Malaysia: Beetle may destroy palm oil sector

TASHNY SUKUMARAN The Star 11 Apr 16;

KUALA LUMPUR: A species of beetle illegally brought in across the Thai-Malaysian border has been ravaging the nation’s palm trees, and – if left unchecked – can potentially decimate the palm oil industry within just 20 years.

The red palm weevil, or Rhynchophorus ferrugineus, is a species of beetle that excavates holes in the trunk of palm trees, eventually killing the plant. It infests coconut palms, date palms and oil palms.

According to the Department of Agriculture’s (DoA) Plant Biosecurity Division, so far a whopping 465ha of coconut trees are gone, mainly in Terengganu and Kedah.

There are 85,799ha of coconut palms in Malaysia. Additionally, 335 date palms have been eaten.

So far, said department head Faridah Aini Muhammad, no commercial plantations had been affected, but the weevil’s spread was a major cause for concern.

“What worries us is that if these beetles do not have access to their main source of food in date palms, they will move to oil palm trees.

“There have been reports which are still unconfirmed as yet, but it is a very real concern,” she said, adding that research was currently ongoing in several universities across the country.

“Research at UKM has shown that even without being forced, the weevil will go to the palm oil fruits and breed inside the tree itself.”

The red palm weevil first entered the country when seedlings and date palms were illegally brought in across the border with the beetle in the trunks.

Under Malaysia’s Plant Quaran­tine Act, the import of any palms except for research purposes is prohibited.

So far, the weevil can be found in five states – Perlis, Kedah, Kelantan, Penang and Terengganu – with the latter being the worst-hit.

“People have been bringing pandan coconut and date palms in for years, but after El Nino recently the weather became more suitable for these palms to flower and fruit, so people wanted to bring it in,” said Faridah.

However, unknown to most people, the bulk of the date palms smuggled in were ornamental plants that would not fruit.

While Malaysia is home to several other species of palm weevil, the one that has recently entered our shores breeds far quicker and so is more dangerous.

“To control its spread, we must spray cypermethrin (an insecticide) every two weeks until the infestation is dead. We have to do preventive spraying as well, including soil drenching (adding diluted chemicals to the base of plants),” said Faridah.

The adults are also killed with the use of pheromone traps, which can be used as an early detection method.

“If we find beetles in the traps, we know there are probably more,” she said.

The DoA has also met with and briefed the Smuggling Prevention Unit (UPP) of the Border Control Agency to look into the matter.

The Biosecurity Division has urged Malaysians to contact the DoA if they notice a possible infestation, or spray insecticide themselves.

“The first sign will be a wilting crown – the leaves fall into a skirt-like formation around the tree. They will then start dropping.

“Eventually, the whole trunk will be hollowed out and potentially fall, which is also a risk to the public, as some areas use palms as avenue trees to line roads and pathways, and even around mosques,” she said.

Faridah said that while the beetle had appeared in Malaysia in 2010, the situation had worsened due to an increase in smuggling.

“We have approached nurseries and told them to stop selling these smuggled date palms, but people must stop buying from unreliable sources, and report any potential smuggling to the authorities,” she said.

Still the lesser of two weevils
The Star 11 Apr 16;

PETALING JAYA: The red palm weevil has been detected in oil palm plantations, according to UKM Biology head Prof Dr Idris Abd Ghani, but it is unclear if they are infesting the trees.

“We have caught them in pheromone traps but we do not know if they are eating the trees. The plantations are big areas and it can take up to two years for the whole tree to completely die. Initially, the yield will just be lower,” he said.

The beetle has been found in Felcra and Felda areas, but there is no evidence of the individual trees being affected.

“The red palm weevil is not new to Malaysia, but it is only recently becoming a problem. Related species have already been reported as attacking oil palms in places such as Guam. We have to monitor these plantations in the country,” he said.

According to Malaysian Palm Oil Board (MPOB) director-general Datuk Dr Choo Yuen May, the board was aware of the weevil’s presence but noted it was attacking “largely coconut areas” and was being closely monitored.

She said MPOB was taking steps to limit the spread of the beetle, including joint research with Universiti Malaysia Terengganu to closely monitor the beetle in oil palm plantations and the possibility of the weevil’s coexistence with other pests, such as the oryctes beetle that thrives in dead or decaying tree trunks.

“The weevil was commonly detected in the coastal regions of eastern states such Terengganu and Kelantan. Serious infestation of the weevil was mainly on coconut trees by the species R. ferrugineus.

“A survey in 2011 found that more than 550,000 coconut palms throughout Terengganu had been severely attacked by the red palm weevil.

“The distribution of R. ferrugineus was restricted only to the eastern and northern parts of Malaysia, covering Terengganu, Kelantan, Perlis and Kedah,” she said, adding that the monitoring of Felcra and Felda areas in Terengganu had shown the presence of the weevil.

“However, it was mainly due to the existence of coconut palms planted in the housing quarters, parking areas and other recreational public areas.”

She said that while there were no signs of attack on oil palms in the sites of study, the red palm weevil could be trapped within the same oil palm replanted areas with palms aged one to three years.

Choo said the oryctes beetle also had to be monitored, as a weevil attack could be related to a heavy initial attack by the former.

“Additionally, close monitoring, especially in oil palm plantations adjacent to the infested coconut areas should be continued.

“Ongoing collaborations with uni­­­versities should also be conti­nued to develop effective control methods for better management of the pest,” she said.

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