Endangered monkeys and apes will almost certainly face new risks if Africa becomes a big player in the palm oil industry.
That is the message of a study looking at how large-scale expansion of the oil crop in Africa might affect the continent’s rich diversity of wildlife.
Most areas suitable for growing palm oil are key habitats for primates, according to researchers.
They say consumers can help by choosing sustainably-grown palm oil.
Ultimately, this may mean paying more for food, cosmetics and cleaning products that contain the oil, or limiting their use.
“If we are concerned about the environment, we have to pay for it,” said Serge Wich, professor of primate biology at Liverpool John Moores University, and leader of the study.
“In the products that we buy, the cost to the environment has to be incorporated.”
Palm oil comes from the oil palm tree, which is native to West Africa. However, most palm oil is currently grown in Indonesia and Malaysia.
Environmentalists say the region’s forests have paid the price, with native trees cut down to make way for palm trees.
Oil palm expansion is a major driver of deforestation, which in turn threatens wildlife, such as the critically endangered orangutan of Borneo.
They are particularly worried about Africa’s primates. Nearly 200 primate species are found in Africa, many of which are already under threat.
Habitat destruction is one of the main reasons why all great apes are at the edge of extinction. The introduction of palm oil plantations to Africa is expected to accelerate the habitat loss.
The latest research is published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).
The study found that while oil palm cultivation represents an important source of income for many tropical countries, there are few opportunities for compromise by growing palm oil in areas that are of low importance for primate conservation.
“We found that such areas of compromise are very rare throughout the continent (0.13 million hectares), and that large-scale expansion of oil palm cultivation in Africa will have unavoidable, negative effects on primates,” said the research team.
To put that figure into context, 53 million hectares of land will be needed by 2050 to grow palm oil in order to meet global demand.