Celebrating and Sustaining Our Iconic Species through Conservation

Celebrating and Sustaining Our Iconic Species Through Conservation
Celebrating and Sustaining Our Iconic Species Through Conservation

The world’s wildlife are faced with many challenges, the biggest threats being habitat loss due to cattle ranching, agricultural expansion and development. Activities related to wildlife trade such as poaching and hunting also inflict immediate threat to many iconic species.  Elephants, pangolins, rhinoceros, sharks, tigers are among the most critically poached and trafficked species across the world. Impacts of wildlife trade are very significant, causing a huge decline of up to 62% of wildlife populations1. Governments, law makers, industry members, NGOs and consumers across every region are scaling up their efforts to protect wildlife. Everyone has a role to play in protecting wildlife and its habitat. Together, these conservation initiatives can make a difference.

One of the most important elements in wildlife conservation is creating greater awareness especially among the general public. As such, there are many conservation awareness campaigns such as World Wildlife Day on 3 March, International Day for Biological Diversity on 22 May and many more. These events are held to raise awareness of a specific species, to highlight its threats and conservation status, and promote the benefits of biodiversity and its protection. Some of these campaigns made a huge impact in creating better awareness and resulted in an increase in fund-raising for certain conservation groups2. For this month of August, let’s take a look at some of the wildlife in Malaysia and how the Malaysian palm oil industry is looking into the protection and conservation of these iconic species:

i) About Sun Bears

Sun bears (Helarctos malayanus) are one of the 8 bear species in the world. Found mainly in South East Asia, sun bears are the smallest and least known amongst the bear family.

ii) Threats and Conservation Status

Unfortunately, sun bears are threatened with extinction. They are classified as ‘Vulnerable’ under the IUCN Red List3. This is primarily due to poaching and illegal wildlife trade, followed by land use changes. Sun bears are hunted for their gall bladders, prized for its purported medicinal qualities. The cubs are captured and illegally sold as pets.

iii) How are Sun Bears Conserved in Malaysia, and the Roles of Malaysian Palm Oil Industry

There are two main sun bear conservation efforts in Malaysia, and both are supported by the Malaysian palm oil industry. One is the Sun Bear Conservation Programme in Peninsular Malaysia, which was launched by FGV Holdings Berhad in 2018, in collaboration with PERHILITAN, MNS and UKM4.

In Sabah, conservation efforts are through the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre5, located just across the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre. It was established in 2008 as a rescue and rehabilitation site for Bornean sun bears, and is currently housing 44 sun bears. The centre received financial support from Yayasan Sime Darby in 2013 to enhance its centre’s operations6

iv) Palm Oil Industry Protection under Sustainability Certification Schemes

In addition to the financial support above, the Malaysian palm oil industry and its plantations are also prohibited from endangering sun bears, (which is a protected species) as required by MSPO and RSPO sustainability certification schemes. This ensures that these animals will not be harmed by the plantations and workers. Instead, plantations provide full assistance when coming across displaced or injured sun bears, ensuring that it receives medical attention and care from the wildlife authorities.


i) About Malayan Tiger

The Malayan Tiger (Panthera tigris Jacksoni) is a sub-species of tiger that exists exclusively, only in the jungle of Peninsular Malaysia. The tiger is so rare and yet so majestic that the Malay culture has an utmost respect for this species. They are heavily featured in the Coat of Arms of Malaysia as supporters, protecting the shield or Escutcheon. These tigers symbolize strength and courage.

The classification of these tiger subspecies remains divided among the scientific community. However, a more recent DNA molecular analysis strongly supports the results of several earlier publications in the six living, three extinct subspecies recognition7.

In 1900’s, it was estimated that the population of tigers, globally, was about 100,000. Unfortunately, in less than 100 years, the population of tigers has plummeted to less than 3500. Due to the drastic decrease of the population of tigers, a global movement to conserve the species has been initiated.

The 1st National Tiger Survey conducted in 2016-2018 showed that the population of Malayan Tigers is less than 200. Therefore due to the low population number, they have been classified as ‘Critically Endangered’ by IUCN Red List of Threatened Species8. Responding to this crisis, the government of Malaysia through the Department of Wildlife and National Parks (PERHILITAN) Peninsular Malaysia launched the ‘Critical Tiger Conservation Action Plan’.

ii) Threats to Malayan Tiger

Poaching and illegal trade of high-value tiger products including skins, bones, meat and tonics are primary threats to tigers, which led to their recent disappearance from broad areas of otherwise suitable habitat.

