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For several decades, palm oil cultivation on a commercial scale in some south-east Asian countries has resulted in a very serious impact on the natural environment, causing widespread deforestation and loss of natural habitat and threatening critically endangered species such as the Asian elephant, orangutan, Sumatran tiger, gibbons, hornbills, and other organisms that are trying to survive in the wild.

Oil palms have been harvested by humans for over 5,000 years and palm oil has even been found in a tomb in Ancient Egypt dating back to 3,000 BC. But it was in the 19th century that palm oil suddenly became widely used in Europe and America as an industrial lubricant and cooking oil, and as the basis of many famous household products ranging from soap and toothpaste to ink and pizza dough. The oil comes from the red pulp of the fruits which are small and oval and grow in clusters of several hundred, close to the trunk on short heavy stalks. The fruit is black and red when ripe, and is fibrous and oily around a white kernel that is also rich in oils.

Because the oil palm trees produce fruit continuously throughout the year, with new bunches ripening each month, the fruit is always in season. A very sharp knife is used to cut off the fruit bunches. As the tree grows, it develops a very thick, distinctive scaly trunk, and large spreading crowns.

Nowadays in Thailand most of the oil palms are cultivated on smallholdings that practice sustainable cultivation. The picture is not so rosy in some other countries but at last big companies are coming under a lot of international pressure to ensure their palm oil production is sustainable. In some places, farmers, whose lives depend on the crops, will try to discourage elephants from eating their plantations and in extreme cases may even try to poison them.

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From using solar panels to create clean renewable energy to using recycled rainwater to create our elephant pools, sustainability on the Ban Ton Sae site is one of the ways STEF will become a sustainable environmentally friendly haven for our elephants and guests to enjoy.

One of the ways STEF will ensure sustainability is to grow the food for the elephants on site. An area of land has already been sculpted for this purpose and as you can see from the picture (left), levels have been carved into the earth to create giant steps where rows of crops can grow and be rotated.

Deforestation is the biggest threat to the Asian elephant in the wild. Plantations for crops such as rubber and palm oil (products used widely in western countries) are one of the causes for the destruction of  elephant habitats. We have cleared all rubber trees from our site and by growing our own food for the elephants we can ensure this land is reused sustainably and no areas of primary forest are cut down to provide the crops.

We plan to grow bamboo and Napier grass (also known as elephant grass) to feed them on site but the elephants will also be taken into the forest to forage for themselves. Elephants need a range of foods to meet their dietary requirements and foraging encourages natural behaviours.

Why bamboo? Well bamboo (right) is classified as a grass, is extremely strong (big species are often seen being used as scaffolding on construction sites), and it is said to be the fastest growing plant on earth (some species grow up to 0.5m per day). It is sometimes called a ‘pioneer species’, as it creates humus-rich soils and so is of great value in forest habitats. Elephants are very fond of bamboo shoots, seedlings and leaves.

Elephant grass (above left) is a perennial forage crop that also has a fast growth rate, high productivity and has good nutritive value. It is a very good grass for cut and carry systems – and elephants, who do not just eat what is available, but actively choose what to eat, love it as you can see.

If you would like to help us feed our elephants and support sustainable reforestation you can sponsor a tree or area of grazing turf on our website by just clicking here.