KUALA LUMPUR, Jan 8 — Malaysian palm oil companies should try to boost the numbers of barn-owls living in their plantations to tackle a rat problem rather than using snakes or macaques, the Malaysian Palm Oil Board said today.

Rats thrive in palm plantations and can reduce oil yields by 5 per cent to 10 per cent by feeding on the palm fruit, according to industry estimates, a headache for the world’s second biggest producer and exporter of palm oil after Indonesia.

Malaysian palm oil producer United Plantations already uses barn-owls as a first line of defence against the rats and this has helped to cut the use of chemical poisons.

The company has also looked at using leopard cats to catch the rats. Research published last year said that rat-eating macaques could also come to the aid of palm oil firms.

But the Malaysian Palm Oil Board said its research showed that barn-owls provided the best biological control of the pests and that the use of macaques was “completely inappropriate and impractical” as they could disrupt other activities at plantations.

The MPOB’s Director-General Ahmad Parveez said: “Monkeys have been found and reported to cause damage to young oil palm inflorescence, spear leaves and also pollination bags (used in seed production).”

He also said a barn-owl can eat up to two rats per day while a snake can consume only one a week. He advised against the use of cats because they are domestic animals and cannot adapt to the palm plantation environment.

“The method of increasing the barn owl population can be done by setting up nest boxes in the oil palm plantations,” Ahmad said in a statement. “These nest boxes will be occupied by barn owls and used for breeding and increasing the population.”

United Plantations has said it is estimated that a pair of barn owls together with their chicks can consume about 800 to 1,000 rats per year. — Reuters