Human Thirst for Palm Oil Wipes Out Rare Forest Birds

LONDON, UK, January 11, 2008 (ENS) – Many more bird species are threatened with extinction than previously feared, according to analyses of satellite images that reveal for the first time the extent of deforestation occurring on the island of New Britain, Papua New Guinea. The island is a stronghold for a number of birds found nowhere else on Earth.

An eighth of lowland forest on the island disappeared between 1989 and 2000, driven by a rapid and uncontrolled expansion in global demand for palm oil.

“The findings show that New Britain’s endemic birds are being driven to extinction by our thirst for palm oil, which is widely used in foodstuffs and industry,” said Stuart Butchart, BirdLife International’s Global Species Program coordinator.

“After wiping out the lowland forests of Malaysia and Indonesia, companies are now moving eastwards, to New Guinea and Melanesia, where they now threaten a whole new suite of species,” he said.

Bismarck kingfisher, Alcedo
websteri, prefers lowland forest
streams. (Photo by Lukasz

The findings, published in the journal “Biological Conservation” mean that the total number of Threatened or Near Threatened birds on the island will almost double to 21.

Conservationists now are calling for an effective system to protect the crucial lowland forests that remain on New Britain.

The research was conducted by scientists from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, BirdLife International, Conservation International, and the Institute of Environment and Sustainability, which is part of the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre.

Their analysis of before-and-after high resolution images of New Britain shows that 12 percent of forest cover was lost between 1989 and 2000, including over 20 percent of forest under 100 meters in altitude, with substantial areas cleared for commercial oil palm plantations.

“Examining the satellite images of New Britain, we were struck immediately by the clear and extensive loss of forest in many parts of the island,” explained Dr. Graeme Buchanan of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and lead author of the paper. “Deforestation was particular severe in the flat coastal lowlands.”

The scientists then overlaid the maps of forest loss with known habitat preferences of New Britain’s birds. These analyses suggested that extensive habitat loss will have forced significant declines for 21 of the island’s bird species, bringing some to the edge of extinction.

“By comparing this information against the altitudinal ranges of each of the birds that live in New Britain, we estimated the potential effects on species – a ‘before and after’ of disappearing habitat, and of disappearing populations,” said Buchanan.

Green-fronted Hanging-parrot,
Loriculus tener (Photo credit

This study is the first time that that the use of satellite imagery has been used to determine the likely threat status of a complete set of birds present in a given region or locality.

The technique has potential for use in other places where field data are lacking in areas that may be too extensive or too difficult to survey on the ground, as is the case on New Britain.

The island of New Britain is inhabited by many rare and unusual bird species. Those most affected by deforestation on the island only occur in the lowlands and cannot tolerate degraded or non-forest habitats.

The paper reports that hardest hit is the strikingly iridescent Bismarck kingfisher, Alcedo websteri, a species that prefers lowland forest streams. It lost a fifth of its habitat during the 10 year study period.

Other birds to suffer include the Green-fronted Hanging-parrot, Loriculus tener, which lost 18 percent of its habitat in the same period.

Southeast Asia’s largely unregulated and expanding palm oil industry – fueled by increasing global demand – is highlighted as the main factor behind the extensive lowland forest loss on New Britain.

Based on further analysis of the satellite images, an estimated 320 square kilometers or 11 percent of the land cleared had already been converted to plantation, mainly for palm oil.

Much of the remainder is likely to be planted up in the next few years, the authors warn.

The paper recommends potential areas to designate as protected, concluding that “there is clearly a pressing need to survey these areas to confirm that they are refuges for New Britain’s endemic fauna, and to ensure their immediate and effective protection.”

View This Story On Eco-mmunity Map.