'Palm oil industry not a threat to orang utans'

This is written by my colleague Bilqis Bahari.



ORANG utan, a great ape species and one of Malaysia's darling icons, has been at the centre of the most debated issues among the local palm oil industries as well as local and western non-governmental organisations (NGOs).

Efforts have been made by the local palm oil industry stakeholders and local wildlife departments and NGOs such as Malaysian Palm Oil Council (MPOC) and the Sabah wildlife department to protect the orang utans as well as to attest to the Western Environmental NGOs (WENGOs) of their claims that the local palm oil industry is threatening the survival of the orang utans.

MPOC chief executive officer Tan Sri Yusof Basiron told Business Times in an exclusive interview that the council has set up Malaysian Palm Oil Wildlife Conservation Fund (MPOCWF) in 2006 for the local palm oil industry to actively participate in the conservation of wildlife biodiversity in Malaysia.

He added that the MPOCWF was set up partly in response to the many, often unfounded accusations from WENGOs that the palm oil industry was on a blatant path of destruction.

MPOCWF has a revolving fund of RM20 million, with half of the amount being contributed by the government and the other half from the industry, pulled out of MPOC's own reserves, he said.

The creation of the fund has allowed the MPOC to directly negotiate with interested parties that are able to bring the required expertise and propose meaningful studies and actions.

"We hope in the long-term these could allow the harmonised and caring existence between the palm oil industry and fulfills the need to maintain and preserve conservation of both flora and fauna throughout our country," said Yusof.

Some of MPOCWF's initiatives include undertaking a survey of the orang utan population in Sabah. The survey was completed and allowed MPOC to map out many of their dwelling sites and ascertain their numbers. The survey was done with Sabah Wildlife Department, the French NGO Hutan and Borneo Conservation Trust.

A grant was given to the Malua BioBank in Sabah to undertake studies on wildlife and potential conflict with forested areas and fringes of oil palm plantations.

MPOCWF funded test rope bridges within Malua to see if orang utans in the wild are capable of using man made bridges aimed at functioning as corridors connecting to the isolated populations.

MPOCWF, along with Sabah Forestry Department, has helped establish an active jungle patrol to monitor and act against poaching of protected wildlife. The fund was used to work with Sarawak Forestry Cooperation to monitor wildlife especially orang utan in several protected areas in Sarawak that share common boundaries with oil palm plantations.

MPOCWF also provided funds for the orang utan infant care unit in Bukit Merah, Perak, which has helped to ensure better survival of orang utan infants born within the facility.

Yusof said that the most important thing is there is interest, especially from overseas conservation research centres wishing to use the facility for orang utan related research. State authorities have a record of active partnership with international and local NGOs.

"When an interest is generated, we sit with all parties proposing such ideas and work towards the proposed objectives. In this way, we succeeded in bringing to the table a large range of expertise. Our current model of multiple party engagement for the project we funded is beginning to generate the right output and help increase an awareness about all conservation efforts, in general," he said.

MPOCWF is not just a corporate social responsibility (CSR) project for MPOC. In reality it goes beyond CSR, said Yusof, adding that MPOC is keen to understand how the oil palm plantations have impacted the overall conservation landscape.

By such enhanced knowledge, he said, it is able to interact more meaningfully with the local industry players. "Our involvement has allowed the industry to become more active in these areas and we continue to encourage them to become partners in some areas where we undertake the conservation projects," he said.

He added that there are many palm oil firms that have taken their own conservation efforts and financing such efforts. The most visible of such activities is through the Yayasan Sime Darby. "Many other examples are already obvious. Funding is not just confined to orang utans. You know of funding to save rhinoceros, proboscis monkeys, tigers, elephants, hornbills and sun bears," he said.

The local palm oil industry has received many unfavourable comments and criticisms, especially from WENGOs on the industry's impact on wildlife. Campaigns such as "Don't palm us off" by Australian zoos has shed a bad light on the palm oil industry.

Speaking on the many allegations that WENGOs have made to the local palm oil industry, Yusof said the industry stakeholders need to continue dialogues with all parties concerned. "We cannot accept when overseas rule makers are emotional and more interested in delivering only emotional statements that will only please their own constituents."

"We are simply asking for a level playing field. Meanwhile, out of MPOC, we will engage the many channels and convey the truth about palm oil," he said.


 'Most stable, viable population in the world'

KUALA LUMPUR: Sabah has about 11,300 orang utans, while in Sarawak the numbers are estimated at about 2,000. The Malaysian Palm Oil Council (MPOC) believes that this group could develop into the most stable and viable population in the world. Orang utan is found only on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra.

According to the Orang Utan Action Plan (2012-2016), which was developed by Sabah Wildlife Department, orang utan distribution and abundance decline is directly attributed to recent and drastic habitat losses mainly due to the conversion of large expanses of orang utan habitat to oil palm plantations and other crops.

The action plan also stated that other immediate threats include habitat degradation due to unsustainable and/or illegal logging practices, various forms of encroachments with protected forests, fires and poaching or killing.

According to MPOC chief executive officer Tan Sri Yusof Basiron, currently much of the local orang utan conservation efforts are managed in Sabah and Sarawak. MPOC is actively working with the state wildlife departments since the latter are responsible and guardians of all the wildlife in these states.

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