How Traditional Farming Impacts the World’s Wildlife

How Traditional Farming Impacts the World’s Wildlife

Photo: Andie Ang

The Tragic Impact of Mass Agriculture on Wildlife Habitats

The first question I asked Dr Andie Ang when we sat down for coffee and an early lunch at a well-known prata restaurant in Singapore one warm and sunny morning in mid-September was, “Andie, is it really that bad?”

A doctor of Biological Anthropology, Andie has been studying the ecology, behaviour, and population genetics of various species of Asian primates for over a decade. She is currently one of very few primatologists in Singapore.

The ‘it’ my question referred to is the reported devastation large-scale agriculture is having on wildlife populations around the world. We’ve seen it on the news, read about it in the papers, watched the documentaries on TV; vast swathes of land that were once inhabited by thousands of plant and animal species now replaced by one kind of plant. Where once there was biodiversity, now there is monoculture.

Despite the recent increase in media attention, it seems the situation is not getting better.

“Humans have lived and farmed in harmony with nature for centuries, so agriculture itself does not pose the most serious risk to wildlife habitats,” says Andie. “But it’s the size and the scale of what we’re doing now that is the problem. There are places in the region where you can drive for kilometres on end and only see one kind of vegetation. Usually these are palm oil or rubber plantations.”

Destruction in the palm of your hand

The pernicious issue of palm oil plantations has been something of a flag-bearer for environmental campaigners across the world in recent years. To the untrained eye, these monocultural landscapes look like intact green forests. But the sad fact is, the forest is gone. And so too is a lot of the wildlife.

A large area of land once rich with biodiversity destroyed to make way for a palm oil plantation. Photo: greenpeace

Oil palm trees produce a larger than usual amount of oil which can be processed and used in products ranging all the way from butter to biodiesel. In fact palm oil is found in as many as 50 percent of the products in your local supermarket. This has sparked an increase in oil palm plantations – especially in Southeast Asia – which has in turn been specifically linked to the endangerment and even local extinction of many primate species, including Asia’s great ape: the orangutan.

According to the Endangered Earth, there is upwards of 40,000 animals on the endangered species list. And while agriculture is not the only cause, it is one of the most prevalent as it acts as the catalyst for several other major concerns.

“In order to clear large areas of land for agriculture, you first have to create access roads,” says Andie. “This causes the wildlife living there to panic and scatter, and it also gives access to poachers, who – in the examples of the primates I’ve studied – kill the animals for their perceived medicinal benefits or to illegally keep or sell as pets.”

The latter is an issue particularly close to Andie’s heart as she herself had a pet monkey as a child before realising that the monkey’s health was suffering as a result of it being removed from its natural habitat at a young age. It was this experience that motivated her to dedicate her life to preventing others from making the same mistake.

“There are figures that show that for every monkey that is sold illegally, be it for medicine or entertainment, at least ten more die in the process because many of them will not survive the harsh captive life before reaching their buyer. I think this is something a lot of people don’t really know.”

Andie also believes that while social media has an important role to play in spreading awareness of the issues we face, it can also have the opposite effect as people fail to look past the cuteness factor and into the heart of the problem.

Many animals are separated from their families at a young age and held captive thousands of miles away. Photo: HuffPost

But what can we do about it?

Like most things this is not an issue that is going to go away overnight. And while a lot of it relies on more up-to-date government policies, there are a few everyday measures we can all adopt to help ensure that the world’s wildlife is not confined to the History channel.

The first is to avoid buying products containing unsustainably sourced palm oil. This can be difficult, as current regulations do not require companies to list palm oil specifically as an ingredient on their packaging – it is instead listed in any number of ways including ‘vegetable oil’, ‘vegetable fat’, or ‘palm kernel’. The good news is though, you don’t have to cut out palm oil products completely, you can replace them with products containing responsibly sourced ingredients from the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF)’s list.

Other things we can all do include:

  • Eating more fruits, vegetables and sustainably sourced food products
  • Consuming more locally grown produce
  • Taking public transport
  • Being more vigilant when it comes to the medicines we, and those around us, take
  • Not encouraging the mistreatment of animals by posing with them for photos and instead reporting the dubious treatment or sale of animals to the authorities

Agriculture is not the only thing putting our wildlife at risk, but even as we continue to explore ways of feeding more people with less fertile arable land, it’s clear that chopping down more trees and endangering even more of the species that make our planet so fascinating is not the answer.

If you’ve been inspired by this article and would like to help Andie and her team with their conservation efforts, you can volunteer for future conservation initiatives by visiting www.facebook.com/RBLWG

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