantations

11 July 2014

The growing demand for palm oil threatens the survival of Africa’s great ape species. This is the conclusion of a continent-wide analysis conducted by an international team of researchers, including Serge Wich, professor at the University of Amsterdam and Liverpool John Moores University. The team’s findings were recently published in the scientific journal ‘Current Biology’.

Palm oil is used in a large number of products, including cookies, washing powders and, more recently, biofuels. As a result of the increasing demand for palm oil, large-scale oil palm plantations (the chief source of palm oil – ed.) are being expanded in Southeast Asia, and plans are also underway to do so on the African continent. 

According to the researchers’ findings, the new areas earmarked for future palm oil production will cover nearly 60% of the African apes’ natural habitat. The impact is expected to be greatest in Liberia, Côte d’Ivoire, Sierra Leone and Ghana in West Africa, and all countries in Western Equatorial Africa and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

New guidelines needed

The researchers who worked on the study examined the potential impact of oil palm development in Africa on some of the continent’s most famous animals: gorillas, chimpanzees and bonobos. Besides discussing the importance of developing new guidelines for the expansion of oil palm plantations so as to mitigate the negative effects on apes, the researchers also highlight the need to assess how land use can be optimised to reflect economic development and carbon emissions and to mitigate future human-wildlife conflict issues.

Serge Wich: ‘The existing impact of oil palm development in areas like Southeast Asia is often illustrated by the large negative consequences it has had for the orangutan, Southeast Asia’s iconic great ape. We are looking at ways to stop this becoming a threat to African great ape species, while also looking at how best to protect the environment and not hamper economic growth.”

Lian Pin Koh, professor at the University of Adelaide, adds: ‘There is little doubt that oil palm development will bring much needed social and economic benefits to the people of Africa. We just need to ensure these benefits do not come at an unacceptable price to Africa's natural environment.’

International collaboration

The study is a joint endeavour between Liverpool John Moores University, the University of Kent, the University of Adelaide, the University of Amsterdam, the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research in Leipzig, and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, ETH Zurich. 

Published by  UvA Persvoorlichting