No simian diplomacy please

Orangutan in the wild of Sabah. More thought should be put into how Malaysia can effectively communicate how it is committed to biodiversity conservation and also, how collaborations can help enhance orangutan conservation. - Photo: WWF-Malaysia/Mazidi Ghani

THE orangutan — men of the forest — are said to have descended from the same common ancestor as humans, and both the Sumatran and Bornean orangutans are listed as endangered species.

That is one reason why nobody wants to see more orangutan locked up in zoos to be gawked at.

It is also why Malaysia’s plan to use these great apes as a “trading gift” in a public relations push to allay fears over oil palm plantations’ impact on the environment is an incredibly bad idea.

Besides the risk of a backlash from the citizens of palm oil importing countries that receive the orangutan, there is also the fact that a number of these countries may have their own orangutan breeding programmes.

A better way forward could be having exchange programmes or collaborations on how to reintroduce captive orangutan back into their natural habitats.

At least then, those in power can show how biodiversity in the country is being protected and sustained.

The proposed “gifts” do nothing to show Malaysia’s commitment to biodiversity conservation and is actually taking a defensive approach that Plantations and Commodities Minister Datuk Seri Johari Abdul Ghani — who made the orangutan diplomacy suggestion — says the country should avoid.

Having captive orangutans is not a good example of striving for biodiversity. Also, having orangutan available as “gifts” may give the wrong impression that there are enough to spare in the country’s breeding programme versus the numbers roaming wild.

According to the Wildlife Conservation Society, there are around 2,000 orangutan in the wilds of Sarawak, with some four-fifths of them located in the Batang Ai National Park and the Lanjak-Entimau Wildlife Sanctuary.

China’s panda diplomacy does merit more in-depth study but not as a simple “gift” solution.

A successful outcome of panda diplomacy that most do not know of is how China used it to get funding and expertise that was poured back into conservation efforts that in turn increased panda numbers.

In 2010, a total of US$709mil (RM3.36bil) was raised from loaning pandas around the world and another US$1.9bil was raised through enlarging nature reserves for wild pandas. Malaysia can learn from China how to do this, as there are better outcomes, and measurable too. Pandas went from being “endangered” to being classified as “vulnerable” in 2016.

Also, China’s use of the panda as a diplomatic tool has not provided it the cover against rising protectionist tendencies in the western world. There is no guarantee that a similar “orangutan diplomacy” will protect palm oil and related products from negative publicity.

As palm oil exports are important to the economy and livelihoods of many in Malaysia, the best way forward is to comply with certification such as the RSPO certification.

While RSPO has its detractors, especially among a number of NGOs, it is widely accepted as the “gold standard”. The other certification is the MSPO, which is also a benchmark showing that the palm oil source is sustainable.

The key to better management of oil palm estates in relation to biodiversity is co-existence, especially as agriculture and human settlements encroach into forested areas.

Plantation companies should work with the government and NGOs to create wildlife corridors that provide safe passage not just for orangutans but also tigers, elephants and tapirs, among others.

To be fair, there are plantation companies that have created these corridors.

One of them is Sawit Kinabalu Sdn Bhd, the Sabah government’s oil palm investment arm, which established a corridor through one of its estates to link the Tabin Wildlife Reserve and the Silabukan Forest Reserve under WWF-Malaysia’s Living Landscapes Approaches framework, which enables collaborations between plantation companies and conservation groups.

Wilmar International Ltd, another plantation company, set aside 4,000ha of land in central Kalimantan as a sanctuary following an assessment that found orangutan living in the area. In Sabah, the company has since 2001 managed a 527ha wildlife corridor between one of its estates and the Tabin Wildlife Reserve.

Biodiversity conservation requires political will, time and funding.

More thought should also be put into how Malaysia can effectively communicate how it is committed to biodiversity conservation and also, how collaborations can help enhance orangutan conservation, which remains endangered despite the not inconsiderable efforts and funding that has been poured into it.

Besides funding raised through the loans of its pandas, China spends US$255mil annually on panda conservation efforts, according to a 2018 CGTN report.

The positive outcome of the ill-advised idea to “gift” orangutan is perhaps more scrutiny from Malaysians and others on conservation finance as well as what results can be seen from conservation efforts from the private sector and the government.

This article first appeared in Star Biz7 weekly edition.

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