Should we raise the palm oil price tag?

Scientists from ZSL’s Institute of Zoology find themselves in many different parts of the world observing all kinds of different animals. 

Chris Carbone recently shared one of his most exciting field work experiences,  tracking tigers near an oil palm plantation in Sumatra. 

Chris told me: “We discovered a lovely set of fresh tracks and followed what appeared to be a female tiger for several kilometres. 

Chris recorded these tiger cub footprints near an oil palm plantation.
Chris recorded these tiger cub footprints near an oil palm plantation.

“We arrived at a little junction on the outskirts of the plantation to find her tracks joined by two small sets of footprints from her cubs. As we walked along further you could see the site where the cubs were chasing each other over the road – this was lovely and provided proof not only that tigers were in the area but they were breeding.”

Chris’s encounter was very significant from a conservation perspective, because of its location in the area surrounding an oil palm plantation. 

Palm oil production and wildlife

Palm oil is a versatile substance found widely in products we use every day, and in some regards it’s a brilliant alternative to other oils, producing high yields for low production costs. But at the moment the way it’s produced can be highly damaging to the environment, decimating the habitat of iconic species like tigers and elephants.

This tapir was captured on camera trap during Chris' study of wildlife around oil palm plantations.
This tapir was captured on camera trap during Chris' study of wildlife around oil palm plantations.

However, there are oil palm companies keen to move towards wildlife-friendly practices, who had asked Chris, as part of ZSL, to look for the presence of species such as tigers, clouded leopards and Malayan tapirs in and around their plantations, and to think about ways they could reduce their impact on these species.

What the research showed

Chris’s research formed part of a wider project between ZSL, the University of East Anglia (UEA), the University of Vermont (US) and the World Wildlife Fund (US), the results of which were published this week.

By conducting the species surveys on palm plantations and the surrounding land, and studying company financial records, the research team learned that setting aside land for conservation has a major impact on both wildlife and company profits. The research helped identify which areas provide the best balance between promoting biodiversity and reducing costs to companies.

Chris Carbone monitored wildlife within and on the periphery of this oil palm plantation.
Chris Carbone monitored wildlife within and on the periphery of this oil palm plantation.

The project also looked at companies which have large areas of land under conservation management, and the price premium they charge. Results showed that although their produce costs more, shoppers were willing to pay the higher price for conservation grade products, and this more than made up for companies’ costs of providing conservation land.

What you can do today

This research provides a good grounding for our ongoing dialogue with palm oil producers about improving their practices. And ZSL’s conservation teams will continue to work on the ground in countries like Indonesia, where it’s encouraging growers to make their plantations and concession sites safer for tigers and other animals by offering top quality training in anti-poaching and ecological monitoring.

But if you also want to take action to improve the lives of animals and people living in and around tropical rainforests, here’s how you can:

ZSL working with the industry

Alexis Hatto, from ZSL’s Business and Biodiversity team, gave me an update on what they’ve been doing to try and improve the palm oil industry for wildlife. 

“We advise key players in the palm oil industry to help them raise standards and build trust in companies working within the ecosystems that really need protection. ZSL also sits on the governing board of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), supporting the development of its global certification scheme, which currently covers one fifth of all palm oil produced worldwide. 

“Our latest project is the Sustainability Policy Transparency Toolkit (SPOTT), a free online resource that scores companies on how open they are about improving their practices, tracing their supply chain, and adopting the right procedures to reduce pollution and deforestation. This information represents hundreds of hours of ongoing research and is very important for investors, manufacturers or anyone interested in palm oil, because it helps them make responsible decisions about the companies they work with or buy from.”

What do you think?

Next time I’m munching on my breakfast cereal, or enjoying a favourite shower gel, I’ll be asking myself, would I be prepared to pay more for it, if I knew I was helping to save species like the tiger and the tapir from extinction? If you’ve mulled over this question too, I’d be really interested to hear your thoughts on Facebook or Twitter.  

Find out more about ZSL's work on palm oil in Indonesia

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