In recent years, consumers have grown increasingly aware that the explosion of palm oil plantations to supply food companies making everything from Pop-Tarts to ramen noodles has taken a heavy toll on the environment.
In Malaysia and Indonesia, where most of the world's palm oil is produced, environmental groups have been putting pressure on suppliers that convert rain forests into plantations.
Now it seems palm oil production in Africa is picking up, too. And the new farms there are threatening great ape populations in West and Central Africa, according to a study published Thursday in the journal Current Biology.
"Africa seems to be the new frontier," says Serge Wich, a primate biologist at Liverpool John Moores University and the lead author of the report. Sixty percent of African oil palm concessions — or land that's been set aside for the development of oil plantations — overlaps with the ape habitats.
Most of the areas in Southeast Asia that are suitable for palm oil production are already in use, Wich says. And as producers have scouted for new terrain suitable for growing palm, they've landed on Africa. That may be bad news for chimpanzees and gorillas in countries like Congo, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Gabon.
Although oil palms are native to Africa, they grow better in Southeast Asian climates, Wich tells The Salt. So palm oil companies that are moving to Africa have to use more land to keep up with the high yields of Asian plantations.
That may have an especially big impact on species like the bonobo — a kind of miniature chimp found mostly in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Wich says. Bonobos are already endangered, and much of their habitat overlaps with the palm oil land concessions.
Wich says he started looking into palm oil production in Africa after seeing the damage the industry did to ape habitats in Asia. "I've seen the impact of oil palms on orangutans in Borneo," he says. "And I began to get worried that the same thing would happen to African apes."
This doesn't necessarily mean we need to stop consuming palm oil to save forests, Wich says. "I think it's difficult to ask consumers to use less oil."
Plus, oil palms are a more efficient source of vegetable oil than say, soybeans or rapeseed, he says.
What palm producers could do is switch to more sustainable growing practices. Producers often prefer to chop down forests because they can sell the wood to pay for the overhead costs of developing a plantation. But "there are areas without forest where oil palm development can happen," Wich says.
Glenn Hurowitz, the campaign director at Forest Heroes, a rain forest protection coalition, says the African rain forests and the apes that live there can be saved. "I'm cautiously optimistic," he says. "We're pushing for companies to adopt no-deforestation policies."
Wich says that's a bit of good news for apes. "There is some progress but it's going very slowly," he says. "And oil palm development is happening very fast."