We brought in the weevils from Africa

This newstory under the "I remember when..." column was published in New Sunday Times.

Several methods were tried, to limited success, until weevils were brought in from Cameroon to do the job. Several experts shared with TAN CHOE CHOE the story of the bug that has made Malaysia the largest palm oil exporting country in the world.

SOME of the world's greatest discoveries came about because of a refusal to accept established norms.

 Malaysia is the biggest palm oil exporting country in the world today because Datuk Leslie Davidson refused to be hemmed in by claims in textbooks that oil palm fruits could only be wind pollinated.

Davidson, who rose to be the chairman of the plantation group at Unilever, Britain, introduced oil palm in Sabah in 1960 when he was an estate manager and opened the Tungud estate in the Labuk Valley.

Although the plants grew well, they did not bear much fruit. Scientists theorised that this was because heavy rain had washed the pollen away.

Davidson was, however, sceptical. As a young planter in Cameroon, West Africa, he had seen bountiful fruits on oil palm plants despite heavy rain. At the time, Johor's oil palm estates were yielding bigger fruit bunches than the ones in Sabah because they had an insect pollinator -- the thrip hawaiiensis.

Without assisted pollination, the weight of fruit to bunch in the Labuk Valley was only around 30 per cent. In Johor, it was about 54 per cent, while in Cameroon, over 65 per cent. "We experimented with hand pollination and achieved standards close to Johor's, although still not as good as in Cameroon."

Davidson kept turning over the problem in his mind until he remembered "the little beasties" he saw in Cameroon.

"Davidson asked Unilever to follow up on his hunch and whether those insects pollinating the palms in Cameroon could be brought in to Malaysia," said Mahbob Abdullah, who was then the general manager of Pamol Sabah under Unilever. Davidson was his boss.

Mahbob said Davidson approached the Commonwealth Institute of Biological Control (CIBC) for their expertise, and got Datuk Dr Rahman Anwar Syed, an entomologist from Pakistan, to undertake the study.

Rahman proved, in a series of experiments, that the oil palm in its original habitat was pollinated by several different insects, the most effective of which was the weevil named elaeidobius kamerunicus.

Armed with the results, Unilever's research head in Malaysia, Dr R.H.V. Corley, approached the Department of Agriculture's plant quarantine section head, Datin Kang Siew Ming, who was just into her second day at the job.

Kang recalled: "On hearing their story, I sensed the enormous impact these weevils would have not only on Pamol Estate, but the entire oil palm industry. But I was concerned that the weevils would cause damage to the oil palm itself or become a pest to other economic crops."

Kang's section enforces the Plant Quarantine Act and Regulations 1961, which controls and regulates the entry of all insects, plants and plant products into the country.

To confirm Rahman's findings, a delegation led by Mahbob, comprising Kang, Zam Abdul Karim, an entomologist with the Agriculture Department and Dr Tay Eong Beok, the assistant director of Agriculture, Sabah, went on a field trip to Cameroon.

"We had to wake before dawn to observe the weevils' pollinating activities. Zam and I took turns climbing onto selected palms. We saw the comings and goings of several weevil species and were convinced that the elaeidobius kamerunicus was the best pollinator," said Kang.

It was also found that the weevils had evolved with the oil palm plants and developed a very synergistic relationship with them. After being briefed on the findings, the then director-general of agriculture, Datuk Ahmad Yunus, issued an import permit for the weevils.

In June 1980, Rahman arrived in Kuala Lumpur with 1,044 weevil pupae individually packed in plastic vials.

They were immediately taken into the quarantine insectary at Jalan Gallagher.

The 1,044 pupae were the remains of the 2,000 pupae sent to London for intermediate quarantine checking at the CIBC labs.

Although they spent only one day in London, the journey proved too long for the creatures to remain as pupae. Some adults had emerged and all were examined by Kang and Zam for possible contaminants.

"Only about 400 vigorous ones were selected. The rest were destroyed," said Zam. "We also tested them with some common pesticides. We needed to be ready to kill them in case anything went wrong," she added.

After some six months of testing, Zam and Kang were finally satisfied the insects would bring no harm and their results were presented at a meeting of experts from various research agencies. They obtained final authorisation to release the weevils for commercial use at Uni-Pamol Malaysia's Mamor Estate in Kluang, Johor.

"Rahman and I packed one insect-cage of male oil palm spikelets full of weevils and then he drove us from the insectary to Mamor estate under Uni-Pamol Malaysia in the early morning of Feb 21, 1981."

In the presence of Corley and many other Pamol staff, Rahman held the cage, Kang slid open the cage door and the weevils flew out to make their new home in Malaysia.

"I remember Rahman wishing them, 'God bless you in your new home!', as he observed the cloud of flying weevils heading for the oil palms. They had been his constant companion for almost three years," said Kang.

"The weevil is a hardworking insect. The weevil population exploded after they were released in Mamor.

"Soon, the weevils were taken to other countries and they have helped with the growth of the industry in Indonesia, Thailand, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and India," said Mahbob.

In Sabah, the insects were released by Rahman on March 13, 1981 at the Pamol estate in Labuk. Since then, Sabah has overtaken Johor as the biggest palm-oil producing state in Malaysia.

6 Responses to We brought in the weevils from Africa

  1. This is the most successful introduced insect pollinator of all time in terms of economic benefits and rapidity of establishment and spread. It presents a great story for a documentary production perfectly suited for airing over Discovery Channel or National Geographic. Shouldnt the oil palm fraternity take a serious loook into this opportunity?

  2. Some additional info on savings by the Malaysian oil palm industry due to the pollinators:

    - US$60 million in labour cost per annum from dispensing with hand pollination(Syed et al 1982)

    - US$100 million per annum was saved in labour cost plus increasd yield(Hussein et al 1991)

    - US$115 million was saved per annum in labour cost plus increased yield(Greathead(1983)

  3. Palm oil insider 15 June 2010 at 11:12

    Datuk Leslie Davidson should share part of his RM500,000 Merdeka Award at least with Mahbob Abdullah if not the entire team involved in the weevil project.
    For his enormous contribution to the palm oil industry where billions were saved over the last 30 years, Mahbob Abdullah rightfully deserves recognition and he should be awarded with at least a Datukship from the Negeri Sultan if not the Agong!

  4. Well said , a Datukship for Mahbob from the Agong would be more appropriate. The Ministry of Plantation Industries & Commodities or any other oil palm organisation should look into this. It is never too late.

    Leslie told me during the celebration of his award at the KL Hilton that he would send part of the award money to the late Datuk Dr Rahman Syed.

    As for me the late Dr Syed paid a warm tribute to me during the ISP award ceremony for him & Leslie several years ago. A member of the audience told me that after listening to the tribute - you also deserve an a award!
    As government servants the rest of the team were doing our duties to facilitate the private sector initiative.This is the most deserving initiative to be supported.

  5. I dont know if you remember me - I am Mohan, son of V T John - It was nice to see Mr Mahbob and Leslie Davidson in the write up - It has been my desire to come to Pamol for a visit sometime - have 2 kids, son a lawyer and daughter completes her MBA in 2 weeks - am at Trivandrum and my email address is jt@asianetindia.com
    Regards
    Mohan

  6. Is it true in Malaysia that the weevils are now become "lazy" and might have mutated to be less effective as pollinators in OP fields?
    If it is true, is there an alternative?

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