02:47 - Source: CNN
Malaysia's controversial "orangutan diplomacy"
CNN  — 

China has “panda diplomacy,” Australia parades koalas at global summits and now Malaysia plans to join the Asia-Pacific trend for adorable ambassadors – by gifting orangutans to countries that buy its palm oil.

But the idea has come under heavy criticism from conservationists, who note that palm oil has been one of the biggest factors behind the great apes’ dwindling numbers – with one leading conservation professor calling the plan “obscene.”

The world’s most widely consumed vegetable oil, palm oil is used in everything from shampoo and soaps to ice cream. Clearing land for palm oil plantations has been a major driver of deforestation, the greatest threat to the survival of critically endangered orangutans.

Malaysia is the world’s second-biggest exporter of palm oil after Indonesia.

Production is vital to the economy and government officials have gone to great lengths in recent years to defend and rebrand the industry by introducing initiatives to support sustainability – such as improving agricultural practices and issuing government-endorsed green certificates to companies that meet sustainability standards.

At a biodiversity summit outside the capital Kuala Lumpur on Wednesday, Malaysia’s minister for plantations and commodities announced plans for “orangutan diplomacy.” Hoping to emulate Chinese panda diplomacy – in which Beijing exerts soft power by loaning its beloved national animal to zoos overseas - the Malaysian government hopes to gift orangutans to some of its biggest trading partners, he said.

Those partners “are increasingly concerned over the impact of agricultural commodities on the climate,” said minister Johari Abdul Ghani. “It is a diplomatic strategy where it would be advantageous to trading partners and foreign relations, especially in major importing countries like the EU, India and China.”

Ghani did not provide further details such as a timeline or how the animals would be acquired – but welcomed palm oil giants to “collaborate” with local environmental groups in caring for the endangered giant apes.

“This will be a manifestation of how Malaysia conserves wildlife species and maintains the sustainability of our forests, especially in the palm oil plantation industry,” he said.

Tengku Bahar/AFP/Getty Images
Halved oil palm kernels are seen on the trade floor of a commodities conference and exhibition in Kuala Lumpur.

The announcement drew swift backlash from conservationists and environmental groups.

“It is obscene, repugnant and extraordinarily hypocritical to destroy rainforests where orangutans live, take them away and give them as gifts to curry favor with other nations,” Stuart Pimm, chair of conservation ecology at Duke University, told CNN. “It totally goes against how we should be protecting them and our planet.”

Pimm also noted that cuddly-animal charm offensives were normally followed by wider long-term conservation efforts.

“There is a huge difference between what Malaysia is proposing and what China has done for giant pandas,” he said. “China has state-of-the-art facilities for pandas and more importantly, has established protected areas that safeguard wild panda populations. What Malaysia’s government is proposing is hardly anything comparable.”

CNN has reached out to Ghani, and Malaysia’s Ministry of Plantation and Commodities, for further comment about the proposed orangutan program and how it plans to ensure that it will support conservation and sustainability.

VCG/Visual China Group/Getty Images
A panda basks in the sun at the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding.

‘A significant driver of deforestation’

Environmental and conservation groups also strongly opposed the idea, calling on Malaysian officials to instead work on reversing deforestation rates, which they largely blame on palm oil.

Between 2001 and 2019, the country lost more than 8 million hectares (19 million acres) of tree cover, according to a 2022 report by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), an area nearly as large as South Carolina.

“Malaysia’s land surface area was once almost covered with forest,” the WWF said in its forestry report, which cited enduring threats such as palm oil cultivation and unsustainable logging.

According to a 2023 report by climate watchdog Rimba Watch, 2.3 million hectares of forests in Malaysia are at threat of deforestation. “Deforestation for palm oil in Malaysia has generally been on a downward trend but still represents a significant driver of deforestation,” Adam Farhan, the group’s director, told CNN. “We believe there is an urgent need to bring deforestation rates in Malaysia to zero rather than co-opt an endangered species as a commodity for diplomacy,” he added.

Heng Kiah Chun, a regional campaign strategist for Greenpeace Southeast Asia, said orangutan diplomacy “would not solve Malaysia’s deforestation crisis.” “If the Malaysian government is truly committed to biodiversity conservation, it should implement policies against deforestation instead,” Heng told CNN.

02:45 - Source: CNN
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Conservation ‘crucial’

Orangutans are the largest tree-dwelling animals, known to spend most of their lives swinging through canopies of tropical rainforests.

Researchers have noted their incredible intelligence and ability to demonstrate skills such as instinctively treating wounds with medicinal herbs or using tree branches, sticks and stones as tools to break open hard objects like nuts.

The gentle apes, once found in greater numbers across Southeast Asia, have experienced sharp population declines, according to a WWF Malaysia report – particularly on Borneo, the large island shared between Malaysia, Indonesia and the tiny sultanate of Brunei.

“In 1973, Borneo was home to an estimated 288,500 orangutans. By 2012, their numbers had dropped by almost two-thirds, to 104,700 and the decline has continued,” the WWF report said.

There are still believed to be around 100,000 orangutans left on Borneo, and 14,000 on Indonesia’s Sumatra island, it added. “Orangutans are critically endangered,” WWF Malaysia told CNN in a statement. “Therefore it is crucial that all remaining orangutan habitats are conserved.”

A commitment to improving forest management and the sustainable production of palm oil would be “the best way to showcase Malaysia’s commitment to biodiversity conservation,” WWF Malaysia said.

“Orangutan conservation is best achieved by ensuring the protection and conservation of their natural habitats – and that no further forest conversion into palm oil plantations is allowed.”