Palm oil in tiger territory

Palm oil grown illegally inside Indonesia’s National Parks is still reaching our supermarket shelves. Most palm oil companies have made commitments to zero deforestation. so why is palm oil grown on Sumatran tiger and elephant habitat still finding its way into the supplies these companies use? Illegal palm oil poses a grave threat to Sumatra’s remaining natural forest, which has already suffered 55% deforestation over a 29 year period.

EOF Chart - Sumatra Deforestation
Source: Eyes on the Forest, maps.

The impact of the palm oil industry on Sumatra has been huge. There are 8 million hectares of mature palm oil plantations in Sumatra, as well as over 2 million hectares of young, recently planted oil palms or saplings.

world’s most used vegetable oil

In the absence of sufficient law enforcement increasing numbers of small-scale oil palm growers are seeking to profit from the ever growing demand for palm oil  (remember, it’s the world’s most used vegetable oil ) and planting illegally in national parks. The result has been the conversion of natural forest in some of the world’s most important ecosystems.

Sumatran elephant calf (Elephas maximus sumatrensis) Lisa and its mother from Tesso Nilo National Park, Riau, Indonesia.
Sumatran elephant calf and its mother in a National Park, Riau, Indonesia.

The problem is at its worst in Sumatra’s Riau Province, known as the epicentre of Indonesia’s palm oil industry. Riau has some of the most  biologically diverse ecosystems on the planet, and is home to  unique and critically endangered species like the Sumatran tiger and elephant.

The scale of the illegal palm oil problem is alarming. In 2014  Indonesia’s Forestry Minister  admitted that 50%, or two million hectares, of all oil palm plantations in Sumatra’s Riau Province is “illegal or has no permit”.

Trucks of FFB, Eyes on Forest Report
Trucks transporting illegal oil palm fruit bunches, Sumatra.

Illegal palm oil journey

Palm fruits, big orange bunches of fleshy kernals, each one weighing an average of around 25kg, are collected from plantations. They are piled high into waiting lorries which file out to deliver them to mills where the the oil is extracted. From there the crude palm oil travels to refineries and chemical plants for specialised processing, so it can be made useful for countless consumer goods, everything from chocolate to lipstick. It is at the mill stage where illegal palm oil fruits from protected areas get mixed up with legitimate plantation products.

Palm Oil Infographic

how illegal palm oil is getting into the supply

In 2013 an investigative WWF report, found evidence that big palm oil companies had been buying crude palm oil, illegally grown within the boundaries of the Tesso Nilo Forest Complex, an area that includes Tesso Nilo National Park. The good news is the findings prompted these companies to take steps to rid their palm oil supply of illegal sources.

Palm oil buyers started to use a system which assesses a mill’s likelihood to receive illegal oil palm fruits based on how close a mill is to a protected area. The system assumes that because oil palm fruit bunches are perishable and benefit from speedy processing, only mills close to National Parks or protected areas would receive illegally grown oil palm fruits.

160120_wwfsumatra_day2_Xcalibrephoto 165

It turns out that this system was not fail safe. A  new report, published in April 2016, reveals illegal oil palm fruits are still getting into the palm oil supplies of the biggest palm oil buyers and traders and into the products we buy. The report by Eyes on the Forest shows that trucks laden with illegal palm oil fruits are capable of traveling greater distances from National Parks and are reaching mills considered ‘clean’ by palm oil buyers. You can watch the video for this here.

The new report recommends all sectors of the palm oil industry work towards a joint solution to illegal palm oil. It calls for stricter governance of protected areas and for palm oil buyers to trace the palm oil they use right back to the plantation where it was grown, not just the mill where the oil was extracted.


Twenty-one tigers and close to 200 Sumatran elephants depend on Tesso Nilo National Park in Riau Province, Central Sumatra. The park, created in 2004, was originally 83,068 hectares of naturally forested habitat. Today only an estimated 18% of that natural forest remains untouched by illegal development, primarily illegal palm oil plantations. The natural forest that remains now covers around 15,000 hectares.

A young Sumatran tiger (Panthera tigris sumatrae) captured by camera trap in Tesso Nilo National Park, Riau, Indonesia. The Sumatran tiger is critically endangered with around 450 left in the wild. WWF scientists and field staff are using cameras equipped with infrared triggers, called camera traps, to obtain critical data about tigers and their habitats. Camera traps play a key role in understanding tiger range and estimating tiger populations, which then enables organisations like WWF to help to protect them.
A young Sumatran tiger (Panthera tigris sumatrae) captured by camera trap in Tesso Nilo National Park, Riau, Indonesia.

Slash and burn methods are used to clear land for illegal plantations inside Tesso Nilo. Satellite imagery recorded hundreds of fires burning inside Tesso Nilo in June and July 2015. With another dry spell predicted for 2016,  out-of-control fires pose a very real threat to the remaining natural forest within the park.

Agricultural expansion has claimed two-thirds of Indonesia’s forest cover. National Parks are becoming the only viable habitat option for critically endangered species. Tesso Nilo’s remaining habitat could very well prove crucial for the survival of the Sumatran tiger and elephant.

Forest cleared by buring, Tesso Nilo
Burned forest, Tesso Nilo.
What you can do
  1. Offer immediate support by helping  WWF protect the remaining natural forest in Tesso Nilo from fires caused by illegal palm oil plantations by providing equipment and training for on-the-ground fire-fighting teams. Make a donation here.
  2. Get to the root of the problem by supporting sustainable palm oil, ask retailers and manufacturers to use only palm oil certified with the RSPO label.




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