Saving threatened habitats worldwide

Exploring the rainforest of Borneo's Kinabatangan

21 February, 2014 - 14:47 -- World Land Trust
Simon and Isabelle in a boat.

Simon Lyster, Vice Chair of World Land Trust (WLT) trustees, describes highlights of his trip to Borneo, where he was the guest of Hutan, WLT’s conservation partner in Malaysia.

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27 November I flew with Dr Isabelle Lackman (Co-Director of Hutan) to Sandakan and from there drove to Sukau, a village on the Kinabatangan River near the Keruak Corridor, which is the subject of WLT’s current special appeal.

Met some of the Hutan field staff, visited their offices and went by boat along the river. Immediately impressed by the large numbers of monkeys seen from the river, especially the amazing looking Proboscis Monkeys, and birds – notably the variety of hornbill species.

28 November Visited the Hutan orang-utan research site in one of the forest plots along the Keruak Corridor. Immediately saw Jenny (an Orang-utan) and her four year old youngster who the team has been studying for years and who is habituated to human presence. Then crossed the river to visit a cave where Hutan staff are on guard 24 hours a day to protect swiftlet nests from thieves.

“A lot of the surviving forest is still in excellent condition, some has been quite heavily logged but the big trees will re-emerge over time.”
(Simon Lyster, WLT Trustee)

This is a fascinating project which has seen swiftlet numbers in that cave increase over the past two years. Hutan hopes the project will become self-financing by the sustainable removal of nests for the lucrative birds nest soup market.

The particular swiftlet in these caves has the most valued of all nests – white and made of 100 per cent bird spittle. Swiftlets share these caves with thousands of bats, and clambering down into the cave covered in bat guano and watching them extract one swiftlet nest which did not yet have eggs (and which I was assured would be rebuilt very quickly!) was an extraordinary experience.

Moving on from there we visited a huge fig tree that had a Helmeted Hornbill nest. We heard a crashing above us which revealed a large male Orang-utan looking down on us. On closer inspection we not only found three pairs of different species of hornbill in the tree but also another female Orang-utan with a young one.

Later that day, we watched another, even bigger male Orang-utan building himself a nest in which to sleep for the night. Seeing six wild Orang-utans in a not very big area in one day, including two mothers with young, certainly gave the impression that the population is doing well in that small part of Sabah, despite the massive general deforestation.

That evening, we went out with a torch after dark to look for crocodiles (Saltwater Crocs). We saw one baby one. While they are clearly there, the river is very silted and polluted and with fish populations down, they must be struggling to survive. Apparently they were reduced to very low numbers some decades ago because of hunting for their leather, but when that trade stopped numbers gradually built up. And now they may be reducing again because of poor river quality.

“We visited, walked around and photographed every parcel of land that has been secured by WLT.”
(Simon Lyster, WLT Trustee)

29 November We visited, walked around and photographed every parcel of land that has been secured by WLT – including the property secured in 2010 (known as the ‘222 acre property’) - and the parcels in the Keruak Corridor. We photographed ‘everything’ including ‘our’ elephant dung, ‘our’ leeches, ‘our’ Orang-utan nests and ‘our’ forest.

A lot of the surviving forest is still in excellent condition, some has been quite heavily logged but the big trees will re-emerge over time, and some has been sufficiently cleared that Hutan has started replanting trees (most of the work involved is in managing the trees once planted).

We planted a tree on ‘our’ land and met the Hutan staff involved. I also had an insight into the impressive education work that enables large numbers of school kids from nearby schools to visit the project site and learn about the forest and its remarkable wildlife.

During a rainstorm we sheltered in a village house that serves as a ‘homestay’. This is an interesting tourism initiative coordinated by Datu Md Ahbam Abulani, Coordinator of the Sukau Homestay Programme, who also runs the Hutan education project. In the homestay project villagers offer their homes as a kind of bed and breakfast (and other meals if required) as a way of generating income and to introduce visitors to the traditional way of life in Sabah.

Keepers of the Wild badge

Later that day we met some of the wardens, one of whom (Berjaya) is part-funded by WLT’s Keepers of the Wild programme. Helping the local community is vital to Hutan in order to maintain local support for forest conservation. Part of the job of these wardens, therefore, is to minimise elephant damage to local community crops.

We visited a smallholder who was immensely grateful for the help he received to erect a solar powered electric fence around his crops. We were also shown (and made to ignite!) a sort of cannon that made an almighty explosion designed to warn elephants for miles around that the wardens were active, and there was no point in them raiding crops.

30 November Return to Sandakan and Kota Kinabalu, the state capital of Sabah, where I met Dr Marc Ancrenaz, Hutan’s Co-Director, and then home.

More information

Simon is WLT’s Vice Chair of Trustees. He was in Sabah 25-30 November 2013 and his travel costs were covered by Northumbrian Water.

Read more about his trip: A forest teeming with wildlife must be protected »

WLT’s Borneo Rainforest Appeal focuses on saving threatened rainforest in the Lower Kinabatangan Floodplain of Sabah, northern Borneo. This region, with its varied lowland forest habitats, is frequently described as the most biodiverse region in the whole of south east Asia. The Lower Kinabatangan is the only place in Borneo which provides suitable habitat for ten primate species including the Bornean Orang-utan, Bornean Gibbon and Proboscis Monkey.

You can support the Keruak Corridor project by donating to WLT's Borneo Rainforest Appeal.

Saving the Bornean rainforest for Orang-utans: it’s now or never »

Borneo Rainforest Appeal: million pound target in sight »

Donate to Borneo Rainforest Appeal

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