Yesterday I went out again with Elisa, a Malaysian PhD student studying pangolins in the Lower Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary (LKWS), where DGFC is based. As we had done a few days previously, we were doing environmental surveys of potential pangolin habitat to try and determine what sort of environment they prefer. This time, however, we were not conducting our survey in the rainforest, but in a huge palm oil plantation just a few minutes downriver from DGFC.
I would love to tell you that our Field Centre is buried deep in pristine, virgin rainforest, a true wilderness far removed from human interference. Unfortunately, the reality is quite the opposite. As isolated and ‘wild’ as this place can sometimes feel, the truth is that we are surrounded on all sides by palm oil plantations, that have replaced the majority of the rainforest here in Sabah, northern Borneo. As part of my orientation at DGFC, I was shown a graphic of rainforest cover in Sabah between 1982 and the present day, taken from satellite imagery. It really was shocking. Vast areas of forest green switched to white at an unbelievable speed. Where just 30 years ago most of Sabah was covered in rainforest, now just a narrow strip – the LKWS – remained to connect the coastal mangrove forests with the jungles of Borneo’s interior.
Now, that is not to say that the degraded, fragmented nature of the LKWS rainforest makes it any less important or interesting as a study site. In fact, this is the very reason that DGFC exists – to understand how different species respond to deforestation and habitat fragmentation – and the LKWS is an ideal, concentrated site to study these changes. In many ways it is a microcosm of what is happening in rainforests all over the world. In 2017 the world lost an area of forest the size of a football pitch every second, be it for soya beans in the Amazon, coffee in Central America, or illegal timber in equatorial Africa.
The culprit in Southeast Asia? Palm oil.
The palm oil issue is vast, complex and tied up with the economics, politics and the wider geopolitics of Southeast Asia, so I will try to keep things to the point here. The oil palm plant is the single most profitable plantation crop on the planet. Harvestable every two weeks, the crop is ten times more profitable than soya, and five times more profitable than rapeseed.  The high-yielding, versatile oil is almost ubiquitous in consumer products all around the world, from confectionary to cosmetics, and from margarine to soap. A typical 10,000 hectare plantation can generate $20-50 million of revenue per year, and with plantation workers earning a measly 900 Malaysian Ringgit per month (working out at about 75p per hour), it has become an astonishingly profitable, and destructive, business.
In Borneo alone, over 75,000 km2 of rainforest was converted to palm oil plantation between 1973 and 2010, with disastrous consequences for the populations of some of the island’s most iconic wildlife. To put that into perspective, scientists estimate that converting 100 km2 of rainforest to plantation results in the loss of 28 elephants, 5,000 of our ancient relatives, the colugos, and 200 of our evolutionary cousins, the orangutans., ,  The rainforests of Borneo are, of course, a hotspot for biodiversity, and being the oldest forests in the world (perhaps twice the age of the Amazon) evolution has had time to sculpt the wildlife into myriad different species, many of which are endemic to Borneo (found nowhere else on Earth). Borneo is home to 63 species of endemic mammal, 59 endemic birds and a staggering 6,000 species of endemic plants.,  The loss of these rare and unique species would be a tragedy for Borneans and for the world, and it’s happening on our watch.
Besides destroying the home of these animals, the plantations carry a secondary, more sinister threat. Converting swathes of land from once impenetrable forest to oil palm plantations, along with all the roads and other infrastructure necessary to keep a plantation running, makes the rainforest accessible for hunting, poaching and logging. But this is no one-way street. Suddenly, with dwindling forest habitat, and almost unlimited supplies of free, nutritious oil palm fruit on their doorstep, many species forage in the plantations, with obvious ramifications for human-wildlife conflict.
Rats are rife in the plantations, so predators like leopard cats and reticulated pythons hunt there. They are often killed by plantation workers as a perceived threat or, in the case of the python, for their valuable skins. Pigs, elephants and sun bears enter plantations to feed on the fruits themselves, and often suffer similar fate, the latter opportunistically hunted for their meat despite being a protected species here.
Even Elisa’s beloved pangolins, finding plenty of ants and termites (their favourite food) in the plantations, meet their end here. Pangolin scales are highly sought after in China as a traditional (read: entirely unproven) remedy for a variety of ills, making the humble pangolin the single most trafficked animal on Earth. Given the poverty of the plantation workers, many of whom are undocumented migrants from neighbouring Indonesia unable to find conventional employment in the cities, a diminutive, defenceless pangolin is little more than money on legs. The plantations are what is known as an ‘ecological trap’, where animals are tempted out of the forest by the promise of an easy meal, only to be killed at the hands of humans, who are often desperate for a lucky break themselves.
So what is to be done?
The natural response might be to boycott palm oil altogether. It sounds very noble, but in the modern world it is an unlikely proposition, unless you have the time and money unavailable to many in the West. Some supermarkets in Europe are beginning to wake up to the problem. In the UK, Iceland will ban palm oil in their own-brand products by the end of 2018, which is certainly a step in the right direction but is unlikely to be a magic bullet. Because there is no magic bullet. Rather than turning ourselves inside out to do a weekly shop palm oil-free, the best you and I can do as consumers is to ensure that all the palm oil products we buy are sourced sustainably, according to the guidelines set out by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). A handy sustainable shopping list can be found here. The West boycotting palm oil altogether will solve nothing. The void we leave will only be filled by increased exports to China, which has shown little interest in bringing this out of control industry into line. We would only be losing our place at the negotiating table.
Having a voice is crucial. We are all tiny cogs in a wider machine, but if we show producers that we will only accept sustainably-sourced palm oil in our products, they will listen. At the end of the day, money talks.
 Phillipps, Quentin. 2016. Phillipps’ Field Guide to the Mammals of Borneo and their Ecology
 Gaveau, D. L. A. et al. 2014. ‘Four decades of forest persistence, clearance and logging on Borneo’
 Boonratana, R. 1997. ‘A statewide survey to estimate the distribution and density of the Sumatran Rhinoceros, Asian Elephant and Banteng in Sabah, Malaysia (in )
 Lim, N. 2007. Colugo: The Flying Lemur of South-east Asia (in )