If guidelines are not put in place very soon, researchers say the spread of those large-scale industrial plantations from Asia into Africa will be bad news for great apes there as well.
Palm oil and its derivatives are used in 70% of cosmetics and personal care products, though its share of the palm oil industry is low compared to food.
"The first step is to get this issue on the forefront of public awareness and on the agenda of companies active in Africa and governments, both in and outside of Africa," says Serge Wich of Liverpool John Moores University.
"Public awareness is key, as consumers have influence through their purchasing behavior."
From Asia to Africa
Oil palm concessions that have already been given to companies for production in Africa show almost 60% overlap with the distribution of great ape species, the new analysis finds. Of the area suitable for growing oil palm in Africa, there is a 42% overlap with great ape habitat.
"Working in Indonesia during the past two decades has given me first-hand experience of the extremely rapid oil palm development, for which large areas of forest have been cleared," says Wich.
"Now that companies are looking to Africa, we wanted to determine how large the potential threat to African ape species is."
Wich and his team state that there is an urgent need to develop guidelines for the expansion of oil palm in Africa to minimize the negative effects on apes and other wildlife, as well as a need for research to support land use decisions to reconcile economic development and the avoidance of carbon emissions.
For people looking to do something about the palm oil problem themselves, now is the time to start, the researchers say.
"The general public should try to push the companies they buy goods from to use sustainable oil palm," Wich says, noting that some products now carry a GreenPalm logo.
"If consumers do buy a product with palm oil in it and no label, they should email, call, or otherwise contact the company to ask them to start using sustainable palm oil and tell them they will not continue to buy their product until it is labeled to indicate this."