Monday, 20 March 2017

Are your snack foods causing Orangutan extinction: The Past, Present and Future of the Palm Oil industry?

Past- a history of the palm oil industry.

The African Oil Palm Elaeis guineensis originated from West Africa and has a history dating back over 5,000 years being used as a staple food crop and was highly valued in the Egyptian era, even being found in casks buried with the pharaoh.
It was found that crushing the fruit of the oil palm produced a high-quality oil with many uses. The international market for palm oil rose and expanded with the British Empire enabling international trade and later aiding the industrial revolution. The oil was use as a fuel in candle making and a lubricant for machinery and has been attributed to the expansion of industrial scale production processes.
A view between the rows of oil palms, a typical planting method for this tree

It was this increasing demand and opportunities for commercial use in soaps, lubricant and most importantly edible oils that ultimately lead to investment by Europeans in its production. Originally cultivated in West Africa it then expanded to the forests of Southeast Asia, which now has the highest densities of oil palm plantations, representing up to 40% of the total land area. 
% of total land area dedicated to oil palm plantations across Southeast Asia

It is now one hundred years since the first commercial scale palm oil plantation was established in Tennamaran Estate in Selangor, Malaysia, 1917. There was a slow expansion of palm oil plantations up until the middle of the century but after this point, rapid expansion occurred.

Since the mid 70’s global palm oil production has been growing at an almost exponential rate, with increases being greatest in recent years due to dramatically increasing demand for palm oil in the snack food industry and as a biofuel. The use of palm oil as a replacement for controversial fats found in food has further fuelled its growing demand and it is now the most commonly used vegetable oil worldwide.
Palm Oil production represents the largest share of the edible oil market

Economically oil palm is preferable to grow compared to any other vegetable oil, with oil palm plantations producing over ten times more oil per hectare per year compared to any other vegetable oil. Just 5% of the world vegetable oil farmland is used to grow oil palm with this producing over 1/3 of global vegetable oil supply. 
High production yields of Palm Oil compared to other vegetable oils

Just two countries Indonesia and Malaysia contain 80% of the remaining rainforests in Southeast Asia.
Primary rainforest of Southeast Asia

However, they also produce 85% of the world’s palm oil, but this comes at a cost. David Wilcove calculated that between 1990 and 2005 over 55% of palm oil plantation expansions occurred at the cost of cutting down primary (unlogged) and secondary (logged) forest.

Global increases in Palm Oil production over time (blue line), with green bars representing production by Indonesia the largest producer and red bars production by Malaysia the second largest producer

Present- why the bad press?

Oil palm is now grown across 13.5 million hectares of tropical, high rainfall, lowlands, area normally covered in wet tropical forest, the most diverse terrestrial ecosystem on earth.
Large scale Palm Oil plantation, within the tropical lowlands of Southeast Asia

The loss of these tropical forests is having a huge impact on this biologically diverse ecosystems. This deforestation driven partially by the palm oil industry is impacting iconic species including the Sumatran and Borneo Orangutan, Sumatran Elephant and Sumatran Rhino, driving them to the brink of extinction.
The deforestation isn’t just impacting the iconic species, a study by David Wilcove in 2008 showed that the number of forest bird species are 77% lower in palm oil plantations compared to primary forest and 83% lower for butterfly. 

Differences in the number of species of birds and butterflies present in varying types of forest

In recent years there has also been increasing demand for oil palm to make biofuels, which are carbon neutral fuels, that release no net carbon. Carbon locked up in plant matter is released on burning the fuel, but this is only releasing carbon originally removed from the atmosphere when the plant grew so no extra carbon is released as it with fossil fuels. 

However only when oil palms are planted on degraded grassland that has a low carbon content are they likely to result as net carbon sinks, taking in more carbon than they release on burning. Clearing of lowland forest and subsequent drying out of the peat soils they grow on releases huge amounts of carbon. It would take decades, if not centuries for the carbon emissions avoided by using biofuels grown there to compensate for the emissions released as a result of converting these forests and peatlands to oil palm plantations. 

