The side of a wooden house had been ripped off. And after a smash-and-grab raid, no doubt prompted by the delicious smell of cooking rice, this powerful perpetrator had fled back into the forest. Villagers were already dreading his return.
“He’ll be back every three months,” said the village leader who explained to me that the ‘he’ was a critically endangered Sumatran elephant.
That was the moment when I got a real-world glimpse of how both people and endangered animals were being impacted by global demand for palm products.
I was in Sumatra writing a book when I came across an unexpected link between the production of palm oil and cheap meat.
The elephant’s forest home has been increasingly turned into plantations for palm oil; the resulting deforestation leading to hungry elephants coming into conflict with local communities.
Palm oil plantations are a big deal. Dominated by multinational networks based in Asia, Europe and North America, the global palm trade is worth some $50 billion a year.
On the face of it, it’s an innocuous-sounding business; from the air, the plantations look like giant green carpets.
Yet they are no better than any other crop monoculture: plantations made up of mile upon mile of a single species of tree, supported by the usual barrage of herbicides and pesticides, creating a barren landscape.
A single hectare of Sumatran rainforest – an area equivalent to little more than a football pitch – can hold more species of tree than there are native tree species in the whole of Scotland and the UK. By contrast, palm plantations are just that – palm. Once the forest is gone, it’s gone.
The reason for this burgeoning industry is that palm oil is so versatile. It comes from the reddish pulp of the palm fruit and is used for cooking, margarine, ice cream, and a multitude of other products. According to WWF, palm oil can be found in almost half of all packaged products sold in supermarkets.
Many consumers are trying to do their bit by turning their backs on foods containing palm oil. And in 2013, the Scottish Government took the decision to remove all products containing palm oil from its 'home run' catering and kitchen facilities.
However, what isn’t widely known is that palm products are also used as animal feed in the production of cheap meat and milk.
World Elephant Day, on August 12 each year, is aimed at raising awareness of elephant conservation, and my time in Sumatra shone a light on how those efforts are being undermined by this hidden use of palm.
I remember being taken into a newly deforested area in northern Sumatra that had been the sight of a pitched battle of protest between concerned locals and the palm industry. I arrived to find a scene of devastation. A black eagle uttered plaintive cries as she flew over the depleted forest, landing in the last tall tree standing.
On a barren hillside, where the vegetation had been razed by fire, young palms poked out of plastic sheeting designed to stop the jungle fighting back. The only remains of the once-mighty forest were burned black stumps.
Tezar Pohlevie, a conservationist with Forest, Nature and Environment Aceh (HAKA) told me how he’d recently found elephant tracks there but how they wouldn’t survive. “The elephants cannot live in a monoculture plantation like this. They don’t have any food to eat,” he said.
Orang-utans had also been spotted in the same area – three families with their babies; but like the elephants, with the forest gone, they had no future.
Feed for industrially reared animals
Few realise the role played by the demand for cheap meat and milk in richer countries in the demise of these magnificent creatures.
Palm oil is derived from the reddish pulp of the fruit; but there’s more to palm than the oil.
Dig deeper into the fruit and you come across the edible seed, which the industry renders down into kernel oil and palm-kernel meal or ‘cake’.
This palm-kernel meal is then transported as a protein source to the feed troughs of industrially reared animals all over the world, but especially in Europe. According to researchers, it can be used to feed all manner of farmed animals including cattle, sheep, goats, pigs, poultry, and even farmed fish.
Some of the biggest users of palm-kernel meal include the UK, Netherlands, New Zealand, South Korea, Germany, and China.
The worry is that palm kernel acts as a readily available feed source, tempting farmers to take animals off grass and into confinement. It’s a particular concern for cattle because a greater proportion of their diet can be made up of palm.
Which begs the question, wouldn’t it be so much simpler to feed cattle on grass as nature intended? It’s a point that is particularly pertinent in the UK where two-thirds of farmland is pasture.
Yet the availability of cheap feed can often lead to a double whammy where farmed animals are taken out of their natural environment whilst iconic wildlife loses theirs.
So, what can shoppers do to help? Well, look for pasture-fed beef and lamb, and organic dairy that is more likely to have come from animals that were grass-fed rather than reared on concentrated feeds that may contain palm.
Shoppers can also ask questions of their supermarkets to find out whether meat is palm-free and thereby elephant-friendly.
After all, how many of us truly want to eat from the ashes of former elephant habitat?
Philip Lymbery is chief executive of Compassion in World Farming, a former United Nations Food Systems Champion and author of Farmageddon: The True Cost of Cheap Meat and Dead Zone: Where the Wild Things Were. Philip’s new book Sixty Harvests Left: How to Reach a Nature-Friendly Future is published on Thursday. He is on Twitter @philip_ciwf