Conversion of forest land to agriculture and silviculture, commercial logging, and human settlement are the main drivers of tiger’s habitat loss. In addition to this, the construction of roads that separate tiger habitats also led to tiger roadkills. With their substantial dietary requirements, tigers require a healthy large ungulate (such as Sambar Deer, Serow etc.) prey base, but these species are also under pressure due to heavy human subsistence hunting.

Tiger attacks on livestock and humans have also led to intolerance to tigers by neighbouring communities. This presents an ongoing challenge to managers to build local support for tiger conservation.

iii) Conservation Efforts by the Malaysian Palm Oil Industry

Through the Malaysian Palm Oil Council (MPOC) and the recently established Malaysian Palm Oil Green Conservation Foundation (MPOGCF), the Malaysian palm oil industry has further demonstrated their commitment to tiger conservation efforts by signing an MOU with PERHILITAN. Under this collaboration, MPOC and MPOGCF will be sponsoring the cost of captive breeding programme of Malayan Tiger to produce cubs with the ultimate goal to release them back to their natural habitat within 5 years.

Prior to the MOU, MPOC has sponsored the eye operation for 2 tigers in the National Wildlife Rescue Centre (NWRC) in Sungkai, Perak. The operation was done to remove cataracts from the eyes of the 2 tigers in the centre. In addition to the operations, MPOC also has been sponsoring the supply of palm-based carotene to NWRC as supplements for the tigers to prevent cataracts among tigers in the centre.  

i) About Asian Elephants

The Asian elephant is found across 13 countries on both the Asian mainland and a number of islands, and is rated as endangered (EN) in the IUCN Red List9. Asian elephants are divided into four subspecies, Elephas maximus indicus (Asian Elephant) also called the Indian elephant, is found across continental Asia as far as China and Vietnam. Elephas maximus maximus, or the Sri Lankan elephant, is the largest of the Asian elephants and is only found on the island of Sri Lanka. Elephas maximus sumatranus, or the Sumatran elephant, is only found on the Indonesian island of Sumatra. It is the second smallest of the Asian elephants. Elephas maximus borneensis, or the Bornean elephant, was only classified as a separate subspecies in 2003, making them the smallest of the sub-species and sometimes referred to as pygmy elephants which are only found in Borneo.

In Peninsular Malaysia, the species is still widely distributed in the interior parts in the states of Pahang – which might have the largest population, Perak, Johor, Kelantan, Terengganu and Kedah10. The current elephant population in Peninsular Malaysia is estimated at 1223-1677 individuals10.  In Borneo, elephants are found in the lowlands of the northeastern part of the island in Sabah and adjacent parts of Kalimantan, Indonesia. In Sabah, a survey by Alfred et. al.11 indicated 2,040 elephants remain in 5 ranges with the largest population being in the unprotected forests.

ii) Threat to Asian Elephants

Ivory poaching for tusks is the main reason elephants are heavily hunted12. Elephant ivory is used to make billiard balls, piano keys, identification stamps and collectibles. Habitat loss and forest fragmentation due to agriculture and development is another threat to the survival of Asian elephants12. Human settlements and agricultural encroachment increases the pressure on elephant habitat. Shortage of food in fragmented forests corresponds to crop raiding and often results in damages to human settlement and agricultural crop which leaves them in conflict most of the time.

iii) Malaysian Palm Oil Industry and Elephant Conservation

The Ministry of Plantation Industries and Commodities (MPIC) is committed to elephant conservation through its Malaysian Palm Oil Green Conservation Foundation (MPOGCF)*. Other companies from the Malaysian palm oil industry involved extensively in elephant conservation include Sime Darby Plantations Sdn Bhd, Kulim (Malaysia) Bhd, Genting Plantations Berhad and Sabah Softwoods Berhad. [http://mpoc.org.my/human-wildlife-conflict-workshop-2019-identifying-and-addressing-the-issues-in-mitigating-human-elephant-conflicts/]

