Imagine what will happen if all oil palm growers use pesticides to control pests in the total 16.38 million hectares of oil palm plantations in Indonesia? Certainly, the use of such chemical control will cause a serious environmental damage to the oil palm plantations and surrounding areas.

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“Fortunately, the Indonesian growers of oil palm plantations have long realized that biological control is more sustainable way in oil palm plantation. And it is also beneficially for the ecosystem,” said Gapki Communication Division Head Tofan Mahdi.

He said that it is just common that oil palm planters have to deal with various kinds of pests, ranging from rats to leaf-eating insects, and to rhinoceros beetles and stem rots in the oil palm plantation areas. But apparently, prominent among them is the rats which can cause damages to fruit bunches, fruitlets palm leaves, fruitlets, young palms’ fronds, and florescence. The uncontrolled rats can reduce productivity by more than 10 percent.

Thanks to the active campaigns on sustainability principle pursued by the Indonesian Palm Oil Association (GAPKI) and the Indonesian government under its program of Indonesian Sustainable Palm Oil (ISPO) launched in 2011, most of the oil palm planters, especially the major producing companies, have no longer used rodenticides to control the rats in the oil palm plantations. Many palm oil companies have long applied the biological control by using barn owls as the predators of the rats in their respective oil palm plantations. The barn owls are excellent nocturnal predators, which rely much more on keen hearing rather than eyesight when hunting their prey. Relying on the sound made by potential preys as the cue, the owls can detect their prey with near precision. Having larger wing area, the owls only need to glide effortlessly without causing noise and strike at its unsuspecting prey stealthily. Each owl can consume two to four rats per day, or around 1,500 rats per year, making them as the perfect predator that can be used in oil palm plantations as compared to other predators such as snakes, weasels and dogs which can only consume less than that.

The use of owls is apparently also cheaper than the rodenticides. Drawing on experiences of the oil palm growers, the use of rodenticides is not only more expensive, but it also causes serious impacts to the ecosystem. As the rodenticides are all broad-spectrum, it can lead to unintended poisoning of non-target species, which then lead to the destruction of ecosystem and the extinction of those species beneficial to the oil palm trees themselves, such as the pollinating weevil Elaeidobius kamerunicus that has helped increase the palm oil production.

Then besides the primary exposure to the rodenticides, predators or scavengers can be also exposed to secondary poisoning if they feed on the poisoned preys.

The Malaysia Palm Oil Board (MPOB) has reported that based on its research, the use of owls provide the best system of biological control against rats in the oil palm plantations.

The MPOB Director General Ahmad Parveez said that a number of planters in Malaysia, the world’s second largest producer of palm oil after Indonesia, were reported to have tried using other predators such as snakes, wild cats, weasels and monkeys. But they found that the use of owls is the best one. “The owls can be easily invited to the oil palm plantation areas by providing specially-designed nests in certain areas of the plantations. Later, planters can expect the owls to increase as they will then breed. One owl can consume more than 1,000 rats per year,” he said recently. (*)

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