Following a site visit by journalists and World Land Trust’s Mary Tibbett to Borneo, the Trust is more determined than ever to conserve rainforest habitat for the Orang-utan in Malaysian Borneo. The fact-finding visit to the Lower Kinabatangan district in Malaysian Borneo revealed the full horror of the effects of the palm oil industry on natural forest.
Although officially illegal to clear rainforest along the banks of the Kinabatangan river, WLT representatives saw for themselves that palm oil companies are flouting the law which specifies a 50m buffer zone of forest trees along the river bank.
To make matters worse, oil palm is now being grown on steep slopes that were previously left alone in favour of easier to cultivate flat areas. Now, as land becomes more and more scarce, plantations are expanding into these areas too.
Despite massive loss of habitat, the Kinabatangan district remains a bastion for biodiversity. There are ten species of primate, including Proboscis monkeys, and eight species of hornbill, along with large populations of Orang-utan and Pygmy elephants.
However, if deforestation continues, populations of Orang-utan in the Lower Kinabatangan floodplain could face extinction in as little as 50 to 100 years’ time, according to HUTAN, WLT’s partner in Borneo, while other Orang-utan populations along the river face loss of genetic diversity or extinction in the medium term.
Success in the past
WLT has supported habitat conservation in Borneo with HUTAN and our other partner, LEAP Spiral since 2008. By 2009, thanks to generous contributions from corporate supporters and individuals and a grant from IUCN NL, £343,000 had been raised to secure a critical corridor of land between two fragmented portions of the Lower Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary. Since then WLT has continued to work towards protecting other small parcels of land along the Kinabatangan river, which link protected areas of rainforest that analysis suggests will be able to sustain viable populations of Orang-utan if kept connected.
The new challenge
WLT Council member, Simon Barnes, journalist for The Times, accompanied the WLT trip to Borneo in October, and has already written several articles on what he saw. A feature article appeared in The Times magazine on 10 November when Simon described his sighting of an Orang-utan: “Then I too am aware of a rather ponderous crashing about. A glimpse of hairy red arm. And then a face: recognisably that of a relative, though sewn from deep-brown leather. A clear eye fixes on us. […] After surveying us for a while, he suddenly chooses to forget all about us and get on with the job in hand. Which is making his bed for the night.”
“Seeing how much more land has been deforested to make way for oil palm plantations in this region since I last visited in 2009 is heart-breaking,” says Mary Tibbett, WLT’s Conservation Programmes Officer (Asia and Africa Regions). “It was so clear to me how vitally important it is to save the remaining riverine forests in Kinabatangan as wildlife corridors.”
The Million Pound Appeal
This appeal aims to connect the Keruak Virgin Forest Reserve with the larger Lower Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary by purchasing between 80 and 100 acres along the river. River habitat is some of the most important for Orang-utans and other threatened species such as the Bornean pygmy elephant, and these parcels are a mix of natural rainforest and more degraded habitat where tree planting and restoration will be necessary.
It is urgent to secure this land before existing oil palm plantations are extended down to the riverbank and permanently separate the two reserves. If a forest corridor is not created between the reserves, the Orang-utan population in the smaller reserve may become extinct in the medium term.
Simon Barnes is committed to helping WLT raise awareness and funds for the Borneo Special Appeal and promises more articles in the future.
As Orang-utans are primarily arboreal they generally do not cross areas where there is water or barren land. Consequently connecting dislocated areas of forest is key. One action taken by HUTAN includes creating rope bridges which Orang-utans have started using to enable them to cross tributaries of the Kinabatangan where natural tree “bridges” have been lost.
As well as raising funds to secure critically threatened parcels of forest WLT also helps protect the land secured by co-funding one of HUTAN’s Honorary Wildlife Wardens through the Keepers of the Wild programme.
A bed for the night
Orang-utans build a new nest every night, carefully selecting a location close to fruiting trees, so as to minimise the distance they need to travel to find breakfast. On WLT’s visit to Borneo in October, Mary video-ed a male flanged orang-utan on the Kinabatangan River. Journalist Simon Barnes also witnessed the orang-utan making his nest. Writing in the Times after the event, he comments: “It is here, while I am sharing this long moment with a high-ranking Orang-utan, that I feel a great web of connections: between the forest, the forest’s superstar, the people who live here, the organisations in Borneo that are working to protect the forests, and us, an organisation from a prosperous overseas nation that’s in the business of helping these exceptional people to do that bit more.”