  • Bornean Elephant Sanctuary (BES) – Funded by MPOC – MPOGCF, Borneo Conservation Trust, BCT Japan and its 12 corporate partners, including Asahiyama Zoo and Saraya Corporation, launched on September 2013 to provide refuge for rescued elephants which are injured or orphaned, where they will be cared for and rehabilitated before being released back to the wild. [http://mpoc.org.my/a-refuge-for-displaced-and-injured-elephants-4/]
  • Biodiversity Conservation Webinar – Organised by MPOC on August 2020, focused on conservation initiatives and efforts taken to address human-wildlife conflicts in Malaysian palm oil industry with several prominent speakers; Prof. Erik Meijaard (IUCN Palm Oil Taskforce), Mr. Vivek Menon (Wildlife Trust of India), Dr. Senthilvel Nathan (Sabah Wildlife Department) and Mr. Izham Mustaffa (FELDA, Malaysia). [http://mpoc.org.my/virtual-iposc-2020-biodiversity-conservation-webinar-human-and-wildlife-co-existence-turning-conflict-into-co-existence/]
  • Wildlife Rescue Unit (WRU) – Established under the MPOGCF in collaboration with Sabah Wildlife Department (SWD) and is responsible towards rescue and relocation of wildlife, research, public awareness and minimising human-wildlife conflict in Sabah. As of 2015, WRU successfully translocated 175 Bornean elephants from conflict areas to designated wildlife refugia.
  • 1 Million Forest Trees Planting – Launched in collaboration with Sabah Forestry Department (SFD) under the initiation of MPIC and MPOGCF with the aim for a greener Malaysia and rehabilitation of 2,500 hectares of degraded forest in part of the Ulu Segama – Malua Forest Reserve which is an important wildlife corridor to Bornean elephants and orangutans. [http://mpoc.org.my/1-million-forest-trees-planting/]

i) About Orangutans

There are 3 species of orangutan which are the Bornean orangutan (Pongo pygmaeus), Sumatran orangutan (Pongo abelii) and the Tapanuli orangutan (Pongo tapanuliensis). Of these three species, only the Bornean orangutan can be found in the Malaysian Borneo. Known populations include the subspecies P. p. pygmaeus or the Northwest Bornean Orangutan in Batang Ai-Lanjak Entimau landscape, Ulu Sebuyau-Sedilu landscape in Sarawak. Sabah remains a stronghold for the subspecies P. p. morio or the Northeast Bornean Orangutan. These populations have been stable at about 11,000 for the past 15 years13.

ii) Threats and Conservation Status

Bornean orangutans are classified as ‘Critically Endangered’ under the IUCN Red LIst14. Major threats include large scale land clearing for industrial agriculture. However, recent evidence revealed hunting to be a bigger contributor to the Bornean orangutan population decline over the last 200 years15, 16. In Kalimantan, Bornean orangutans were often shot for their meat or as a result of human-orangutan conflict15. Historical data shows that the decline of orangutans was observed as far back as the 19th century, way before the start of significant oil palm development in the 1970s17.

iii) Orangutan Conservation Efforts by the Malaysian Palm Oil Industry

Here are some of the landmark projects that were carried out through MPOGCF’s funding and collaboration:

  • 2008 Survey of Orangutan Population in Sabah – A collaboration between Borneo Conservation Trust and HUTAN to assess the conservation status of orangutan and on the orangutan populations living in the agricultural landscapes in Sabah, and the trends in orangutan population distribution, densities and conservation threats.
  • Translocation Operations of the Wildlife Rescue Unit (WRU) of SWD – Up until 2017, WRU have carried out more than 500 rescue or translocation operations, including 52 Bornean orangutans.
  • Orangutan Conservation Programme in Sarawak – A collaboration with Sarawak Forestry Corporation to undertake projects involving orangutan conservation efforts in protected areas in Sarawak, such as the Ulu Sebuyau National Park, Sedilu National Park, Gunung Lesung National Park and Maludam National Park. The project was launched in 2014 and completed in 2017, with a full scientific report published.
  • Orangutan Population Survey, Status and Long Term Viability in Sabah – This is a survey in collaboration with SWD to update its current status and conservation needs, continuing the active partnership towards the conservation of the targeted wildlife species in Sabah.



