Planning for Palm Oil: Are We Saving Wildlife by Saving Carbon?

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Palm oil has become the most widely traded vegetable oil in the world. This has led to mass conversion of forests to monoculture plantations across the tropics, negatively impacting carbon stocks and wildlife habitat. As palm oil continues to spread, countries like Gabon are attempting to mitigate the negative impacts of palm oil plantations by planning their establishment in low carbon stock areas. This approach alleviates the effects of palm oil on carbon stocks, yet does not take into consideration the impact on wildlife. Using a proposed palm oil concession site in Gabon, this study explored the relationship between carbon stocks and forest elephant density as well as carbon stocks and predicted forest elephant habitat. We asked the question – does preserving high carbon areas also protect forest elephant habitat? To answer this question, we first identified areas of high carbon by using data collected in the field to calibrate LiDAR data across the study site. Next, using data from wildlife surveys, we calculated forest elephant dung density. We then built two different models to examine elephant distributions across the clusters: (1) a kernel density estimator (KDE) to model the density of elephant dung, and (2) a species distribution model to predict elephant habitat (SDM). Finally, to examine the relationship between aboveground biomass (AGB) and forest elephant abundance, we correlated the results of both models (dung density and probability of being elephant habitat) with AGB at 400 randomly chosen points. In both cases, the relationship between AGB and elephant abundance was weak. While there was some overlap of high carbon areas and forest elephant habitat, approximately one third of the existing forest elephant habitat in the study site is at risk of conversion to palm oil when only high carbon areas are protected. When planning for palm oil in Central Africa, both carbon stocks and forest elephant habitat must be taken into consideration separately: protecting one does not necessarily protect the other. With careful land use planning, the ability to mitigate some of the negative impacts of palm oil on carbon stocks and wildlife habitat is possible. More studies are needed to understand the overlap between high carbon stock areas and the habit of other wildlife species, as well as how wildlife adapt (or do not adapt) to palm oil agriculture in Central Africa.





Moore, Sarah (2016). Planning for Palm Oil: Are We Saving Wildlife by Saving Carbon?. Master's project, Duke University. Retrieved from

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