Industrial oil palm expansion in great ape habitat in Africa

A Statement from the Section on Great Apes (SGA) of the Primate Specialist Group

We, the members of the Section on Great Apes (SGA) of the IUCN/SSC Primate Specialist Group, are a team of experts engaged in research, management, monitoring and conservation of the great apes. Although we recognize the importance of the oil palm industry for socio-economic development, we are deeply concerned that the rapid development of industrial-scale oil palm (Elaeis guineensis) plantations in tropical Africa at the current time is taking place in the absence of strategic land-use planning and without sufficient consideration for the negative environmental and social impacts it can cause.

In Sub-Saharan Africa there are two subspecies of western gorilla Gorilla gorilla (the western lowland gorilla G. g. gorilla and the Cross River gorilla G. g. diehli), two subspecies of eastern gorilla Gorilla beringei (the mountain gorilla G. b. beringei and Grauer’s gorilla G. b. graueri), and two species of chimpanzee, the bonobo Pan paniscus, and the robust chimpanzee Pan troglodytes. The robust chimpanzee has four recognised subspecies: the eastern chimpanzee P. t. schweinfurthii; the central chimpanzee P. t. troglodytes; the western chimpanzee P. t. verus; and the Nigeria-Cameroon chimpanzee P. t. ellioti. 

All African apes are highly threatened by poaching, deforestation and habitat loss, and disease. The mountain gorilla and both western gorilla subspecies are Critically Endangered, while Grauer’s gorilla and all chimpanzee species and subspecies are Endangered[i].

In South-east Asia, the establishment and expansion of oil palm plantations endangers wildlife[ii],[iii] and results in the direct killing of orangutans[iv],[v] and even the local extinction of their populations[vi],[vii],[viii],[ix]. Large-scale agro-industrial development has caused deforestation, forest fragmentation, peatland degradation, biodiversity loss, forest fires, carbon dioxide emissions[x],[xi],[xii],[xiii],[xiv],[xv],[xvi],[xvii],[xviii], and a range of social issues[xix]. Oil palm is the most productive (per hectare) commercially grown vegetable-oil crop, but despite this, the economic benefits of oil palm development for tropical countries are offset by negative and costly impacts on the environment. The SGA believes that many of these negative impacts are avoidable or could be mitigated.

The SGA calls for the appropriate national authorities and national and international stakeholders to insist that plantation development in Africa is undertaken in a manner that ensures equitable economic development, poverty alleviation, and the maintenance of ecological integrity. This includes avoiding forested areas that contain populations of chimpanzees, bonobos or gorillas.

Based on the spirit of agreement in the Kinshasa Declaration on Great Apes[xx], we also urge:

  • African government institutions to undertake national and transnational strategic spatial-planning to maximize economic returns without jeopardizing environmental resources and functionality;
  • African government institutions to create policy frameworks, supported by relevant legal instruments, to ensure that environmental and social concerns are sufficiently addressed in all agricultural and industrial development projects;
  •  African government institutions and producers to establish new concessions and expand existing concessions in degraded ecosystems that can be considered “long-term degraded” – land that is ecologically degraded, principally through anthropogenic activity such as agricultural expansion, and which has resulted in a reduction in vegetation cover, standing biomass or species diversity[xxi]; incapable as such of supporting significant populations of great apes[1];
  • Producers to consistently comply with relevant social and environmental laws;
  • Producers to comply with the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) initiative by becoming members of RSPO, implementing and operationalizing the RSPO Principles and Criteria (P&C), and protecting High Conservation Values (HCV) and High Carbon Stocks (HCS) through comprehensive assessments that are third-party peer reviewed by internationally accredited reviewers and made accessible for public scrutiny;
  • Government institutions to support this process by suspending oil palm concession development until HCV and HCS areas are identified;
  • Producers to implement and enforce NO KILL policies for great apes and other wildlife in their concessions;
  • Producers to take responsibility to not just set aside HCV and HCS forest, but to also facilitate effective protection of these forests and their wildlife, requiring governments, therefore, to develop regulatory frameworks that makes such protection possible;
  • Purchasers of crude palm oil (CPO) originating or operating from Africa to undertake due diligence in identifying the source companies and plantations of the product they are buying, and demand these companies provide evidence that their permits are fully legal and they are operating in full compliance with all relevant national laws;
  • Purchasers to preferentially select RSPO-certified producers and to be transparent with regard to the companies from which they are purchasing CPO, and to make such information available to the public;
  • Financial institutions to terminate partnerships with producers that are not RSPO compliant, unless they are using other internationally-recognized standards such as IFC Performance Standards; and
  • The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) to monitor existing P&C, strengthen protocols and procedures, and engage independent third-party auditors/reviewers to review RSPO-approved HCV assessments.

Further, we urge government organizations, the Interprofessional Palm Oil Association (AIPH), and other palm oil advocacy groups to work with IUCN and other partners to strengthen current RSPO standards and identify important conservation areas to be exempt from oil palm development in Africa.