An area of cleared lowland forest in North Kalimantan, Borneo for Palm oil plantations

Finally, there is the social impact of oil palm plantations, which can be both positive and negative. Employment opportunities are offered to indigenous communities via plantations as well as improving infrastructure and social services and alleviating poverty. However, this comes at a cost. Oil palm plantations are often developed on lands without prior consultation or even permission from the indigenous communities which ultimately results in varying degrees of social conflict. This has often given the industry a bad press, being viewed as bullies that have no respect for the environment or people living there.

Local cultures and indigenous groups are common through Borneo, an area at high risk of deforestation and conversion to Palm oil production.

With ever increasing demand for palm oil, only regulation of its practices will ultimately curb its multiple environmental and social impacts. Increasing consumer concern has helped initiate a movement towards more environmentally responsible practice within the industry, most importantly the establishment of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) in 2004, with products containing certified sustainable palm oil being allowed to carry the RSPO emblem.

Members of the RSPO manage over one-third of oil-palm production globally and have established international standards for the production of sustainable palm oil. This includes aims to reduce their impacts on biodiversity and identifying areas for preservation, but policing of these commitments is often challenging. One issue with their policy is that they often value logged forest as an area of low biodiversity and therefore key areas for oil palm expansion. However, this is not the case as logged forests can and studies by scientists such as Jos Barlow in 2007 and David Wilcove in 2008 have shown that logged forest still maintain high levels of biodiversity and are still extremely valuable to wildlife. Finally, only 1/3 of RSPO members are actually following the criteria in order to be certificated sustainable producers, with many of these still having questionable practices. Sustainable palm oil currently represents between 6-10% of global production, and although this is low it is growing and will continue to do so with increasing consumer pressure.

A remaining tree from the original primary rainforest. This logged forest is seen to be of low biodiversity and is likley to be converted to Palm oil planations.

Future- could sustainability be achieved?

With ever increasing demand for vegetable oils in both the food industry and as biofuels combined with the high degrees of overlap between areas for oil palm production expansion and areas of high biodiversity, substantial losses of biodiversity are likely to occur in the future.

Historically it has been hard to assess the extent to which establishment of oil palm plantations has directly caused deforestation. However, it has huge potential to be a major driver of deforestation in the future. With the low biodiversity value of oil palm plantations, it will ultimately be the extent to which future expansion results in deforestation that will determine the palm oil industry’s future ecological impact.

Sustainable palm oil production, if managed to avoid further deforestation could be the answer. Improvements in practice both environmentally and socially are needed to ensure so-called sustainable palm oil is truly sustainable.

If sustainable palm oil is the answer then firstly you need to improve the traceability of palm oil. Currently, palm oil found in end products that are used by the consumer only have around 50% traceability, therefore, if consumer demand for sustainable palm oil increases, manufacturers will need to ensure palm oil used is really from a sustainable source. 

The large number of stages involved in palm oil production, transport and final use often make it hard to trace the origin of the oil

In the future improving the sustainability as well as traceability of palm oil combined with increasing consumer demand may prove enough to help curb the future risks of deforestation as a result of the palm oil industry.

For more information or to pass on the message, you can download a leaflet summarising the impacts of palm oil and potential measure you can take to reduce these costs if you so choose to. 

Wednesday, 21 December 2016

The Merveille du Jour, why the French name?

The Merveille du Jour is a moth found commonly through most of the United Kingdom as well as across much of Europe and even as far away as Siberia. Although it has a French name meaning ‘wonder of the day’, it actually has a completely different name in French, La Runique, which begs the question how it came to acquire its French name here in the UK. La Runique probably originated due to the shapes and patterns on its wings which resemble Runes which are letters of the ancient Germanic alphabet.

This moth is most frequently found flying at night in broadleaf woodlands and parks as well as in gardens, and can often be found around house lights in the evenings.

It overwinters as an egg laid the previous autumn and after hatching in the spring the young caterpillars tend to feed within an opening leaf bud until larger. In the early autumn they pupate into their adult form and can be found feeding on ivy flowers and ripe berries, finding crevices to hide during the day to keep away from potential predator.

