A disservice to orangutans

The Borneo orangutans and the Sumatra orangutans are listed as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. – Sarawak Forestry Corporation pic, May 28, 2024.

MALAYSIAN politicians seem to be taking the voiceless and vulnerable orangutan for granted.

In 2022, then plantation industries and commodities minister Zuraida Kamaruddin made Malaysians cringe with her unenlightened understanding of orangutan and wildlife.

“In Malaysia, if you see an orangutan, it will kill you first, not you kill the orangutan first, correct?” she had said.

The minister said her umrah pilgrimage revealed Arab schools had books casting aspersions on palm oil, because “kita bunuh orangutan (we kill the orangutan)”.

To counter the attack against Malaysia’s palm oil industry, Zuraida said if a human were to see an orangutan, the otherwise tame animal would kill the human first. 

Now, yet another plantation and commodities minister, Johari Abdul Ghani, made an outlandish proposal to send orangutans as gifts to countries purchasing Malaysia’s palm oil in a bid to show “commitment to biodiversity conservation.”

Johari’s proposal was prompted by a landmark European Union regulation requiring companies selling deforestation-linked goods in Europe to prove such products were not sourced from deforested lands or linked to forest degradation.

“In adopting orangutan diplomacy, we aim to demonstrate Malaysia’s unwavering commitment to biodiversity conservation,” Johari said in a post on his X account on May 8, likening this strategy to China’s “panda diplomacy” as a form of soft power.

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

Johari’s idea left Britain-based Orangutan Land Trust executive director Michelle Desilets aghast. 

“It’s nonsense and the minister knows it. West Malaysia has no say over orangutans which live only in Sarawak and Sabah in addition to Kalimantan and Sumatra in Indonesia,” Michelle lamented to the Straits Times.

“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 orangutans in situ,” Michelle said.

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

It is believed 100 years ago, there were more than 230,000 orangutans but the Borneo orangutans’ population is thought to be about 104,700, while the Sumatra orangutans are thought to number about 7,500, according to conservation group WWF.

Palm oil cultivation has been identified as one of the biggest reasons for the shrinking orangutan population.

Malaysia is the second-biggest producer of palm oil in the world, after Indonesia. Together, they account for 85% of the world’s palm oil products.

Bursa Malaysia chairman Abdul Wahid Omar, in quoting the Malaysian Palm Oil Board (MPOB) January 2024 report, said palm oil exports are projected to grow by 3.3%, reaching 15.60 million tonnes in 2024 from 15.10 million tonnes in 2023.

Wahid said Malaysia’s palm oil and palm oil-based products are projected to be worth about RM110 billion (S$31.5 billion) in 2024.

In Zuraida’s “orangutan kill” remark, her office claimed the minister’s comment was taken out of context in a closed door meeting and edited to portray her in a negative light. 

The minister had said she was merely narrating a story by the Malaysian ambassador in Saudi Arabia over anti-palm oil sentiments.

Do private meetings “allow” politicians and ministers to provide misinformation and make a mockery of the nation?

In a statement, Zuraida’s office said: “The orangutan issue was brought up so as to get relevant agencies to further study the habitats and living habits of the species.”

So how did Zuraida’s successor Johari end up with the preposterous idea if there were studies in place?

Andrew Sebastian, president of the Ecotourism and Conservation Society of Malaysia (Ecomy), told a news portal he was disgusted by Zuraida’s lack of knowledge and her unfounded remark did a disservice both to the environment and palm oil industry.

Zuraida’s scandalous remark came about at the Malaysia Palm Oil Council’s 2022 seminar and dialogue that there were many orangutans in Malaysia, contrary to claims that the palm oil industry was killing the primates.

Malaysian politicians like Zuraida and Johari have twice shamed the country with their incompetencies. Can a hat trick be avoided? – May 28, 2024.

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