Defending a oil palm plantation may have been the justification behind poisoning three critically endangered Sumatran elephants, Elephas maximus sumatranus. The poisoned pachyderms’ corpses were found last week on a palm plantation in Aceh province of Sumatra in western Indonesia, reported the AFP.
“We suspected that they died after consuming bars of soap laced with poison we found near the carcass,” Rabono Wiranata, of the local environmental group Fakta, told the AFP.
Considering there are only approximately 3,000 of the animals left, three in one week is a heavy blow to the species. The loss of these three elephants comes a month after another two elephants were found dead in western Aceh.
The same forces threatening much of Indonesia’s wildlife are pushing the Sumatran elephant closer to extinction. Along with poaching and extermination, one of the biggest threats is loss of habitat to oil palm farms. Oil palms are grown as single species plantations, as opposed to being integrated into forest ecosystems as some farmers do with coffee and other commodities. The plantations replace biodiverse forests and provide no habitat for Indonesia’s wildlife, such as orangutans.
When hungry elephants wander into a plantation, farm workers view them as a threat and hence a pest to be eradicated. But the recent elephant poisoning wasn’t a case of poor farmer defending his crops. The dead elephants were found on a state-owned plantation.
Palm oil is big business because of its importance as a food, fuel and raw material. Millions depend on palm oil to fry their foods. The oil is also used to produce lubricants, processed foods, soap, biodiesel and other products.
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Attempts have been made to make palm oil production more environmentally friendly. The Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil ostensibly aims to improve the long-term ability to meet consumer demand without devastating the Earth, but the organization has been criticized by the World Rainforest Movement and Greenpeace as being nothing more than green-washing, or a public relations tactic meant to boost an industry’s environmental credentials.
The ethical problems of palm oil plantations are nothing new. Historically, palm oil was produced in West Africa, eventually becoming an important commodity for trade with the English and other European powers. The trade encouraged the Ashanti, a people who built an empire in what is now Ghana, to plant vast palm plantations using slave labor.
Sumatran Elephant, Elephas maximus sumatranus, Ragunan Zoo, Jakarta, Indonesia (Midori, Wikimedia Commons)