Elephants suffering as habitat destroyed by palm oil products

Raja the elephant has been captured by villagers close to a palm oil plantation in Indonesia. Credit: Jim Wickens/Ecologist Film Unit

Demand for palm oil, a substance found in hundreds of our food and household products, is threatening some of the world's most endangered species.

The rapid expansion of palm oil plantations in Indonesia has already led to the clearance of millions of hectares of rainforests, driving out endangered animals such as tigers, orangutans and Sumatran elephants.

Sumatran elephants are the most endangered elephant in the world. Scientists and environmental campaigners fear a new law may soon be passed that would open up yet more of their forestry habitat to loggers.

Science Editor Lawrence McGinty reports

Like all Asian elephants, the Sumatran elephant is threatened by poaching and habitat loss, caused by increasing demand for palm oil: Across Indonesia hundreds of thousands of acres of tropical rainforests and peatlands have been destroyed to make way for plantations.

Environmentalists and scientists say that 65% of Aceh’s forest needs protected to save the Sumatran elephant, and the government's current plan would only allow for 45% to be protected - a difference of way over a million hectares.

The loss of habitat has already forced elephants into villages, and into conflict with local communities.

Elephants can eat up to 200 kg of foliage a day, and this often means they end up eating food crops grown in nearby villagers. This results in a loss of livelihood for people living near the newly cleared areas.

Villagers respond by poisoning or capturing the critically endangered animals.

Raja the elephant has been captured by villagers close to a palm oil plantation in Indonesia. Credit: Jim Wickens/Ecologist Film Unit

Raja, pictured above, was captured a few weeks ago, is being held to ransom by villagers in Aceh as they demand compensation from the government for the financial loss they are experiencing. Jo Cary-Elwes from Elephant Family explains:

Elephant Family have started a campaign to rescue wild baby elephant Raja. Credit: Jim Wickens/Ecologist Film Unit

Elephant Family have launched a campaign to rescue Raja, and have her returned to the wild.

More: Elephant Family launch 'Save Baby Raja' campaign

In the UK, most major food manufacturers use palm oil, normally labelled as "vegetable oil."

43 of the 100 most popular products in our supermarket shelves contain palm oil, according to Greenpeace. It is commonly found in the following:

  • Biscuits

  • Peanut butter

  • Cereals

  • Chocolate

More: Palm Oil information on the Elephant Family website

More: Demand for palm oil causing massive deforestation in Indonesia - Greenpeace

More: The Ecologist Film Unit