Food, Health, Elephants: Everything is Connected

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August 12th is World Elephant Day. As we celebrate these incredible animals, we reflect on the devastating link between industrial animal farming, the risk of new viruses and the dramatic decline of this iconic species.

Deep in Sumatra’s lush island rainforests roam some of the most majestic creatures I’ve ever laid eyes upon. The Sumatran elephant, one of three sub-breeds of Asian Elephant, is smaller than its African cousin – but size is relative. Standing at nine feet tall and weighing five tons, these magnificent mammals are a sight to behold.

They are highly intelligent, emotional, and sophisticated communicators who display fascinating and touching behaviours like sombre rituals to mourn their dead, and celebrations to welcome the birth of new calves. Like their ancestors, these gentle giants play a vital role in the ecosystem.

Sumatran female elephant and baby | Credit Philip J Lymbery


Several years ago, I travelled to Sumatra to see them in person. I wish I’d been there solely to marvel at their beauty, but I was really there to better understand their tragic demise.

What I discovered is that the production of cheap meat and milk from factory farms is a big reason why the Sumatran elephant is heading for extinction.

By far the most endangered elephant in the world, the future of these magnificent creatures is affected, not so much by poaching, but by something far less sinister sounding: the production of palm for food and animal feed. Within a single elephant generation, more than a third of their jungle habitat of the critically endangered Sumatran elephant has disappeared, mainly to make way for palm plantations, leaving the elephants down to their last 2,500.

Elephants and animal feed

In recent years, many consumers have been shocked to learn how their favourite products – everything from chocolate bars to body wash – are made from these trees.

Palm Oil Tree | Credit: Peangdao

What is less well known is that palm products are being widely used to feed factory-farmed animals. There’s more to palm than the oil. Dig deeper into the fruit and you come across the edible seed or kernel. The industry renders these nuts down into kernel oil and palm-kernel meal. This meal is then transported as a protein source to the feed troughs of industrially reared animals all over the world, especially in Europe and the UK.

Millions of tonnes of this meal is produced every year, and, as a cheap alternative to other feeds, a vicious cycle ensues. The increased availability of palm-kernel livestock feed drives industrial animal farming. In turn, this drives more demand for palm kernel. Vast tracts of land are lost in the equation. Among the losers are Sumatra’s dwindling elephants.


Felling natural forests to make way for palm plantations causes untold devastation.  As the elephant’s jungle home shrinks, so conflict between elephants and people escalates and natural biodiversity is lost. What the recent Covid-19 global pandemic taught us is that encroaching into the world’s remaining wild lands also brings humanity into contact with new viruses.

How Do We Make A Difference?

Sumatran elephants are a keystone animal. They are vital to the balance of their ecosystems. As they roam across the forests, they spread seeds across the fertile ground they tread upon. Their dung provides a feast for local critters, and spawns trumpeting mushrooms in their wake. The immense weight of their steps creates water holes frequented by small animals. This balance helps keep the rainforests alive and running, which in turn, helps keep our planet alive.

Few shoppers realise that the milk, beef and bacon they buy may be coming from palm-fed animals, let alone contributing to the demise of iconic wildlife like the Sumatran elephant in the world’s remaining jungles.

Turning the tide before it’s too late means we need to act urgently.

On World Elephant Day, let’s start by cutting out factory farmed meat and dairy, choosing to eat less and better animal-sourced foods produced without animal cruelty and palm-feed devastation: look for pasture-fed or organic.

We can also use our voices. This year, the United Nations has convened a Food Systems Summit to help transform global food systems to be more sustainable. Anyone can speak up for animals and call for an end to factory farming by becoming a food systems hero.

Together, we can, and must make a difference – to our environment, to our health, and to the lives of elephants and other precious animals, both near and far.

Thank you.

Credit: Lek Chailert

Please Help Us, Help The Elephants

Save The Asian Elephants is fighting daily to end the UK’s shameful role in driving the enormous trade in abusive Asian elephant related “attractions”. STAE has pioneered proposed new UK law in the Animals Abroad Bill to ban advertising and sales of tickets to low welfare venues abroad where highly endangered baby and adult Asian elephants, illegally snatched from the wild, are brutalised to break their spirits for easy use in tourism.

Please cut, paste and email these suggested letters to your MP: and to Govt:  

Compassion in World Farming is calling on the world’s most influential organisations, including the World Bank, the United Nations and the World Health Organisation, to replace factory farming with a food system that respects animals, nurtures our planet, and reduces the risk of pandemics. 

Please use this link to sign our petition and join the call for a future without factory farming

Philip travelled to Sumatra to undertake research for his second book, Dead Zone: Where the Wild Things Were. Dead Zone has been the first book to show how factory farming is a major driver of wildlife declines worldwide: from iconic mammals, to sea life, birds, reptiles and insects and how once plentiful species now face extinction due in large part to humankind’s drive for cheap meat.

All royalties go to Compassion in World Farming

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