Bornean Orangutans — Conserving the great apes of Sarawak and Sabah

Gundohing, a flanged male orang-utan spotted atop replanted trees on Bukit Piton.

The article is written to commemorate the International Orang-utan Day 2021 which falls on August 19.

SARAWAK and Sabah are homes to the Bornean orang-utans, the largest tree-climbing mammal in the world and the only genus of great apes native to Asia.

There are three subspecies — the Northeast Bornean (Pongo pygmaeus morio) found in East Kalimantan and Sabah, the Northwest Bornean (P. p. pygmaeus) found in northwestern Kalimantan and Sarawak, as well as the Southwest Bornean (P. p. wurmbii) that inhabit southern west and central Kalimantan.

The Bornean orang-utan population has dwindled over the last few decades. In 1973, Borneo had an estimated 288,500 orang-utans. By 2016, their numbers had dropped by almost two-thirds to 104,700.

Not all is lost, though. In Malaysia, the numbers have been positive with an estimated 13,000 of them in the wild in Sabah and Sarawak. These numbers can remain stable provided good forest and conservation management practices are put in place and public awareness heightened.

However, stable orang-utan numbers do not mean that there is no need to do anything. On the contrary, more efforts need to be continued to secure the future of the orang-utans.

WWF-Malaysia Conservation director Dr Henry Chan

WWF-Malaysia Conservation director Dr Henry Chan said as part of the three pillars (protect, produce, restore) under the Living Landscapes Approach in Sabah, forest restoration is among the key efforts that his organisation advocates for as a way forward in conserving orang-utans. The two main threats to orang-utan survival include the loss of habitat due to deforestation as well as the conversion of land for agriculture and infrastructure development. Trees are important for orang-utans not only as shelters but also for food and travel.

“To secure the survival of the orang-utan, there is a need to ensure that their habitat can support them and degraded habitats are restored,” said Dr Chan

For WWF-Malaysia, a fine example of forest restoration can be found in Bukit Piton Forest Reserve located in Lahad Datu, Sabah. It is home to some 300 Bornean orang-utans.

Up until 2007, the reserve was a severely degraded forest, having been logged extensively using unsustainable practices in the 1980s. Drought-induced forest fires further destroyed the reserve. The forest reserve was also completely isolated, with oil palm plantations to the north and east and the Segama River to the south.

A degraded forest can only be economically attractive if it can be turned into agricultural land. The next logical step for Bukit Piton was to be converted into a palm oil plantation. However, orang-utans cannot survive in oil palm plantations as they would be isolated and have nowhere to go.

Recognising the importance of restoring Bukit Piton to preserve its orang-utan population, WWF-Malaysia together with the Sabah Forestry Department (SFD) spearheaded the forest restoration programme there in 2007. Open and exposed areas were planted with fast-growing pioneer species such as Binuang (Octomeles sumatrana) and Laran (Neolamarckia cadamba). To support the orangutan’s feeding habits, fruit trees, forming part of the orangutans’ diet that include Sengkuang (Dracontomelon dao), Terap (Arthocarpus spp.) and Figs, (Ficus spp.) were also planted.

Restoration efforts took over a decade to complete, and in 2019, 2,400ha of Bukit Piton Forest Reserve were restored.

Donna Simon conducts an orang-utan aerial nest survey in Sabah.

“The various types of flora and fauna returned with the most important sign of success being the orang-utans who were observed using the replanted trees for food and shelter. Baby orang-utans have also been sighted, evidence that the species is now thriving,” said WWF-Malaysia’s Orang-utan Conservation manager, Donna Simon.

Further to the east of Lahad Datu, efforts are in place to restore degraded forests and create an ecological corridor in Bagahak to maintain wildlife connectivity between Tabin Wildlife Reserve and the Silabukan Forest Reserve.

Donna said the corridor, which is about 5km long and about 200m wide, will be for elephants, orang-utans and other multi-species to use. The restoration project will take about five years to do using a fund of over RM1.38 million.