[1] This definition of “long-term degraded” does not include secondary forest, forest that has been selectively logged, or recently cleared/degraded land or land that has not qualified as High Carbon Stock forest, since at least one African great ape, the chimpanzee, may use such forest. Instead, it refers to land where oil palm development would not have negative impacts on biodiversity and ecosystem integrity in general, and may even contribute to a partial recovery of some ecological functions.


[i] IUCN. 2013. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2013.2. International Union for Conservation of Nature, Gland, Switzerland and Cambridge, UK.

[ii] Linkie, M., Martyr, D.J., Holden, J., Yanuar, A., Hartana, A.T., Sugardjito, J. & Leader-Williams, N. 2003. Habitat destruction and poaching threaten the Sumatran tiger in Kerinci Seblat National Park, Sumatra. Oryx 37: 41–48.

[iii] DNPI, 2010. Indonesia’s greenhouse gas abatement cost curve, Dewan Nasional Perubahan Iklim, Indonesia [Accessed 11 January 2014].

[iv] Meijaard, E., Buchori, D., Hadiprakoso, Y., Utami-Atmoko, S.S., Tjiu, A. & Prasetyo, D. 2011. Quantifying killing of orangutans and human-orangutan conflict in Kalimantan, Indonesia. PLoS One 6: e27491.

[v] Reuters. 2012. Orangutans in Indonesia’s Aceh forest may die out in weeks (Mar 28 2012). [Accessed 12 January 2014].

[vi] Yarrow Robertson, J.M.Y. & van Schaik C.P. 2001. Causal factors underlying the dramatic decline of the Sumatran orang-utan. Oryx 35: 26–38.

[vii] Friends of the Earth. 2005. The Oil for Ape Scandal. How Palm Oil is Threatening the Orang-utan [Accessed 12 January 2014].

[viii] Greenpeace. 2013. License to Kill. How deforestation for palm oil is driving Sumatran tigers to extinction

[ix] Mongabay. 2014. In precedent-setting case, palm oil company fined $30M for destroying orangutan forest (January 9, 2014) [Accessed 12 January 2014].

[x] Nellemann, C., Miles, L., Kaltenborn, B.P., Viture, M. & Ahlenius, H. (eds.) 2007. The Last Stand of the Orangutan. UNEP [Accessed 11 January 2014].

[xi] Koh, L. & Wilcove, D. 2008. Is oil palm agriculture really destroying tropical biodiversity? Conservation Letters 1: 60–64.

[xii] Linder, J.M. 2013. African primate diversity threatened by “new wave” of industrial oil palm expansion. African Primates 8: 25–38.

[xiii] Sheil, D., Casson, A., Meijaard, E., van Noordwijk, M., Gaskell, J., Sunderland-Groves, J., Wertz, K. & Kanninen, M. 2009. The impacts and opportunities of oil palm in Southeast Asia. What do we know and what do we need to know? CIFOR Occasional Paper no. 51 [Accessed 12 January 2014].

[xiv] Koh, L.P., Miettinen, J., Liew, S.C. & Ghazoul, J. 2011. Remotely sensed evidence of tropical peatland conversion to oil palm. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 108: 5127–5132.

[xv] Edwards, D.P. & Laurance, S.G. 2012. Green labeling, sustainability and the expansion of tropical agriculture: Critical issues for certification schemes. Biological Conservation 151: 60–64.

[xvi] Foster, W.A., J.L. Snaddon, E.C. Turner, T.M. Fayle, T.D. Cockerill, M.D.F. Ellwood, G.R. Broad, A.Y C. Chung, P. Eggleton, C.V. Khen & K.M. Yusah. 2011. Establishing the evidence base for maintaining biodiversity and ecosystem function in the oil palm landscapes of South in East Asia. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B 366: 3277–3291.

[xvii] Gaveau, D. & Salim, M.A. 2013. Nearly a quarter of June fires in Indonesia occurred in industrial plantations. Centre for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) research-nearly-a-quarter-of-june-fires-in-indonesia-occurred-in- industrial-plantations/#.UfkEC2TVyaE [Accessed 11 January 2014].

[xviii] Reijnders L. & Huijbregts M. 2008. Palm oil and the emission of carbon-based greenhouse gases. J. Cleaner Prod. 16: 477–482.

[xix] Sawit Watch. 2011. What’s Happen in the Indonesian Palm Oil Industry [Accessed 11 January 2014].

[xx] Great Apes Survival Partnership. 2005. [Accessed 11 January 2014].

[xxi] Existing methodology for the identification of degraded lands for sustainable agricultural expansion should be used and developed. See: Thompson, I.D., Guariguata, M.R., Kimiko, O., Bahamondez, C., Nasi, R., Heymell, V. & Sabogal, C. 2013. An operational framework for defining and monitoring forest degradation. Ecology and Society 18: 20. Also: Smit, H., Meijaard, E., Mantel, S., van der Laan, C. & Verweij, P. 2013. Breaking the link between environmental degradation and oil palm expansion. PLoS One 8: e68610. Also: McCormick, N., Jenkins, M. & Maginnis, S. 2014. Biofuels and degraded land: the potential role of intensive agriculture in landscape restoration. IUCN, Gland, Switzerland. 43pp.

A chimpanzee feeding in a wild oil palm in natural forest, Gombe National Park, Tanzania © Michael L. Wilson