An Interview with Mr. Carl Traeholt, Southeast Asia Programme Director of Copenhagen Zoo.

Southeast Asia Programme Director’s Background

Mr. Carl Traeholt was born in Ipoh, 1963, to Danish/Malaysian parents. He completed his MSc in Behavioural Ecology and Ecophysiology at Copenhagen University in 1989, followed by his Ph.D. in 1992 at the same university. Subsequently, he worked at Copenhagen University as a senior scientist until 1997. He was a visiting researcher at the University of Malaya between 1991 to 1992.



Since 1990, he has worked in many different countries as a consultant to multi-national and bi-lateral donors (eg., UNDP, IUCN, EU, Danida). He joined Copenhagen Zoo as Southeast Asia Programme Director in 2001 (part-time) and assumed full-time responsibilities in 2009. He is also an active member of six IUCN Specialist Groups and is a member of the EAZA Conservation Committee as well as the newly established SEAZA Conservation Committee. He chairs EAZA’s Wildlife Trade Working Group as well as assistant to EAZA’s Imported Deforestation Working Group. He also serves as a founding steering committee member of PONGO Alliance.


He serves on the board of advisors for the Gibbon Protection Society Malaysia and the Orangutan Land Trust. He is a keen diver at Divemaster level and holds a whitewater kayak instructor certificate from the North American Canoe Association, as well as a whitewater rescue instructor certificate from the same organization. Nature is his passion and multiple extensive expeditions to many of the world’s remotest parts resulted in the admission to the prestigious The Adventurers Club of Denmark in 1990, as one of the youngest members ever


1. With Ph.D. in Behavioural Ecology and Population Biology and MS.C in Eco-Physiology and Conservation, could you share on your professional background?

I’ve worked mainly with research and organizational capacity building and management in the past. I was a senior research scientist at Copenhagen University for eight years before I changed career path and came to work here in Malaysia and Southeast Asia. When I worked as a scientist during the 1990s, with a 2-year stint as a “visiting researcher” at Universiti Malaya (UM), I spent a lot of time in the field and realized that the region was on a rapid development trajectory. Unfortunately, this development happened almost entirely at the expense of the country’s natural capital. While it was great to experience Malaysians’ livelihood improve, the downside was the severe impediment of ecosystem processes.


Left, Datu Hamden Hj. Mohammad, DG of Sarawak Forest Department, Datu Hj. Len Talif Salleh, Assistant Minister of Urban Development and Resources discussing a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with Carl Traeholt and researchecologist Dr. Ahmad Ampeng (right), Sarawak Forest Department.

Especially biodiversity and ecosystems were taking a severe beating in the development process. Since I was born in Malaysia and spent my first four years in this country, I always felt that this is my “home country” at a similar level as Denmark. Perhaps that was why I felt that I wanted to stay in the region to support conservation work, where I could be of use and that is exactly what I’ve done. Since then, I’ve worked extensively with the Malaysian Department of Wildlife and National Parks (DWNP), as well as the Ministry of Environment (Note: this ministry has changed names several times over the past thirty years!) as a consultant to the government and, in my capacity as Copenhagen Zoo’s representative in the region, I have collaborated with Malaysian Palm Oil Board (MPOB) for the past fifteen years. At the same time, we joined An Interview with Mr. Carl Traeholt, Southeast Asia Programme Director of Copenhagen Zoo.  Left, Datu Hamden Hj. Mohammad, DG of Sarawak Forest Department, Datu Hj. Len Talif Salleh, Assistant Minister of Urban Development and Resources discussing a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with Carl Traeholt and researchecologist Dr. Ahmad Ampeng (right), Sarawak Forest Department. up with various palm oil companies, to work together to improve the environmental stewardship of the sector.


In a country with rapid loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services, it made sense to engage with the largest private owners of landbank. It makes no sense that more than 4 million hectares “ownership” has no environmental stewardship obligations, so to say. While most of my work has been in Malaysia (including Sabah and Sarawak), I have spent almost four years in Cambodia in the period from 2001-2006 and since 2016, almost half my work time is spent in Indonesia, working with the government, universities and palm oil companies. While my current duty-station is Southeast Asia (Kuala Lumpur), I also contribute annually to our Copenhagen Zoo programme in South Africa.


Assisting the team with rhino ear-notching at Pilanesberg National Park, South Africa

2. Zoo has continued to support the development of the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) and other stakeholders. What is Zoo's major role in RSPO? In your opinion, how does RSPO differ from The Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil (MSPO)?

First of all, let me point out that Zoo is not a member of the RSPO. This is not because we don’t support the idea and concept of it, but because we can contribute more effectively by being “neutral”. RSPO’s key strength is also its key weakness i.e., everything is consensus-driven, so policy implementation only happens as fast as the “last person over the line”, so to say. It is also impeded by the client-company relationship, where Certification Bodies (CB) are paid by the same companies that they are supposed to certify or fail. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to understand that, it is in nobody’s interest to “fail” any company, especially if it involves a large international conglomerate that may simply engage another CB to do the job. This issue isn’t specific to the PO industry (RSPO).


It is also present in the FSC-process, where FSC has extensive coownership with governments, for example. It is difficult to drum up a solid brand when the “law-maker, the judge and the police” are in one “person”, so to say. Our role is diverse and evolved throughout time. At the onset, it was primarily about raising awareness within the industry about the need for producing palm oil sustainably. Now, fourteen years after the first version of the RSPO P&C was published, many PO companies claim to produce PO sustainably without being able to measure their ecological impact on the ground. That’s one of the key areas that need to be addressed going forwards, and the lack of this important component is also why the sector continues to receive criticism both locally and internationally. This is where the sector requires technical expertise to support the industry and this is where we can, hopefully, assist in making a positive difference. Our role in Europe is mainly related to EU policy-making. Being one of the founding members of the European Association for Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA), we are represented by this organization in Brussels and are constantly engaging the European Union (EU) to influence and educate them on climate change, global biodiversity loss and Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).


Most of them are not properly aware of how the palm oil sector has evolved over the past ten to fifteen years in a positive sense thus being represented in Brussels offers a good opportunity to deliver updated and accurate information to EU-parliamentarians. Most of the European companies that chose to boycott palm oil do so because they are often unaware of t