The ecological corridor will ensure that both regular movements and periodical migrations of wildlife are unrestricted by human activities. Currently, no orang-utan has been spotted in the corridor as it is still an open area with fragmented riparian forests along the small river. However, there are about 1,000 orang-utans in Tabin Wildlife Reserve and about 50 orang-utans in Silabukan Forest Reserve, so the connectivity of both forests is crucial to maintain gene flow between the two populations. At least one group of elephants has also been seen using the riparian area to move to and from Tabin-Silabukan.

In Sarawak, Dr Chan said the organisation is working to conserve orang-utan habitat in Ulu Sungai Menyang, Batang Ai to provide a livelihood for the local people. This will help eliminate pressures to convert nearby forests (home to some orang-utans) into something else.

The orangutan sub-species is Pongo pygmaeus pygmaeus and is listed as critically endangered in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

It is estimated that Sarawak has less than 2,000 orang-utans who are mostly inside protected or conservation areas such as Batang Ai National Park, Lanjak Entimau Wildlife Sanctuary, and Ulu Sungai Menyang Conservation Area. These areas are adjacent to Kalimantan, Indonesia and are near to human settlements.

Dr Chan said in 2016, WWF-Malaysia embarked on an ambitious pilot conservation project that involved improving the local community’s livelihoods in Ulu Sungai Menyang with support from Forest Department Sarawak (FDS), Rumah Manggat community and a private company. The project is part of the ‘Green Economy in the Heart of Borneo’ transboundary conservation work funded by the federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety of Germany.

“Orang-utans are known to venture into Rumah Manggat’s farm land and secondary forest especially during fruit seasons. The longhouse people revere these great apes believing that humans are descended from them,” he said. 

In 2017 WWF-Malaysia provided 11,000 native agarwood or gaharu seedlings (Aquilaria microcarpa) for planting on Rumah Manggat’s 5.5 ha degraded land in batches with the help of volunteers organised by FDS. These seedlings added to the 3,000 planted earlier by FDS.

Manggat Meringai is a pioneer and champion of orang-utan conservation work in Ulu Sungai Menyang.

Dr Chan explained that traditionally, gaharu trees are inoculated to produce resinous aromatic wood used to make incense and perfumes.

“Rumah Manggat takes a different turn as the trees are grown for the leaves to be sustainably harvested for high-grade organic gaharu tea. The gaharu tea generates income for the communities, which in turn remove pressures to open up other orang-utan habitats and forests for large scale agricultural activities.”

Rumah Manggat headman Manggat Meringai said FDS approached the village in 2014 to inform them that starting a gaharu (Agarwoord)tea farm has potential.

“After two years, I started to find a way to get seedlings. The WWF sponsored them. Working with FDS and NGOs has been rewarding. A big thanks to them.”

As for other longhouses, Manggat hoped that they would emulate similar orang-utan conservation and community livelihood projects.

“The forests behind our villages should be left intact as orang-utan habitat. We must learn to live in harmony with orang-utans,” he said.

Rumah Manggat is surrounded by lush secondary forests are ideal as orang-utan habitats.

WWF-Malaysia will continue to work with different partners to empower Rumah Manggat by imparting knowledge on tree monitoring and pest management, tea processing and marketing, and eco-volunteerism.

However, since the Covid-19 pandemic struck, Rumah Manggat could neither accept tourists nor volunteers who wanted to experience live in the longhouse while helping to maintain the gaharu farm.

The WWF-Malaysia team also could not travel to the longhouse for the monthly monitoring and capacity building activities for the communities. Nonetheless, the team remains optimistic and continues to find alternative solutions to address the challenges.

Dr Chan said WWF-Malaysia’s conservation work is long-term and involves many stakeholders to secure habitats for orang-utans, increase connectivity while reducing encroachment and land conversion by communities in both states.

He added that there are also plans to work in other areas where orang-utans also occur such as Gunung Lesung-Ulu Sebuyau-Sedilu national park complex in Sarawak and engage with surrounding oil palm plantations and smallholders so that they also commit to orang-utan conservation.

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