SINGAPORE: A Sarawak minister has pushed back against a proposal to offer orangutans as gifts to countries that purchase Malaysian palm oil. 

“There is no need to give away orangutans as gifts,” said Mr Abdul Karim Rahman Hamzah, the state’s tourism, creative industry and performing arts minister, on Monday (May 20).

“If you ask me, on a personal note, I don’t agree,” he told reporters after the launch of the Tourism Destination Resilience Workshop in the state’s capital Kuching.

Mr Abdul Karim stressed the importance of the primates to Sarawak’s heritage and said the best place for them to live was not international zoos, but their natural environments in Sarawak, Sabah and Kalimantan in Borneo. Orangutans are also found in Sumatra in Indonesia.

“We take care of our orangutans very well. We will make sure that their habitats are not spoiled by the cutting of trees for plantations, but certainly not by giving them away as gifts,” he said. 

The idea for Malaysia to engage in “orangutan diplomacy” to bolster relations with major palm oil importers such as the European Union, India and China came from the country’s plantation and commodities minister Johari Abdul Ghani earlier this month. 

Malaysia is the world’s second-largest producer of palm oil. The ingredient is found in products ranging from ice-cream to soap, but oil palm cultivation has resulted in habitat loss for the critically endangered great apes.

Mr Johari had said Malaysia aimed to demonstrate its unwavering commitment to biodiversity conservation, likening the plan to Beijing’s panda diplomacy as a form of soft power. 

“Malaysia cannot take a defensive approach to the issue of palm oil. Instead we need to show the countries of the world that Malaysia is a sustainable oil palm producer and is committed to protecting forests and environmental sustainability,” he added, as cited by regional and international media. 

The European Union last year approved a ban on imports of commodities linked to deforestation, which could hurt the palm oil industry. Malaysia has criticised the law, calling it discriminatory. 

On Monday, Mr Abdul Karim said Malaysia could simply give orangutan dolls, or “patung”, instead of the live animals.

He suggested that should there be an orangutan policy, Malaysia ought to follow China’s practice of loaning pandas instead of giving them away, according to the news site New Sarawak Tribune.

“They (China) can give away pandas but you don’t own the panda. After a few years they will take it back,” he said.


Advocacy and conservation groups have also panned Mr Johari’s suggestion.

Sarawak activist Peter John Jaban urged Mr Johari to focus instead on cleaning up the palm oil industry as a means to improve its reputation, adding that his orangutan diplomacy proposal demonstrated how out of touch he is with modern conservation ideals.

“This is not a commitment to biodiversity conservation. Instead, this is a gift with purchase,” he said in a May 19 statement. 

“(Mr Johari’s) idea to send these sensitive, critically endangered animals out into the world is a clear message that Borneo no longer has the rainforests to house them in their natural habitats.”

Mr Jaban added that Mr Johari should consider inviting local oil palm plantation companies and international media to learn more about Malaysia’s orangutan conservation and provide financial support to related projects. 

Advocacy group Justice for Wildlife Malaysia said the government should consider alternative diplomatic measures, citing the need for more research on the plan’s potential impact and feasibility against other conservation efforts, according to Reuters.

The population of orangutans, whose name means “man of the forest” in Malay, is less than 105,000 on the island of Borneo, according to non-governmental organisation World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).

According to an official of Sarawak’s Forest Department, the population of orangutans is between 1,800 and 2,500 in the state’s national parks.

WWF Malaysia has called on the Malaysian government to stop the further conversion of forests into plantations, and suggested that oil palm estates should set aside wildlife corridors that are safe for the primates. 


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