  1. Morton, O., Scheffers, B. R., Haugaasen, T., & Edwards, D. P. (2021). Impacts of wildlife trade on terrestrial biodiversity. Nature Ecology & Evolution. 5(4). 540-548. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41559-021-01399-y
  2. Chua, M.A.H., Tan, A. & Carrasco, L.R. (2021). Species awareness days: Do people care or are we preaching to the choir?. Biological Conservation. 255. 109002. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biocon.2021.109002
  3. Scotson, L., Fredriksson, G., Augeri, D., Cheah, C., Ngoprasert, D. & Wai-Ming, W. 2017. Helarctos malayanus (errata version published in 2018). The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2017. e.T9760A123798233. https://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2017-3.RLTS.T9760A45033547.en.
  4. FGV Holdings Berhad.  FGV Launches Sun Bear Conservation Programme. https://www.fgvholdings.com/press_release/fgv-launches-sun-bear-conservation-programme/
  5. Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre website. https://www.bsbcc.org.my/index.html
  6. Yayasan Sime Darby website.  YSD supports RM2.1 million for the Bornean Sun Bear conservation. http://www.yayasansimedarby.com/media/ysd-supports-rm21-million-for-the-bornean-sun-bear-conservation
  7. Liu, Y.C., Sun, X., Driscoll, C., Miquelle, D.G., Xu, X., Martelli, P., Uphyrkina, O., Smith, J.L., O’Brien, S.J. and Luo, S.J., 2018. Genome-wide evolutionary analysis of natural history and adaptation in the world’s tigers. Current Biology 28(23). 3840-3849. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0960982218312144
  8. Kawanishi, K. 2015. Panthera tigris ssp. jacksoni. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2015. e.T136893A50665029. https://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2015-2.RLTS.T136893A50665029.en.
  9. Williams, C., Tiwari, S.K., Goswami, V.R., de Silva, S., Kumar, A., Baskaran, N., Yoganand, K. & Menon, V. 2020. Elephas maximus. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2020. e.T7140A45818198. https://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2020-3.RLTS.T7140A45818198.en.
  10. Saaban, S., Othman, N., Yasak, M.N., Mohd Nor, B., Zafir, A. & Campos-Arceiz, A. (2011) Current Status of Asian Elephants in Peninsular Malaysia. Department of Wildlife and National Parks, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Gajah. 35(1). 67-75.
  11. Alfred, R., Ambu, L., Nathan, S. K. S. S., & Goossens, B. (2011). Current status of Asian elephants in Borneo. Gajah. 35. 29-35.
  12. WWF Global official website, Asian elephants – threats, https://wwf.panda.org/discover/knowledge_hub/endangered_species/elephants/asian_elephants/asianeleph_threats/
  13. Simon, D., Davies, G., & Ancrenaz, M. (2019). Changes to Sabah’s orangutan population in recent times: 2002–2017. PloS ONE 14(7). e0218819. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.021881
  14. Ancrenaz, M., Gumal, M., Marshall, A.J., Meijaard, E., Wich , S.A. & Husson, S. 2016. Pongo pygmaeus (errata version published in 2018). The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2016. e.T17975A123809220. https://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2016-1.RLTS.T17975A17966347.en.
  15. Meijaard, E., Buchori, D., Hadiprakarsa, Y., Utami-Atmoko, S.S., Nurcahyo, A., Tjiu, A., Prasetyo, D., Christie, L., Ancrenaz, M., Abadi, F. & Antoni, I.N.G. (2011) Quantifying Killing of Orangutans and Human-Orangutan Conflict in Kalimantan, Indonesia. PLoS ONE 6(11). e27491. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0027491
  16. Voigt, M., Wich, S.A., Ancrenaz, M., Meijaard, E., Abram, N., Banes, G.L., Campbell-Smith, G., d’Arcy, L.J., Delgado, R.A., Erman, A. & Gaveau, D. (2018) Global Demand for Natural Resources Eliminated More Than 100,000 Bornean Orangutans. Current Biology 28(5). 761-769. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2018.01.053
  17. Meijaard, E., Welsh, A., Ancrenaz, M., Wich, S., Nijman, V., & Marshall, A. J. (2010). Declining orangutan encounter rates from Wallace to the present suggest the species was once more abundant. PLoS ONE 5(8). e12042. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0012042


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