This moth has a fantastically bright and vibrant wing pattern formed by a complex array of miniature scales each having their own single colour, working in a similar way to the pixels on a TV screen or a camera picture which together form the overall pattern. The black and brown coloured scales are formed via pigments called melanins, however the blues, green and iridescence are created by structural reflectance of light. These scales are loosely attached to the wings and if the moth is caught in a spider’s web or by a bat the scales will detach, giving the moth a chance to escape.

Keep your eye out for one next autumn, for your chance to see what I think is one of the UK’s most spectacular moths.

If anybody does know how it came to have this french name I would love to know so please feel free to comment.

Saturday, 10 December 2016

Dormouse research and recording

My research:

I am currently studying Zoology at the University of Exeter and am passionate about wildlife, in particular birds. Which is how I came across the Hazel dormouse (Muscardinus avellanarius). Whilst gathering data on nesting birds on the Isle of Wight for the British Trust for Ornithology’s Nest Record Scheme I realised that I could increase the number of records to study by asking friends and colleagues for any records they had of birds in dormouse nest boxes.

This led me to thinking about how the different species interact. Consequently, this year I am carrying out my undergraduate research project on the competition and interactions that occur between the Hazel dormouse and nesting birds, mainly various tit species, for the use of dormouse nest boxes.

These boxes are designed for dormice to use during the summer for breeding. However, they are often used by breeding birds earlier in the year and I want to find out what impact, if any, this might have on the dormice.
A dormouse found during the April check that has come out of hibernation early but fallen into a state of torpor on a cold morning. When handling a torpid dormouse it is important to be as quick and efficient as possible with all data collection as not to warm it up and awaken it from its torpor, before it is returned to its box.


Dormouse are currently declining in both range and numbers mainly due to inappropriate management of hedgerows and woodlands and are now classified as at risk of extinction within the United Kingdom. They are mainly nocturnal animals and spend the majority of their time in the trees with their diet varying through the year from tree flowers in Spring to caterpillars and wasp galls in Summer and finally fattening up blackberries and hazel nuts in Autumn. The habitats that they are most commonly found in is successional woodland, often after it has been coppiced but they can also be found in more mature woodlands or even scrub and hedgerows.

Dormouse boxes unlike birds have a hole at the back that faces the tree, but this doesn't stop birds still using them. 

Population monitoring: 

The National Dormouse Monitoring Scheme (NDMP) is run by the Peoples Trust for Endangered Species (PTES) and you are only allowed to check boxes and handle/photograph dormouse under licence from Natural England. These checks run from roughly April to October and are carried out once a month. When a dormouse is found it is weighed and the life stage it is at recorded, this can ranging from 'pinks' when they have just been born to adults that have to have hibernated over winter at least once.
A young dormouse around 2 weeks old. This one would most likely be recorded as GEO (Grey Eyes Open) although of course there is always an element of subjectivity with any biological recording. 
When a nest is found with extremely young dormice in they are left but if they are found to be large GEC (Grey Eyes Closed) young or older they can be weighed to get a measure of their health although all young are weighted together to speed up the process obtaining an average rather than individual weight, if still relatively young.

Weighing the young dormice, average litter size is 4 but can range from just 1 up to 7!

The sex of the dormouse is also recorded as well as its breeding status which is TS (Testes Scrotal) for males and L (Lactating) for females when breeding.

This one a male, can be sexed due to the further distance between the two dots above the base of the tail compared to what would be expected for a female. The slightly enlarged grey area which are the testes, also give away the fact it is a male.

When checking the boxes you have to record the type of dormouse nest present and this can range greatly. 
A typical dormouse nest with strips of Honeysuckle although this can sometimes be tree bark as seen here and often a lot of fresh green Hazel leaves, woven into a neat ball.

A less typical dormouse nest which has been made more from woven grass.
Other species can also be found using the boxes from the more risky Tree bumble bee nest to a birds or even another mammal such a a wood mouse or shrew.
One of the boxes that has a bird occupying it instead, here a blue tits with 8 cold eggs, most likely meaning she will still be laying her clutch and hasn't started to incubate any yet.
A pregnant female wood mouse, which explains why she looks so large.

Shrew species, being examined in a bag before being returned to its box.

