Great apes facing 'direct threat' from palm oil farming in South-east Asia and Africa

This picture shows a two-year old orangutan seized from a residents house at the provincial Nature Conservation and Agency (BKSDSA) office in Banda Aceh on Sept 16, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP
This picture shows a two-year old orangutan seized from a residents house at the provincial Nature Conservation and Agency (BKSDSA) office in Banda Aceh on Sept 16, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP

KUALA LUMPUR (AFP) - The destruction of rainforests in Southeast Asia and increasingly in Africa to make way for palm oil cultivation is a "direct threat" to the survival of great apes such as the orangutan, environmentalists warned Thursday.

They said tropical forests were continuing to tumble at a rapid rate, with palm plantations a key driver, despite a decade-old drive by the industry's Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) to encourage sustainable cultivation.

The concerns were voiced on the sidelines of the annual meeting of the RSPO, held this year in Malaysia and which concluded Thursday.

"Orangutan and ape habitats are being destroyed," said Doug Cress, Kenya-based programme coordinator with the UN Environment Programme's great ape protection campaign.

"The destruction of rainforest in Southeast Asia and increasingly now in Africa is a direct threat to the great apes."

In Southeast Asia alone, up to one million hectares of forest - nearly the size of 14 Singapores - is lost annually to agricultural expansion like palm oil, said Adam Harrison, agriculture policy specialist with WWF.

"(Land clearing for plantations) has been high. Some of them are in high-quality forests which will have an impact on climate change," he said.

The problem is most acute in leading palm oil producers Malaysia and Indonesia, which account for 85 per cent of world production, conference participants said.

But it is now also a looming threat in even more poorly regulated Africa, where the industry is set to "explode", according to Cress.

Versatile and cheaply farmed, palm oil is derived from the fruit of the oil palm.

Its use has skyrocketed in recent years and it is now a key ingredient in a vast range of every-day products, from lipstick to instant noodles, shampoo and ice cream.

The RSPO, bringing together stakeholders including producers, end-user manufacturers, and environmental groups, was formed in 2004 as concern over the ecological impact of mushrooming palm cultivation took off.

It seeks to promote production that is environmentally sustainable and respects native land rights, but the organisation's efficacy has increasingly been questioned as forest destruction has continued.

Palm plantations, along with other drivers of deforestation, have been linked to the destruction of habitats critical to endangered species such as orangutan, Asian rhinos and tigers.

Harrison cited as an example Tesso-Nilo National Park in Indonesia, which was set aside as a preserve for tiger and elephant habitats.

"Half of the national park was cleared for palm oil by small-holders. The small-holders then sold the fruits to RSPO members. This is unacceptable," he said.

Harrison said if deforestation continued at current rates, tiger and elephant populations in Southeast Asia could be wiped out within in a decade.