Bukit Piton: A Case of Reforestation Success
Senior Communications Officer, Sabah Terrestrial Conservation Programme
Amidst endless acres of palm oil plantations in the district of Lahad Datu lies a Class I Protection Forest Reserve that is small in size but vast in importance – Bukit Piton Forest Reserve. Located in the Northern Part of Ulu-Segama Malua Forest Reserve, Bukit Piton is not only a lesson in the effects of poor logging practices but also an encouraging reminder in what we can do if we were to be serious about conservation.
The forests of Bukit Piton, or previously known as North Ulu Segama (NUS), suffered not only in the name of men’s strive for economic gains, but also the wrath of Mother Nature. During the 1980s to 2007, the area was logged extensively and harvested using unsustainable practices. This, combined with drought-induced forest fires in 1983 and 1997-98, resulted in a degraded forest that was vulnerable for conversion to agricultural land, not unlike the areas that surround it.
The orangutans at North-Ulu Segama
But NUS had one last card to play. The forest is home to an estimated 300 (Alfred et. al., 2010) orangutan individuals, rendering its population survival at a critical stage. To make matters worse, the orangutan population in the area is also completely isolated. Palm oil plantations to the north and east of the area and the Segama river to the south prevents the orangutan from migrating out of this isolated area for food and breeding purposes, and if nothing was done, the chances of the population’s survival is close to none.
Recognising the dire importance of restoring North Ulu Segama in order to preserve its orangutan population and at same time protect other forest biodiversity, WWF-Malaysia together with the Sabah Forestry Department (SFD) spearheaded the forest restoration programme in North Ulu Segama in 2007.
The North Ulu Segama reserve, then known as a Class II – Commercial Forest Reserve, was reclassified by the Sabah State Government as a Class I – Protection Forest Reserve in 2012 and renamed as Bukit Piton. The change in classification is a significant one as it meant that the forest is protected by law from any form of land conversion, timber exploitation or extraction of any forest products.
Reforestation efforts began in 2007 where open and exposed areas were being planted with fast growing pioneer species such as Binuang (Octameles sumatrana) and Laran (Neolamarckia cadamba). To support the orangutan’s feeding habits, fruit trees forming part of the orangutans’ diet including Sengkuang (Dracontomelon dao), Terap (Arthocarpus sp) and Figs (Ficus sp) were also planted. Dipterocarps were also planted in shaded areas.
Bukit Piton, a decade later
Today, a little over a decade later, things are looking up for Bukit Piton. 2,266 hectares (ha) of the degraded forests in Bukit Piton have been restored, just over 150ha shy of its target of 2,400ha. Trees are seen to thrive in the area, growing and maturing at its expected pace.
But the mark of a true success of reforestation is when wildlife begins to make use of replanted trees, be it for food or for shelter. Thus the test to see whether or not Bukit Piton was a success story when it comes to reforestation depended heavily on whether or not the orangutans of the area utilised the replanted trees either for food, traveling or as nests.
In 2011, after years of careful observation on the field, WWF-Malaysia’s Orangutan Conservation Team have found that the orangutans have indeed utilised the replanted trees in Bukit Piton. Nests can be found on the Laran and Bayur trees that lined the forest. Individual orangutans have also been observed to be eating on fruiting trees.
Conservation’s unsung heroes
Yet the work here is far from done. The orangutan population at Bukit Piton will be monitored from time to time by WWF-Malaysia’s Orangutan Conservation Team under the Sabah Terrestrial Conservation Programme (STCP). The four men – Bob, William, Kalut and Zuraimi – will make regular trips back to Bukit Piton to monitor orangutan’s behaviour and use of planted trees for food, nesting and travelling.
Over the years, these men have observed the orangutan from afar, gathered data and studied their behaviour. Of the 300 or so orangutan individuals that inhabit Bukit Piton, these programme assistants have named and identified approximately 80, giving them endearing names such as Koyah, Maya and JJ amongst others. They meticulously note down the features and characteristics of the orangutans that they encounter and record their movement and food species. These informations help us to better understand what tree species are favoured by orangutan that need to be protected or planted.
The work is exhausting and at times slightly dangerous. Bob recalls a time where he has had to make a quick escape away from an orangutan who had come down from the trees to chase him away. However, aside from exciting episodes from time to time, the work of collecting data and observing the great apes in the wild is long and tedious. These men are often at the mercy of the elements – braving through rain and sun to get vital information on the species. Yet, there is nowhere else they’d rather be.
“I’d rather be in the jungle than in an office all day,” one of the men commented.
Aside from keeping tabs on the orangutans, the field team also regularly roam the forest in search for signs of encroachment from poachers or hunters. They also carry out habitat assessments where they collect data on forest canopy cover, tree density and canopy height.
In a way, they are the true guardians of the orangutans, keeping tabs on their overall wellbeing and ensuring that their home is not encroached. But while it is their job to keep the orangutans safe in their habitat, it is ours to ensure that our forests are conserved and protected.
What you can do to help
The sad reality today is that there are far more challenges than there are successes when it comes to protecting our natural resources. Forests are continuously being converted into agricultural land, which not only impacts human livelihood, but also robs our wildlife of their home and source of food.
The case of Bukit Piton highlights the plight of the orangutans but they are not the only species to fall victim to environmental degradation. The Bornean Elephants, found in the southern and eastern parts of Sabah have also lost most of their former range to aggressive forest conversion. This severely limited range has resulted in an ongoing struggle between humans and elephants where both are vying for land space in the hopes of survival.
Here are some easy ways that you can do to help protect the forest and wildlife:
- Reuse, reduce and recycle paper. In this way, we will eventually reduce the demand for paper and therefore decrease the numbers of trees cut down for human consumption
- Be vigilant. Report to the Sabah Wildlife Department should you come across the selling and buying of wildlife that are usually sold in parts. These include but are not limited to orangutans, elephants, pangolins and sun bears.
- Where possible, use Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) and Forest Stewardship Certified (FSC) products.
- Donate to our cause (www.wwf.org.my/how_you_can_help/donate_main). WWF-Malaysia currently runs crucial conservation projects aimed at protecting the forests, rivers and seas as well as saving endangered species such as tigers, elephants and orangutans. Your contribution to the work that WWF-Malaysia do will help create more success stories like Bukit Piton and hopefully conserve our wildlife well into the future.