KUALA LUMPUR – A Malaysian minister’s proposal to send orang utans as gifts to countries that buy its palm oil in a bid to show “commitment to biodiversity conservation” has been panned by environmentalists and wildlife groups, who said the government should focus on deforestation.

Instead of shipping the endangered apes to trading partners like India, China and the European Union, the Malaysian government should do more to show its palm oil is produced sustainably, they said.

The “orang utan diplomacy” proposal from Plantation and Commodities Minister Johari Abdul Ghani comes on the heels of a landmark EU regulation requiring companies selling deforestation-linked goods in Europe to prove that these products are not derived from deforested lands or linked to forest degradation.

“In adopting orang utan diplomacy, we aim to demonstrate Malaysia’s unwavering commitment to biodiversity conservation,” he said in a post on his X account last week, likening the strategy to China’s “panda diplomacy” as a form of soft power.

“It would be a... strategy, where we will gift orangutans to trading partners and foster foreign relations, especially with major importing nations like the European Union, India and China,” he said.

Gifting orang utans to countries that buy Malaysia’s palm oil is a terrible idea, said conservationists and wildlife experts, adding that palm-oil cultivation has been one of the biggest factors behind the apes’ dwindling numbers.

“It’s nonsense and the minister knows it,” said Ms Michelle Desilets, executive director of Britain-based Orangutan Land Trust. “West Malaysia has no say over orang utans which live only in Sarawak and Sabah,” in addition to Kalimantan and Sumatra in Indonesia, she said in response to Datuk Seri Johari’s proposal.

The Borneo orang utan and the Sumatra orang utan are listed as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

It is believed that 100 years ago there were probably more than 230,000 orang utans in total, but the Borneo orang utan’s population is thought to be about 104,700, while the Sumatra orang utan is thought to number about 7,500, according to conservation group WWF.

More can be done to ease concerns about the environmental impact of palm-oil production, conservationists said.

While Malaysia has made strides in ensuring its palm oil is sustainably produced, Ms Desilets said the industry is still a significant driver of deforestation.

“Real diplomacy can be shown by ensuring the global buyers that Malaysian palm oil is indeed sustainable and deforestation-free, and also that they are serious about the conservation of orang utans in situ,” she told The Straits Times.

Malaysia is the second-biggest producer of palm oil in the world, after Indonesia. The export of Malaysia’s palm oil and palm-oil based products is projected to be worth about RM110 billion (S$31.5 billion) in 2024, said Bursa Malaysia chairman Wahid Omar at an industry conference in March.

The two South-east Asian countries account for around 85 per cent of the world’s palm oil products, which can be found in everything from pizza and ice cream to lipstick and shampoo.

Global demand for palm oil has been blamed for driving deforestation in Malaysia and Indonesia, and harming wildlife habitats there.

Last year, the EU approved an import ban on commodities linked to deforestation, a move that Malaysia has criticised as discriminatory.

Importers will have until the end of 2024 to comply with the new EU ruling, which came into force in June 2023.

Wildlife organisations urged the Malaysian government to consider other ways to show its commitment to biodiversity and protecting the great apes, such as by preserving the forests where they live.

WWF-Malaysia, for one, noted that orang utans are slow breeders and taking female simians out of the country to a strange and unnatural environment may adversely impact the orang utan population.

“The conservation of orang utans is best achieved by ensuring the protection and conservation of their natural habitats, and no further forest conversion into oil palm plantations allowed,” it said in a statement to ST.

Malaysia should improve the connectivity of fragmented orang utan habitats and this can be done by getting oil palm plantations to set aside wildlife corridors that are safe for orang utans, WWF-Malaysia added.

Datuk John Payne, chief executive of the Borneo Rhino Alliance, agreed that the orang utans should remain in their natural habitat, but welcomed new ideas on saving the endangered apes. 

“One possible way to approach orang utan diplomacy that would not raise awkward criticism might be to garner support from the Malaysian palm oil-buying nations to collaborate with the Malaysian oil palm growers in sustaining that wild population in situ, where they are,” Dr Payne said.

There is a well-established wild orang utan population living and reproducing in the mixed oil-palm and forest landscape in eastern Sabah between Sandakan and Lahad Datu, he added.

Datuk Darrel Webber, former CEO of the Malaysia-based Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, which was set up to develop and implement global standards for certified sustainable palm oil, said there are ready examples to look to for a softer approach involving orang utans and making the case for sustainable palm oil.

World-class zoos like those in Singapore, London and Auckland run regular campaigns to raise awareness about the orang utans and to highlight the value of choosing products made with sustainable palm oil to help protect the rainforests, thus making a positive impact on the environment, he said.  

“I would humbly suggest that the minister approach these sorts of organisations (zoos), which enjoy a high degree of trust among their countrymen, to help with the diplomatic aims he seeks,” Mr Webber said.

Plantation and Commodities Minister Johari did not respond to ST’s request for comments on the matter.

Correction note: In an earlier version of the story, we said that Datuk John Payne was executive director of the Borneo Orangutan Rescue Alliance. This is incorrect. It should be chief executive officer of the Borneo Rhino Alliance. We are sorry for the error.




Sumber : The Straits Times