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Preserving Biodiversity

by Eric W |

Palm oil, which is present in 70% of personal care products, is primarily harvested from palm plantations in ecologically valuable tropical rainforests. Palm oil producers deforest large areas of land to provide for the high global demand for this vegetable oil. Since rainforests house half of the world’s species, this deforestation has a negative impact on biodiversity. 

The Importance of Biodiversity for Ecosystems

Each species plays a role within an ecosystem. When one species disappears, there is often a domino effect. For example, the Sumatran orangutan is essential for spreading various tree seeds throughout western Indonesia. As their population declines, these species of trees also become at risk. 

This principle also applies to species that have a more direct impact on food security. If insects that transfer pollen to flowers for fertilization disappear, so will many of the crops that people eat. One-third of food products require these species for pollination. A decline in the population of bees and other pollinators will result in food shortages over time. 

The Medicinal Value of Biodiversity

One-quarter of all natural medicines originated from plant species indigenous to the tropical rainforest. Over two-thirds of medications used to treat cancer are derived from plants from this biome. Undiscovered plant species may have medicinal value and help further research in the field. 

Medicines such as vincristine originated from a plant species in the tropical rainforests of Madagascar and have dramatically reduced the fatality rate from childhood leukemia. This medication is now listed on the World Health Organization’s Model List of Essential Medicines. But, the plant responsible for saving the lives of many of these cancer patients is now extinct due to deforestation. It is unknown how many other potentially life-saving species have been lost to the destruction of tropical rainforests. When biodiversity declines, the opportunities to make these discoveries diminish.

The Impact of Palm Oil Plantations on Biodiversity

As shown by the map above, southeast Asia has a high level of species richness. Since Indonesia and Malaysia produce 85% of the global palm oil supply, the primary palm oil producers pose a significant threat to countless species. 

Clearing forests for palm oil plantations results in the destruction of various habitats, which threatens the many species in these areas with extinction. In Indonesia, palm oil producers have converted the majority of the Sumatran tiger’s habitat to plantations. Only about 400 remain in the wild today. The Sumatran orangutan, Malayan sun bear, and Sumatran elephant have all been driven to the edge of extinction due to deforestation. 

An average acre within the tropical rainforest is more diverse than a corresponding acre in any other biome. Every time an acre is destroyed for palm oil production, it threatens about 17,000 insect, 127 tree, and 600 higher plant species. 

Species Endangered by the Palm Oil Deforestation


IUCN* Red List Status

Population Trend

Sumatran Elephant

Critically Endangered


Sumatran Tiger

Critically Endangered


Sumatran Orangutan

Critically Endangered


Malayan Sun Bear



*The International Union for Conservation of Nature analyzes and classifies species based on their risk of extinction.

According to Bloomberg News, each person on earth uses about 17 pounds of palm oil annually, from the food they consume to the personal care products they use. Individuals can reduce their impact on tropical ecosystems by purchasing products that do not contain palm oil or its derivatives. 

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