Guest post by Badrul Azhar
As soon as your plane touches down at Kuala Lumpur International Airport, you will spot your first oil palm plant (Elaies guineensis) in Malaysia. Even the airport company has its own oil palm plantation around the airport. One of the nearby transit hotels is surrounded by oil palm cultivation. Palm oil industry is still the mainstay of the country’s economy. A very successful casino company, an Islamic financing institution, state governments and public universities are directly involved in upstream palm oil business (i.e. commercial plantations). Because of that, oil palm has become a common landscape feature in Peninsular Malaysia. I do not know for sure where you may escape from seeing this exotic crop species on the peninsula mainland (perhaps in the highlands?).
There is no doubt that oil palm forms the dominant agricultural landscape in this country, created by massive scale of forest or rubber tree conversion since colonial British rule. This tropical African-originated palm is a big success for palm oil producing countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia in terms of its economic revenues. I have studied oil palm birds since my Master Degree, and continue to work on it. First, I was fascinated by the Red Junglefowl (Gallus gallus), a native game bird in oil palm plantations. Then during my PhD years, I studied the biodiversity patterns and processes in the production plantations.
I strongly believe that protecting biodiversity in human-modified landscapes (including oil palm plantations and smallholdings) is equally important as protecting native forest biodiversity. In my opinion, palm oil stakeholders could do a lot more to protect at least some farmland biodiversity in existing plantations. The current sustainable palm oil certification scheme (i.e. the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil) has only emphasized the protection of rare or endangered species and high conservation value forest – but even these criteria are unmet in most plantations. In the future, an improved scheme should consider the whole animal community regardless of conservation status. In addition, the scheme should take into account biodiversity aspects (e.g. functional diversity) in the certification process. Those designing such a future scheme should assess what sort of conservation measures have been implemented by stakeholders in each oil palm plantation – clearly different measures will benefit different species, but most measures are better than none.
Recently, a research paper from my PhD thesis entitled ‘The influence of agricultural system, stand structural complexity and landscape context on foraging birds in oil palm landscapes’ has been published in IBIS (2013, volume: 155, pages 297–312). In this paper, my co-authors (most of them were my PhD supervisors) and I aimed to determine bird guild diversity in oil palm landscapes. We also compared this response metric between oil palm cultivation areas and peat swamp forest habitats. Similar to findings from studies that use bird species richness as response metric (including our earlier research paper published in Forest Ecology and Management 2011, volume: 262, pages 2306-2315), guild diversity in forest habitats was higher than in oil palm habitats.
But beyond this (somewhat obvious) comparison with native forests, our results also indicated that foraging guild diversity was influenced by stand-level attributes such as stand age, vegetation cover, epiphyte persistence and canopy cover. Each foraging guild exhibited unique responses to different oil palm management regimes and stand-level attributes.On this basis, we recommend palm oil stakeholders to implement multiple conservation measures in order to conserve oil palm bird community and functional diversity in plantations and smallholdings.