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 the positive changes that have and are taking place in the industry. Perhaps more importantly, the general opportunity to engage with PO companies directly. Creating this awareness, while remaining critical, is important for us, as we are one of the few who are involved directly with the sustainable palm oil process and since we are not members of the RSPO, we can’t be accused of having vested interest. The main difference between RSPO and MSPO is that RSPO is an NGO that is based on volunteering to become a member and comply with standards, whereas MSPO is a government requirement. The standard is generally higher in RSPO, thus it’s more demanding and requires more from the industry players to achieve certification as compared to MSPO. But MSPO’s strength is that it is mandatory


An African desert monitor lizard at Moremi Game Reserve, Botswana.

3. Zoo was the first environmental NGO to be appointed as Biodiversity Advisor to Malaysian Palm Oil Board's Project Advisory Committee and Zoo also serves the same position in Sime Darby Plantations Sdn. Bhd. Biodiversity Committee. Could you share a little bit on Zoo's roles on this?

We are trying to come in with a different voice as there are a lot of good and skilled people who are working with, for example, sustainability concepts, intercropping and direct community benefits (small-holder schemes). In that, we might not be able to contribute so much to Malaysian activities per se, because the government has already made their plans and programmes. Nevertheless, we can provide a more global perspective on the entire issue. For instance, we need to explain to our local colleagues in MPOB that this ongoing political opinion that “the outside world” is waging a trade war against Malaysian palm oil is incorrect. We can help to advise at a broader level, for example, providing MPOB with information regarding the future development and prepare for future markets. The recent EU Biodiesel policy has nothing to do with PO and Malaysia, but it was already a decision made twenty years ago, because the EU acknowledged that biodiesel would never be a “green” solution.


Fitting satellite radio-collar on a Malayan tapir in Krau Wildlife Reserve, Malaysia.

It was always only meant as a temporary mitigation tool while transitioning from fossil fuel to green energy (solar, wind, thermal, etc.). I have also supported MPOB’s Malaysian staff, mainly providing advice and capacity building support. I have participated as a key-note speaker at MPOB-events in e.g., Belfast, Vienna and Sydney to create awareness about Malaysia’s positive development that is taking place with regards to the sustainable production of PO.


4. The Southeast Asia Programme is Zoo's largest foreign conversation programme and the programme continues to be involved in original applied research about wildlife ecology, management, and conservation. What are your thoughts on the issues that surround palm oil plantation?

We need to find a way that everybody can live together in harmony and peace. I understand that if fifty elephants roam into a palm oil plantation, they can cause an awful lot of damage. They need to eat approximately 150kg of food every day! Elephants are just doing what they are supposed to do. Like most herbivores, they are big-eating machines. The sad truth is that past PO development did not consider the negative side effects of large-scale habitat conversion. At this point, many wildlife species have nowhere else to go. Developing thousands of hectares of palm oil plantation in e.g., elephant habitat is akin to “reducing available food for the elephant population and then put up a buffet table next to them”. It doesn’t require a Ph.D. in behavioral ecology to figure out what will happen next? Such development leaves wildlife with no choice and humans “blame” them for it. In reality, we humans do not even want to “own” the consequences of such large-scale development and manage the elephant population. The math is simple i.e., half the habitat, half the population size.


There remain three key solutions, enrich the habitat so half the habitat has double the amount of food or, remove half the elephant population or, accept occasional intrusion into your estates and take the financial loss at the company level, or negotiate compensation scheme with the government. So, which solution is being applied? Currently, hardly any of them. While Sabah is doing quite alright, the problem remains when some people in the plantations decide to poison elephants in what is known as an act of “retaliation killing”. Some of the palm oil plantations are frustrated when elpehants invade their property and they do not know what to do. In many cases, they do not know who to contact if elephants are sighted at their plantation. Africa has far bigger elephant, predator, and similar wildlife-human competition and conflict yet they are doing a much better job of it. I feel Malaysia should learn from them.


Chatting with National Geographic’s Nick Baker while doing a documentary on Malayan tapir.

5. What is your role in MPOB? What are your opinions on the International Palm Oil Congress and Exhibition (PIPOC) 2019?

My role in MPOB is as a member of the Project Advisory Committee (PAC). I help guide proposed projects by MPOB, university students or anything related to it. I will act as a mentor or supervisor for those people that work on conservation and sustainability. The projects are often on the technical side whereas I can help introduce a more practical component to it, especially concerning the effects of plantation operations. The progress of the project will be monitored and there will also be a screening of each project proposal. That helps in the fundraising afterward. The “sustainability” concept remains poorly defined and is often used as a buzz-word rather than a meaningful measurable standard. I have a long history with MPOB as my colleague and I used to give workshops on biodiversity and sustainability in palm oil estates to senior managers since 2009. I also set up a palm oil sustainability session at a global conservation conference in 2011 in Arusha, Tanzania where an MPOB colleague was invited to contribute.


With the Indonesian team in Baluran National Park, east Java, after tranquilizing and fitting a satellite collar on the first wild banteng.

