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Primate conservation in Africa could draw the short straw in oil palm cultivation
Author: Lynne Rippenaar-Moses
Published: 13/09/2018

A study conducted by international scholars, including Stellenbosch University's Dr Zoltan Szantoi, has found that while profits “derived from oil palm cultivation represents an important source of income" for many tropical countries, including on the African continent, the future expansion of the industry will have a devastating effect on the African primate population. 

The researchers are from the European Commission's Joint Research Centre (EU-JRC), the French Agricultural Research Centre for International Development (CIRAD), Liverpool John Moores University, and ETH Zurich. Their study findings were recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS) journal.

According to PNAS, the researchers were investigating “areas of compromise combining high oil palm suitability with low primate vulnerability, as possible locations where to accommodate new oil palm plantations while reducing detrimental effects on primate populations".

However, says Szantoi, a Research Associate from the Geography and Environmental Studies Department at SU and at the EU-JRC, the research has found that “potential areas of compromise are rare across the whole African continent, covering a total extent of 0.13 Mha of land highly suited to oil palm cultivation – basically an area less than the size of Addo Elephant Park in South Africa –  where primate vulnerability is low, rising to just 3.3 Mha if all land with at least minimum suitability to grow oil palm is taken into account".

“The demand for palm oil is expected to double by 2050," explains Szantoi “which means that  about 53 Mha of additional land will have to be converted to oil palm plantations. However, according to our findings, Africa could host only 3.3Mha with low impact on primates and such an area compared to the African land mass (3037Mha) is extremely small."

The study noted that “populations of many primate species are declining due to human activities such as agriculture, including oil palm cultivation, logging and mining".

“African primates are already under threat, with 37% of species in mainland and 87% of species in Madagascar threatened with extinction. Second, primates are a good proxy for overall biodiversity. They play an important role as seed dispersers in maintaining the composition of forest ecosystems, and thus changes in their population reflects as well as predicts another species wellbeing too."

There is also no indication that the demand for oil palm will reduce in future with the oil used for about 30% of the world's vegetable oil production and growing in importance as a biofuel source. It is also a major contribution to economic growth in the countries in which it is extracted. 

The researchers made their findings by first combining available information on the distribution of 193 African primate species and their threat status to produce a map of cumulative primate vulnerability. This map was compared to a recent oil palm suitability map. The two maps revealed striking similarities across sub-Saharan Africa, with areas of high primate vulnerability and oil palm suitability overlapping. This indicates that the extent of areas to grow oil palm at minimum suitability levels without impacting primate habitat is extremely small, accounting for only 6.2% of the land that would be required to cope with oil palm demand by 2050 (53Mha). This percentage is reduced to 0.2% if the analysis is limited to high suitable land only.   

According to Ghislain Vieilledent, a Research Ecologist from CIRAD/EU-JRC and co-author of the study, a potential mitigation strategy would be to identify “alternative trajectories for agricultural expansion, using 'SMART' criteria [a plan with goals, objectives and strategies that are specific, measurable, attainable,results-oriented, and timebound] and delaying the loss of primate range as much as possible".

In their study, the scholars found that the scenario maximising suitability led to the highest cumulative loss of primate habitat, while in the primate vulnerability scenario the number of primate species significantly affected by oil palm expansion could be kept relatively low". 

“Nevertheless, even in this 'optimal' scenario, more than five species, on average, will lose 1,000 ha of range land for every 1,000 ha of land conversion. An increase in demand for palm oil for biodiesel would still further ratchet up the demand for land conversion, highlighting the importance of future transport emissions policies," they say. 

Adds Szantoi: “Of course there are options which producers and governments as well as the general public can take to curb or mitigate the effects of oil palm plantations. Better management practices of existing plantations, which includedeveloping higher yield capable varieties, proper spacing, the use of organic fertilisers, improved harvesting tools and post-harvest techniques, are the starting point."

“Additionally, governments could support the enhancement (preparation – i.e. improving soil quality) of areas with low producibility indicators and support products from existing areas rather than from new ones through offering tax credits to locals. It would also help if the general population 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 the must."

Lead author Giovanni Strona from the EU-JRC stresses Szantoi's point: “It is important that all segments of society are aware of the impact that our consumption has on vulnerable ecosystems. We hope that our findings will add to this awareness and will lead to better practices with less impact on primates and other biodiversity".

Photos supplied by Serge Wich, Henry Camara, Tatyana Humle, Ghislain Vieilledent and Andreas Brink