I often get asked the question, “why can’t palm oil plantations support preexisting animal life?” It's an understandable question. These expansive monocultures upon first sight seem perfect for supporting rainforest creatures. Millions of green acres forested by oil palm trees, sounds perfect. Well, upon further inspection it's not perfect at all. Let me explain.
Ecosystems are supported on high biodiversity: the variety of life in the world or in a particular habitat or ecosystem. A network of various plants, animals, and microorganisms culminate into a functioning environment.
Although there are exceptions like the Koala, most animals can’t survive on a single type of food. Over the progression of time, species physically and chemically adapt to their surroundings. Golden Bamboo Lemurs for example, have adapted to their environment’s abundance of cyanide laced bamboo shoots. These lemurs have been recorded to consume twelve times the lethal dose for cyanide in a primate of its size. Because oil palm is a relatively new addition to the Indomalay environment, Orangutans do not have the physiology to consume palm oil fruit. In a 2015 study, palm oil fruit was found to be mostly undigested in Bornean Orangutan feces, supporting the case that oil palm trees cannot sustain such apes.
People often ask, “why can’t birds just fly to an undisturbed forest?” Well, it is not that simple. As forests dwindle in size, their biological capacity is being pushed to its limits as more animals come to seek refuge. Therefore, most of the remaining forests cannot sustain any more animals due to their limited food supply. For avians, their survival depends on whether their natural diet can be maintained within plantations. In a report from 2013, researchers found that insectivorous birds were found to be the types of birds most affected by palm oil, with over an 80% decrease in species being found within the plantations. This argues the case that palm oil monocultures also cannot support the same insect populations as rainforests due to a lack of botanical diversity.
Amphibians may have dietary needs just like birds and mammals, but a 2015 study, focused on palm oil deforestation in Borneo, found that frog populations were actually habitat dependent. According to their findings, riparian areas with tree coverage boasted the highest percent of amphibian life.
Oil palm may be tall and green, but it cannot replace an ecosystem that has heterogeneity as its foundation. Thus, animal populations cannot be sustained when their environment alters to an alien world of palms.