Generally, I am impressed by PIPOC and how much resources are available in this industry, I think and hope that most companies in the sector will invest and improve their business strategy so that it focusses on creating prosperity for the many instead of profit for the few only. I went to the technical and exhibition halls and listened to the presentations being delivered. I am convinced that information, awareness, and bits of knowledge concerning sustainability have been growing in PIPOC every year. However, the pieces of knowledge has to be transformed into progress on the ground for the industry to become a global leader of conservation and sustainability in the agricultural sector. I see PIPOC as an interesting conference that has a good and professional set up. It reflects the industry well. Nevertheless, I feel that it would be nice to spend a little bit more on ensuring progress on the ground i.e., document the sustainability. Be able to measure progress i.e., if you continue to have biodiversity loss or create water pollution etc., you can’t claim to be a sustainable producer.


This fact doesn’t change just because your company is certified. I hope that MPOB can influence the government more progressively as they have quite a lot of information and knowledge to guide the government’s policy formulation and development.


6. MSPO certification has reached the level of 60% of the total oil palm planted area. Do you think the increase in palm oil export in Malaysia is concerning this?

In my point of view, I think there will be no major difference in global demand. The notion that “We will be 9 billion people by 2050 and therefore, we need to produce more food” doesn’t stack up. There is more than enough food, if not used on biodiesel, and any increased production should come from yield improvement, rather than increasing landbanks. In the current uptake sense, I think it has little to do with MSPO-certification but more about the production volume and existing surplus stores. In the future, the price will likely be more dependent on sustainability certification because there will be more demand for certified palm oil. I still believe that there is a long way to go as MSPO is not recognized widely outside Malaysia.


Outdoor welcome address to visiting VIPs to Baluran National Park, Indonesia.

While it’s good to see that more growers certified by MSPO standards, it is not the number of certified companies that should be the yardstick but whether the quality on the ground is up to measurable standards. You can produce 10 thousand Ph.D.s in Malaysia, but if the quality of the Ph.D. is low, what sense does it make? At the moment, MSPO (as well as RSPO) measures performance on company “activities”, instead of measuring the impact of their activities. I hope MPOB and the Malaysian government will consider revising the MSPO to reflect this in the future. For the industry in Malaysia, as a relatively small country, it presents an excellent opportunity to focus primarily on the quality of products rather than on the quantity. 


7. What are your views on Love My Palm Oil campaign that ministry has launched?

I think it’s a misunderstood campaign that appears more as a sales pitch. It’s not necessarily a wrong campaign, but at best it’s misguided as it doesn’t appear to have a dedicated policy other than selling more PO to Malaysians. Maybe that was the intention in the first place? The promotion of palm oil is good only as far as it complies with sustainability standards. I don’t think this campaign is going to convert the non-converted because Malaysians are not as uninformed and disinterested in environmental issues as in the past anymore. In the end of the day, it is local Malaysians who suffer from air, water and soil pollution and not EU-citizens, when palm oil and other agricultural crops are not being produced in an ecological sensible manner. Malaysians can see through the campaign slogan and will question the reason for this campaign in the first place.


The Cheetah Conservation Foundation in Namibia

There is a risk of creating a perverse effect, as many see it more as propaganda than genuine help to a sector that, according to many in the industry, has no flaws and is unfairly singled out for criticism. Unfortunately, this is one of those campaigns that doesn’t seem to have been thought through properly and it will likely not make more Malaysians “love” palm oil than before perhaps to the contrary


8. With thirty years of R&D wildlife management, population ecology, and conservation biology, what are your advice and views on Malaysia's wildlife conservation?

Malaysian wildlife conservation needs to be taken far more seriously. To reminisce a long-term collaboration with DWNP, our oldest collaboration, with whom we have worked with since the 1990s. During all those years, I would say that the task has become increasingly difficult rather than easing up. For instance, in the past twenty years alone, I’ve experienced leatherback turtle, Sumatran rhino, milky stork, green pea-cock go locally extinct from West Malaysia, just to mention a few. This evolved right in front of our eyes when we already had the solutions in hand and the resources available. Unfortunately, it has never stirred up the necessary sentiments in Malaysians to put more pressure on leaders to address environmental issues and, consequently, it has never been a government priority.


In between 1995 to 1996, I was part of a Danish funded project in DWNP called Master Plan for Capacity Building and Strengthening of The Protected Areas System in Peninsular Malaysia. It was clear that Malaysia’s development trajectory would continue on a financial track that would put enormous strain on natural resources. Therefore, the goal of this project was to prepare and develop DWNP to be able to handle the future situation in West Malaysia. While things have indeed improved in DWNP, by and large, the issues remain the same. DWNP is much maligned by the people for failing to fulfill their responsibilities, but to be honest, I don’t think they have been dealt a fair hand either. In reality, political pressure often prevented them from doing what was right as well as necessary to prevent species decline, even if they knew what to do and had the capability to do so. In 2008, the national tiger conservation action plan was launched after an exhausting 6 years of development. The goal was aligned with WAWASAN 2020 i.e., to increase the wild tiger population from approximately 650 to approximately 1000 individuals by 2020.


Today, there are less than 200 and it continues to decline. Perhaps the worst part is that none of the extant subpopulations are sufficiently large to be genetically viable anymore. The task of bringing tigers back from the edge of extinction has now shifted from being largely a “protection” case to a “rescue” mission that requires far more additional efforts in comparison to “protection” only. West Malaysia continues to struggle with biodiversity loss and management plus the wildlife conservation in west Malaysia is under huge pressure with no evidence to suggest that this situation is going to change anytime soon.



The above comments and opinions in the article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent Asia Palm Oil Magazine’s view.

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