Malaysia plans ‘orangutan diplomacy’ in palm oil pitch

Commodities minister says critically endangered animals could be given to countries that buy Malaysia’s palm oil.

A Sumatran orangutan resting on its arms in an enclosure at the national zoo in Kuala Lumpur.
In the wild, orangutans survive only in Borneo and Sumatra [File: Mohd Rasfan/AFP]

Malaysia has said it plans to start an “orangutan diplomacy” programme for countries that buy its palm oil.

The Southeast Asian nation is the world’s second biggest producer of the edible oil after Indonesia, but critics say the mass development of the industry has fuelled deforestation and destroyed the habitat of critically endangered orangutans and other emblematic species in one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots.

Orangutans live only on the island of Borneo and the Indonesian island of Sumatra.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List estimates the orangutan population on Borneo, which is shared between Brunei, Indonesia and Malaysia, will decline to about 47,000 by 2025 as a result of human pressures and loss of habitat. It estimates there are about 13,500 orangutans left in Sumatra.

Minister of Plantation and Commodities Johari Abdul Ghani said the orangutan programme was inspired by China’s panda diplomacy and would target countries buying palm oil to “prove” Malaysia’s commitment to conservation and biodiversity.

He said leading importing countries, such as China, India and some European Union members, would likely receive the orangutans. He did not elaborate on how the programme would work or when it would start.

“Malaysia cannot take a defensive approach to palm oil,” he told delegates at a biodiversity forum in Genting, east of Kuala Lumpur, that he later shared on social media. “We need to show the countries of the world that Malaysia is a sustainable oil palm producer and committed to protecting forests.”

Beijing, which operates a giant panda breeding programme, generally loans pandas for 10 years providing the countries meet certain conditions for their care. Malaysia received two pandas in 2014, building them a multimillion-dollar air-conditioned enclosure at the National Zoo in Kuala Lumpur.

Malaysia does not have a breeding programme for orangutans, although there are conservation centres for them in Sarawak and Sabah on Borneo. NGOs also run conservation programmes to restore their habitat.

Johari urged large palm oil producers to collaborate with NGOs on conservation and sustainability.

Palm oil is used in a huge variety of products, from shampoo to ice cream and bread.

The industry has been trying to improve sustainability amid pressure from campaigners over its effect on the environment through groups such as the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO).

Source: Al Jazeera