Oil producers in Africa are monkeying with our primates


Oil producers in Africa are monkeying with our primates

The world’s thirst for palm oil is a major new threat to African primates

Cape Town bureau chief

The world’s thirst for palm oil is a major new threat to African primates, scientists have warned.
An international team that includes Zoltan Szantoi, from the Department of Geography and Environmental Studies at Stellenbosch University and at the European Commission Joint Research Centre, said growing worldwide demand for palm oil means there is massive pressure to plant millions of hectares of palms in west and central Africa.But the areas most suited to palm cultivation are home to primate species already threatened with extinction.
Revealing their findings in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), the scientists said there were only a few small “areas of compromise”, totalling 130,000ha, with high suitability for palm cultivation and low potential impact on primates.But growing demand for palm oil means an extra 53 million hectares will be needed for the crop by 2050 — and Africa is regarded as the most promising continent for expansion.
Palm oil is used in half of packaged supermarket goods, from food to make-up and cleaning products. Most oil palms grow in south-east Asia, and south and central America, but companies are targeting Africa for new plantations because of its abundant and suitable land resources.Szantoi and colleagues set out to apply lessons learned from the catastrophic impact of industrial palm plantations on wildlife in south-east Asia to assess expected effects  on African primate diversity,
“Primates offer us a detailed view on ecosystem health, as they play an important role in seed dispersal and maintaining the composition of forest communities,” said lead author Giovanni Strona, from the European Commission Joint Research Centre.
“Primate diversity correlates with the diversity of other plant and animal groups, which implies that the potential impact of future oil palm expansion we modelled for primates could extend to biodiversity in general. The home ranges of most African primate species are relatively well known, which made it possible for us to confidently use them in our large-scale analysis.”Primates are also a priority for conservation, because many populations are in steep decline due to agriculture, logging and mining. More than a third of primate species in mainland Africa are threatened with extinction.
The researchers found that maps of primate vulnerability suitability for oil palm cultivation revealed striking similarities  in equatorial and forested regions across west and central Africa.Co-author Ghislain Vieilledent said even if primate vulnerability was prioritised in models for the expansion of palm plantations, species would be under threat.
Strona said the findings added momentum to the growing environmental concern about the deforestation driven by demand for palm oil.
“There is already a momentum for change, with many people worldwide starting to realise how their daily choices can have a significant impact on faraway, vulnerable ecosystems,” he said.
Szantoi added: “There are options which producers and governments as well as consumers can take to curb or mitigate the effects of oil palm plantations. Better management practices of existing plantations are the starting point.
“Consumers could be better educated in terms of cooking oil use, especially in developing countries, where the main source of cooking oil is palm oil-based. Thus general public education is a must.”

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