The Malaysian government has proposed giving orangutans as gifts to major palm oil trading partners in a similar policy to China’s panda diplomacy, the BBC reported Minister of Plantation Industries and Commodities Johari Abdul Ghani as saying.

Malaysia hoped the policy would generate the same goodwill as China’s panda diplomacy, Johari said.

However, conservation groups had raised concerns about the plan, the 8 May report said.

According to conservation group the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), the focus should be on protecting orangutans in their natural habitat.

“WWF supports in-situ conservation of wildlife and would urge that trading partners are brought to Malaysia to support this initiative, as opposed to sending orangutans out of the country,” the charity said in a statement quoted by Reuters.

Justice for Wildlife Malaysia told Reuters the plan required more research and urged the government to consider alternative diplomatic measures.

Native to Malaysia and Indonesia, the large apes were a critically endangered species as logging and agricultural expansion had led to a loss of natural rainforests where they lived, the BBC reported.

According to the WWF, there are around 105,000 orangutans on the island of Borneo and a few thousand on Sumatra.

Major importers of palm oil such as China, India and the European Union would be offered the apes as gifts, Johari said.

“This will prove to the global community that Malaysia is committed to biodiversity conservation,” he was quoted as saying on social media platform.

“Malaysia cannot take a defensive approach to the issue of palm oil … we need to show the countries of the world that Malaysia is a sustainable palm oil producer and is committed to protecting forests and environmental sustainability.”