World Land Trust (WLT) partner HUTAN recently sent us a report outlining the work of their Reforestation Project, which is reconnecting isolated patches of natural habitat to provide shelter and food for Orang-utans and many other species. More than 80 per cent of the original forest in the Kinabatangan floodplain, in the Malaysian state of Sabah in north-east Borneo, has been cleared to make way for Oil Palm plantations over the past three decades. This has forced the forest’s wildlife into ever decreasing pockets of land, with populations becoming isolated from one another. Fragmentation of populations is one of the greatest threats to many endangered species like the Bornean Orang-utan. Not only is HUTAN reforesting land that was previously owned by an Oil Palm company, they are also using their four tree-planting sites to carry out research, education and awareness-raising.
Tree-planting success or failure
Many tree-planting projects fail because there is no strict process in place to secure the long-term success of the reforestation. This is largely because it is labour intensive, time consuming and costs money, but without a thoroughly researched method into long term management tree-planting could be futile. HUTAN employs a strict method of research, labour and maintenance. Firstly, HUTAN must identify an appropriate site for the tree-planting project, they then map the area and clear it of all its tall grasses and bushes that compete with the seedlings and prevent their growth. Seeds and seedlings are collected from nearby forests by local people and purchased by the project. Using a mix of native seedlings is vital as it ensures that no additional pressure or competition is put on the forest’s already rare species.
From research experiments, HUTAN have discovered that the tree species that provide important sources of food for Orang-utans usually have a medium or slow growth rate (averaging less than 15 cm height per month). Also, these particular trees are not very robust and are prone to dying relatively easily, increasing the need for careful maintenance.
On the other hand, some light-demanding pioneer tree species grow very fast, reaching a height of more than 15 meters in less than three years. They out-compete creepers and grasses in just a few months and therefore require less maintenance than slower-growing species. Their fast growth also means that they rapidly provide shade, producing micro-environmental conditions that minimise the growth of unwanted competitors that hamper the survival of slow growing seedlings. However, these tree species do not contribute significantly to the diet of Orang-utans and other fruit-eating animals. Therefore a carefully balanced mix of the two types of tree species is needed to ensure the maximum success rate of the tree-planting project and its benefits to wildlife. Once the seedlings are planted, HUTAN embarks on on-going maintenance work for the next three years. This involves regular weeding and securing the site to prevent the seedlings being trampled by Elephants or uprooted by Wild Boars. For each site the target is to achieve a minimum of 80 per cent survival rate from the initial seedling population after this three-year period. This on-going maintenance is far more expensive than the initial cost of purchasing and planting the seedlings, yet not only is it vital for ensuring the long-term success of the project but it also has economic benefits for the local community.
Supporting local people
All of the seedlings used for the Reforestation Project are sourced from two local tree nurseries that are run by the local communities. In this way, HUTAN ensures that their reforestation activities generate the maximum economic benefits to those who live near the reserve. The project also employs a full-time team of four women from the nearby village of Sukau, who assist with the tree planting and maintenance work. To increase community involvement and to carry out research, HUTAN also organises a one-month paid internship position open to women from Sukau and surrounding villages. In 2010, seven women participated in the programme, learning the basics of tree planting and seedling care. The internship provides employment for the local community and getting people involved in conservation work will also help ensure the long-term success of the project
Save the Orang-utan with land purchase
The World Land Trust is working with partner HUTAN to fund the management and protection of forest reserves in the Kinabatangan floodplain. As well as providing funds for on-going conservation work, WLT continues to support land purchase in the Kinabatangan floodplain, working with both HUTAN and a second partner in Borneo, LEAP Spiral to create corridors connecting isolated forests. It is estimated that by 2020, only 32.6 per cent of Borneo’s forests will remain. Saving the Orang-utan’s habitat is the only way of securing their long-term survival in the wild.