Malaysia's 'Orangutan Diplomacy' draws backlash for alleged hypocrisy


Malaysia's plan to gift orangutans to buyers of its palm oil — an industry that destroys the great apes' habitats — is drawing criticism from conservationists.

Key points:

  • Malaysia is considering gifting orangutans to foreign countries that buy its palm oil, a strategy dubbed as "orangutan diplomacy."

  • The plan mirrors China's world-famous "panda diplomacy," but some view it as disingenuous.

  • Conservationists instead urge Malaysia to focus on actually tackling deforestation and sustainable palm oil production.

The details:

  • The palm oil industry has been blamed for deforestation in Southeast Asia, destroying orangutan habitats.

  • Malaysia's Plantations and Commodities Minister Johari Abdul Ghani announced "orangutan diplomacy" during the 2024 Biodiversity Forum in Pahang on May 7. In an X post, the official said giving orangutans to trading partners such as the EU, China and India would prove that Malaysia is committed to biodiversity conservation.

  • Ghani compared the plan to China's panda diplomacy but offered few details about how it would work. China's program involves loaning pandas to promote conservation efforts.

  • Critics were quick to suggest that orangutan diplomacy seems solely focused on public relations. Conservationist Stuart Pimm from Duke University told CNN that the plan is "obscene, repugnant and extraordinarily hypocritical," calling for real conservation efforts such as protecting orangutan habitats.

  • Environmental groups like World Wide Fund (WWF) Malaysia believe addressing deforestation is key and that orangutans are best protected in their natural habitat. Malaysia has lost millions of hectares of forest cover in recent decades, with palm oil production a major culprit.

  • Ghani has yet to respond to the criticisms over the plan.

The big picture:

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  • Bornean and Sumatran orangutans are both listed as endangered by the WWF. From around 230,000 orangutans a century ago, the Bornean species is now around 104,700 (Endangered), while the Sumatran species is around 7,500 (Critically Endangered). A third and critically endangered species, the Tapanuli orangutan, was discovered in 2017 with only about 800 individuals remaining.


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