Palm Oil Is Killing the Sumatran Tiger

There are only 400 Sumatran tigers left in the world because most of their habitat has been eaten up by oil-palm plantations in just two years

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Jeff Goulden / Getty Images

A Sumatran tiger at rest

Correction appended: Nov. 1, 2013

It’s in your mascara, your laundry detergent and even your Oreo cookies — the world is addicted to palm oil. Indonesia is the largest exporter, but production there comes at a huge cost. Oil-palm plantations have savagely encroached on the nation’s diverse rainforests, and slash-and-burn clearance for new plantations recently engulfed much of Southeast Asia in acrid smog. Now a report from environmental group Greenpeace blames illegal oil-palm concessions for driving the Sumatran tiger to the brink of extinction.

According to maps released by Indonesia’s Ministry of Forestry, 1.24 million hectares of irreplaceable forest were lost from 2009 to ’11, including nearly two-thirds of all Sumatran tiger habitat. Just 400 of these indigenous Asian felines are now thought to remain on the island, which sees a staggering quarter-million hectares vanish for palm and pulp each year, decimating the vital tracts of rainforest that the animal depends upon for hunting. “Accelerating deforestation and rampant poaching mean this noble creature could end up like its extinct Javan and Balinese relatives,” according to the World Wildlife Fund.

(MORE: Sumatran Tigers Trap Men in Trees for Five Days, Kill One)

Greenpeace’s Licence to Kill report documents clearance fires in oil-palm concessions, wholesale rain-forest destruction and illegal oil-palm plantations within the Tesso Nilo National Park, where the bulk of the surviving tiger population lives. Other species reliant on Sumatra’s biodiversity include orangutans, rhinos and elephants.

But protecting critically endangered Sumatran tigers is problematic. Palm oil provides direct employment to 4.9 million people in Indonesia and is the country’s third largest foreign-exchange-earnings contributor at $21.6 billion — that’s about a quarter of Indonesia’s nonpetroleum exports, or roughly a fifth of total exports. And with global palm-oil consumption increasing fivefold over the past decade, plus the recent slashing of trade tariffs, conservationists are facing an uphill challenge.

Jakarta insists that palm-oil production is both environmentally friendly and vital to poverty alleviation. Last month, Indonesia tried unsuccessfully to have crude palm oil (CPO) added to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, or APEC, list of “environmental goods” — inclusion would have seen tariffs between the bloc’s 21 members slashed to 5% or less by the end of 2015.

Although this bid failed — largely owing to the pall of haze, attributed to palm-oil clearances, that blanketed Singapore in June — CPO was nevertheless included among goods that “boost rural development and reduce poverty,” a completely new category established with similar benefits to “environmental goods” status. No explicit conditions were attached, and analysts believe this could accelerate ongoing environmental degradation.

According to Peter Holmgren, director general of the Indonesia-based Center for International Forestry Research, illegal clearances for palm oil are just too financially lucrative for farmers. At the same time, he points out that Jakarta is committed to increasing “palm-oil production in ways that reduce the impact on forest” — even as it simultaneously sets a goal of exceeding annual production of 40 million tons of CPO by 2020.

(MORE: The Southeast Asian Haze Is Back and Worse May Follow)

Others believe a less gung ho approach is warranted. “I think there are legitimate environmental concerns that extend beyond Indonesia,” says Bridget Welsh, an associate professor in political science at Singapore Management University. “You don’t have to live in Singapore to know that the haze is an issue. There is some merit in having these things evaluated in a more substantive way.”

Establishing the origin of crops is also tricky. Wilmar, the world’s largest palm-oil processor, accounting for over one-third of the global market over 50 countries, is one company that comes in for particular scrutiny. High-street brands reliant on Wilmar palm oil include the manufacturers of Gillette shaving products, Oreo cookies and Clearasil face washes.

Greenpeace alleges that poorly defined supply lines means that less than 4% of the palm oil Wilmar trades and refines comes from attributable sources, with the remainder produced by shadowy, often illegal, third parties. “Wilmar must use its position as a so-called leader to make a genuine contribution to Indonesia’s development, rather than destroying the future for its people, its wildlife and the global climate on which we all depend,” said Yuyun Indradi, Greenpeace Southeast Asia forest campaigner.

World Bank investments in Wilmar through the International Finance Corporation have already been subject to a 2009 audit report that warns of “significant environmental and social issues and risks inherent in the oil-palm sector in Indonesia.” According to Erik Olbrei, research associate of at the Crawford School of Public Policy at the Australian National University, “Wilmar funding proposals were classified as having no adverse environmental or social impacts when it was plain that they would have major impacts.”

Wilmar has challenged the findings of Greenpeace. “As a responsible corporate citizen, Wilmar endeavors to create and build an enduring business that is economically viable, socially beneficial and environmentally sustainable,” reads its detailed response to Greenpeace’s allegations. The refutation includes clarifications of what it says are factual errors made by Greenpeace.

But while corporations and activists debate the veracity of studies and policy, there is little argument that the lush tropical habitat of the Sumatran tiger is dwindling rapidly. And as sales of cosmetics and cookies surge, what few Sumatran tigers remain will be prowling in ever decreasing circles.

MORE: Researchers Probe the Potential Health Benefits of Palm Oil

An earlier version of this article misstated when the pall of haze shrouded Singapore. It was in June, not July.