How Wildlife-Friendly are Oil Palm Plantations in Malaysia?

Being one of the megadiverse countries in the world, Malaysia is rich in biodiversity, from the top of its highest mountains to its deepest seas. However, many of the biodiversity are currently under threat with some already extinct. Many initiatives have been taken by various organizations to protect and conserve the biodiversity to be appreciated by our future generations.

Oil palm, as the most important commodity crop for Malaysia, has been labelled as a major contributor that drives the extinction of many flora and fauna in the country. For example, the decrease of more than 100,000 Orangutans from 1999 to 2015 has been linked directly to the oil palm industry (Voigt et al., 2015).

Oil palm, being the most efficient oil crop in the world, contributed more than RM65 billion to Malaysia’s revenue in 2018. This revenue has contributed greatly to the economic achievement of Malaysia to uplift the livelihood of its people. The three pillars of sustainability namely Prosperity, People and Planet are well taken care of by the palm oil industry in Malaysia. The Planet element of the Sustainability Pillar has never been taken for granted by the industry. This can be seen through many conservation initiatives taken either by individual companies or through the Malaysian Palm Oil Green Conservation Foundation (MPOGCF) or formerly known as Malaysian Palm Oil Wildlife Conservation Fund (MPOWCF).

It is important to note that not all aspects of biodiversity are negatively impacted by oil palm. Similar to fig and nectar, oil palm is also considered to be a keystone ecological resources, providing crucial links between plant and animal communities (Terborgh, 1986). Many animal species use the oil-palm matrix to move between forest patches, something they might not be able to do in plantings of annual crops or grasslands (Smit et al., 2013).

There have been many studies conducted by local and international researchers to determine the presence of wildlife in oil palm plantation landscapes.

  1. Birds

Azhar et al., (2013) recorded 163 species of birds in oil palm plantations and smallholdings. This account for 22% of all bird species recorded in Malaysia. Another study by Jambari et al., (2012) recorded 72 species, while a similar study in Sarawak (Amit et al., 2014) recorded 42 species. In fact, many oil palm plantation owners are using the Barn Owl, to help control rodent population in their plantations.

Birds play an important role in an ecosystem because they have significant effects on vertebrates (Kross et al., 2018), herbivorous insects and plants (Mäntylä et al., 2011). They provide important ecosystem services such as pest control (Karp et al., 2013), seed dispersal and pollination (Sekercioglu et al., 2016).  

  • Mammals

 Azhar et al., (2014) recorded 32 species of mammals, sighted in oil palm plantations or use the plantations as passage to move from one forest to another. Another study by Ibrahim (2012) recorded an ever higher number of mammal species in oil palm plantations, which is 40 species, with Malayan Sun Bear being the most frequently sighted. Bernard et al., (2014) recorded 29 species of mammals in oil palm plantations in Sabah. These mammals were using the conserved forest patches within the oil palm plantation landscapes as habitat.

A recent study by Ancrenaz et al., (2020) recorded that the most endangered primate mammals, the Orangutan, has been using the oil palm plantations and small forest patches within the mature plantations in Sabah as their habitat. These Orangutans have adapted to this condition by living, nesting and feeding within the landscapes. They have developed the ability to move in the plantations, from one small forest patch to another with ease.

  • Amphibians

Amphibians are considered to be one of the most threatened animal groups globally, having suffered unprecedented rates of decline in recent decades (Stuart et al., 2004). However, the amphibians or anurans have also been found in the oil palm plantation landscapes. The anurans can be used as an indicator of the ecosystem health because they are sensitive to environmental change (Alford and Richards, 1999). The more anurans there are, the healthier the ecosystem. Gillespie et al., (2012) recorded 17 species of amphibians in oil palm plantations in Borneo compared to 29 species within forested habitat next to the plantations.

Another study by Faruk (2013) found 26 species of amphibians within oil palm plantations whereas only 20 species were recorded in the forested habitat nearby. In this study, it appears that the amphibians prefer the plantations to the forest. Barnett et al., (2013) has recorded 17 species of amphibians in oil palm plantation landscapes and further analysis showed no significant difference in amphibian counts between forest and grassland, or oil palm and coconut habitats. In addition, Amit et al., (2018) also recorded 12 species of amphibians from six different families in oil palm plantations.

  • Reptiles

There are lesser data on the abundance of reptile species in oil palm plantation in Malaysia. A study by Twinning et al., (2017) showed that the Water Monitor Lizard (Varanus salvator) is very common in oil palm plantations. The Water Monitor Lizard is a very important scavenger and it provides vital roles in nutrient cycling and redistribution as well as disease dynamics through the removal of carrion from the environment. In a study carried out in Malaysian Palm Oil Board’s research station in Kluang, Johor, Amit et al., (2018) recorded seven reptilian species.

Besides these, another important element of biodiversity, the fresh water fish has also been recorded within the oil palm plantation landscapes. Chong (2014) recorded 35 species of fresh water fish in oil palm plantations in Miri, Sarawak.

Many oil palm plantation companies have undertaken initiatives to conserve and protect biodiversity within their plantation boundaries. For example, Sabah Softwoods Berhad has collaborated with the state government, neighboring plantations and NGO to establish wildlife corridors on their land to allow the movement of the Bornean Pygmy Elephant from one forest patch to another.

Felda Global Venture (FGV), another oil palm plantation company in Malaysia, has also collaborated with PERHILITAN, Malaysian Nature Society and Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia in the Malayan Sun Bear Conservation programme. This initiative involves the re-introduction programme of Sun Bear and the initiation of CAG Sun Bear Communities to assists mitigating human-sun bear conflict within FGV plantations.

Other than that, the Malaysian Palm Oil Green Conservation Foundation (formerly known as Malaysian Palm Oil Wildlife Conservation Fund), managed by Malaysian Palm Oil Council, has initiated and conducted many conservation programmes to save and conserve many wildlife species in Malaysia. They include iconic species such as Asian Elephant, Pygmy Elephant, Orangutan and Malayan tiger.

Furthermore, the enforcement of Malaysia Sustainable Palm Oil (MSPO) scheme will further escalate efforts undertaken by the Malaysian palm oil industry in conserving the rich Malaysian biodiversity.

Conclusion

From all these data and initiatives undertaken, it clearly shows that oil palm plantations in Malaysia are wildlife-friendly. It is also important to note that oil palm plantation companies adhere to the recommendations by MSPO scheme especially on the environmental aspect of managing the plantations such as maintaining the buffer zones and riparian areas because these areas are crucial for the survival of wildlife. It is also important that they practise good agriculture practices in their estates to ensure that their productivity is giving minimum impact on the biodiversity and the ecosystem.

Prepared by Shahdan

References:

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