Palm Oil Companies Are Destroying Tiger Habitats In Indonesia. And So Are We!

Posted on December 12, 2013 in Environment

By Avimuktesh Bharadwaj:

There are just 1411 left! Remember something? Yes, I am talking about tigers. They have been known to be endangered for some time now. Sure, efforts have been made in India to improve the numbers. There have been some positive results too. Reports say that there are over 1700 tigers in India now, an improvement at least in terms of trend. Unfortunately, others have not been even this lucky. Sumatran tigers — critically endangered according to IUCN — are just about 400 left. With them are the orang-utans, their fellow species at fast depleting Indonesian rainforests.


Tigers need forests to hunt, to breed and thus, to survive. Their population density is known to be comparatively much lower than other animals and chances of survival for their offspring is equally low. Similarly orang-utans are known to spend most of their times on trees. Cutting of forests which also leads to fragmentation will mean that already diminished numbers of these animals have no interaction left between two fragments of forests. Thus it will require protected long stretches of forests if we want to improve the numbers of these animals. On contrary, in most of the critical areas of Indonesia there is hardly any protection to the forests. Palm oil and paper and pulp companies, which are the major reasons for clearing of these forests, have been able to destroy them and expand without much interruption.

But why, at all, should we worry about animals and forests of a distant country? The answer is quite a question again. Does nature recognise the boundaries we have drawn? We can keep our thoughts limited to mere numbers and feel comfortable that nothing is bound to happen in our immediate neighbourhood at least in near future. But if we dig a little deeper, we will realise that ground realities are not as comfortable as we want to pretend. In fact there are already alarming truths about environment and climate. There is a clear commonality between threat to Indian and Sumatran tigers. Both have suffered because of the loss of their habitats: the forests. Cutting down forests in either of the countries will have similar impacts which are bound to affect not just a country or a continent but the life on the planet, first the immediate dependents such as tigers and orang-utans and then ultimately the human beings.

In a nutshell, it is not just about tigers or orang-utans, nor is it about any particular country or region. As one of the most comprehensive studies done on climate change economics, The Stern Review which was released by the British government in 2006, puts it “climate change is global in its causes and consequences”. The report estimated that a possible 5-6 degrees rise in temperature would mean about 5-10 percent loss in the global GDP. The report also points out that the first countries to get affected will be the poorest ones. It warns that once the impacts become apparent, it will be impossible to go back. Echoing the concern, the Asian Development Bank predicted in 2009 that about 2.2 billion subsistence farmers in Asia were already facing fall in productivity due to floods, draughts, erratic rainfall and other climate change impacts. Combine this with the facts. According to World Wildlife Fund (WWF) deforestation is the third biggest reason for greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions accounting for about 15-20 percent of the total. Of this, Indonesia is a major contributor. About 17 percent of the total GHG emission from deforestation globally comes from Indonesia.

But this is not all. We are not just would be victims, but culprits for our inaction too. India is the largest importer of palm oil in the world accounting for 19 percent of the total global trade. Majority of this palm oil comes from companies which have been involved in deforestation. Data shows that our consumption of palm oil has been going up without trying to know the source or the impacts it is having on the forests.

There are already indications of what may come up. Thousands lost their lives in Uttarakhand. It will take years for us to reconstruct the state better known for its natural gifts after the fury of the same nature that completely devastated it. While the discussion was still on about whether the human activities could have had their role in the disaster, came the report of Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a body established by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP). The report established it scientifically for the first time that climate change is manmade. And as if to further strengthen the message Phailin followed, though thankfully the loss in terms of life could be kept in check.

There are no ‘concrete’ proofs that these disasters are manmade. But there are proofs that last few decades have been warmer than ever. There are also proofs that the frequency of natural disasters have gone up. Combined, these are indications for sure if not the ‘concrete’ proofs. Probably if we keep living in denial, we will never have proofs before we start acting. Not before we lose our forests, and with them the wonderful species they are home to.