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.
Dr Giovanni Strona of the European Commission Joint Research Centre in Ispra, Italy, worked on the study.
He said primates are already in steep decline in Africa due to habitat loss and poaching.
“The main message is that, due to the large overlap between areas that are suitable to grow oil palm and areas that host many vulnerable primates, it will be extremely challenging to reconcile oil palm expansion and African primate conservation,” he explained.
What can be done to tackle the problem?
The IUCN says effective policies are needed to stop the clearing of native tropical forests for new oil palm plantations.
In existing oil palm plantations, companies should manage their land to reduce impacts on biodiversity.
Consumers can also help by choosing products that use sustainable palm oil and cutting down on the amount of palm oil they buy.