The Palm Oil Conservation Crisis

Sun bears are the smallest of the bears, but they face a big crisis.

Sun bears are the smallest of the bears, but they face a big crisis.

The San Diego Zoo is home to a pair of Bornean sun bears, Marcella and Francis. Sun bears are the smallest of the eight living species of bear and are well adapted to life in their native jungle home. Being small and light makes it easier for them to climb, an important behavior when the trees in your forest can stretch as tall as 80 meters (more than 260 feet), and the fruit they bear is held aloft. If you need to eat, you need to climb! Sun bears have other adaptations for climbing, too: claws to dig into the bark and bare paws to reduce slipping as they ascend or descend. But these physical and behavioral features aren’t put to good use if their jungle home is denuded of trees. Unfortunately, sun bears have been losing trees, and habitat, to palm oil cultivation.

Have you heard about the palm oil conservation crisis? A major driver of deforestation on a grand scale, unsustainable palm oil cultivation poses a threat to plants and animals that live in the tropical regions where it grows best. In Malaysia and Indonesia, where about 90 percent of the world’s palm oil is grown, ancient forests are cleared to make way for new plantings. This eliminates habitat for the vast array of species that call those forests home. Orangutans, tigers, sun bears, hornbills, tapirs, pangolins, orchids…all are increasingly at risk due to the continuous expansion of the palm oil industry. In some cases, this expansion threatens species with extinction; orangutans, for example, are found only on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo, where palm oil cultivation is firmly entrenched. If we can’t put a stop to the unchecked deforestation resulting from farming this commodity, the estimated 50,000 remaining wild orangutans there may someday soon cease to exist.

Why is the palm oil industry growing so rapidly? It’s primarily because the human population is growing, and with it is an increasing need to supply us with food and materials for our daily lives. To that end, oil palm is an extremely versatile crop and can be used in a wide array of products, from food items to bath and hygiene products to biofuels. As a result, palm oil or its derivatives are an ingredient in about 50 percent of the products on the shelves in a typical US supermarket. Everything from sodas to soaps, from peanut butter to packaged cookies, from toothpaste to dinner rolls…all might contain palm oil.

But palm oil is not all bad. For one thing, it’s a very efficient crop to produce. An acre of palm oil plantings produces 4 to 10 times as much oil for sale as other options like soybean or sunflower oil. Palm uses less land to create a volume of edible oil for human consumption than any other choice. This is an important reason why boycotting palm oil is not a good conservation solution; to boycott is to simply push the land-clearance problem off to some other commodity. It only takes a little effort to uncover how the growth of the soybean industry in South America has created a conservation crisis of its own. Thus, avoiding palm oil in favor of other options does not avoid putting biodiversity at risk. Another factor to consider: palm oil has elevated the lives of millions of Malaysian and Indonesian families, and as many as 30 million families worldwide are economically dependent upon palm oil for their livelihoods.

So how do we North Americans, and conservation organizations like San Diego Zoo Global, begin to address this complex issue? In my next post, I will explore this topic in depth and share with you the actions we are taking. As you learn more about the palm oil conservation crisis, we hope you’ll be inspired to take action, too. In doing so, we can preserve some of those big trees for future generations of wild sun bears like Marcella and Francis.

Suzanne Hall is a senior research technician for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous post, Xiao Liwu: Weaning Wrap-up.

RELATED POSTS