What is Torpor?:

In the autumn or early spring dormice can sometimes be found in a state of torpor on a cold morning. Torpor is a state of decreased physiological activity in an animal, which usually includes reduced body temperature and metabolic rate, but only lasts a matter of hours compared to the more extreme version hibernation, which can last months. Dormice do hibernate over the winter however, they actually go below the ground to do this, where the temperature fluctuates less and doesn't drop as low as staying in a box. Both torpor and hibernation are ultimately used to conserve energy during cold and wet conditions or when food availability is scarce.

Sleepy Dormouse.

A dormouse will need to reach a weight of between 15 and 18 grams by late autumn in order to have enough energy reserves to survive the winter, although they have been found to weigh as much as 40 grams in extreme cases.

Get involved: 

If you have ever been lucky enough to see a dormouse or even found one dead, come across a dormouse nest or perhaps picked up a hazelnut that you think has been chewed by a dormouse you can submit a one off record to this to the National Dormouse Database to help improve their understanding of their distribution and abundance via this link:

For more information on dormice or to find out how to train to monitor them have a look at the links below

I will update you with the results of my study when it is completed later in the Spring.

You can find more of my photography on my Facebook page below:

Saturday, 3 December 2016

Hong Kong more than just a city

A few years ago now I visited Hong Kong expecting to encounter a sprawling city and endless people, and although I wasn’t wrong to expect this I was pleasantly surprised as to just how much wildlife and protected areas Hong Kong had to offer.

The view over the New Territories area of Hong Kong

With a population of over 7 million people in an area just a third of the size of Cornwall there is inevitably a huge number of building and if you enjoy cityscape photography this has to be one of the top places to visit in the world.

The iconic skyline from 'The Peak'

Taken from Kowloon looking across the harbour to Hong Kong Island

The banking district at night on Hong Kong Island

Surprisingly over 3/4 of Hong Kong is actually countryside with the city itself being constricted to an area of high density high-rises, predominantly within the Kowloon District. In fact 40% of Hong Kong has been protected for wildlife and there are a total of 24 country parks that have been designated for the sole purposes of nature conservation.  This has provides a huge potential for wildlife and with a range of habitats from wetlands to mountains rising over 1000 meters there is a diverse array of both fauna and flora that can be accessed relatively easily just minutes from the bustle of the city. Although small, Hong Kong boasts an impressive 530 species of birds 1/3 of the total found across the whole of China, and with many of these so easy to see it is an excellent place both to enjoy and photography them as well as touch up on your ID skills.

Bluetroat (Luscinia svecica), seen in the flooded paddyfields

The low intensity agricultural area of Hong Kong
Painted Jezebel (Delias pasithoe)

Hong Kong is also an extremely important stopover point for migratory birds with millions using the wetlands of Hong Kong to feed whilst migrating along the East-Asian Australian Flyway. Many migratory birds pass through here on their way south, whilst some even spend their winter there before migrating back north again to breed. Whatever their migratory strategy Hong Kong's wetlands provide a vital food source for over 100 shorebird species that need to find food in an ever industrialising coastal China.

Black-winged stilt (Himantopus himantopus), taken at WWF's Mai Po nature reserve, where up to 40,000 birds can be found wintering every year!

However whether you within the mangrove swaps or at the top of the mountains you are never far away from the city and even in the middle of seeming wilderness can often here the low rumble of the never sleeping city. 

The view between the trees back to the city from 800 meters up in the mountains just before entering the bamboo forest

The huge population has put an extreme pressure on the wildlife that does call Hong Kong and the surrounding waters home. There is still an active wildlife trade with many of its sources being questionable at best and the live reef food fish trade although on the whole legal is still having a detrimental impact on the surrounding marine ecosystems as well as further a field. 

Live fish and shellfish can often be brought straight from the boats that were used to catch them that are found in their dozens moored along the harbour

One of the many Live Reef Fish Food Trade (LRFFT) markets that can be found in the New Territories alongside harbours.

Furthermore air pollution is becoming an ever worsening problem especially in the winter when winds blow of the continent from industrial China.

A smog shrouded view across to Hong Kong island

Despite all of the issue Hong Kong is facing it is a wonderful place to visit and full of culture as well as wildlife, being a field day for photographers of all subjects and I can highly recommend it.