Our Orangutans Are Fast Disappearing

Posted on April, 06 2018

The Borneo orangutans – the man of the jungle in Malay – inhabit the forests of Borneo, both within the borders of Sabah and Sarawak in Malaysia as well as in the Kalimantan provinces of Indonesia.
By: Elaine Clara Mah
Senior Communications Officer, Sabah Terrestrial Conservation Programme

~ What We Can Do to Save Them ~

Consider this scenario. You and your neighbour live on a piece of land next to each other. You share the amenities – water, food source, clean air – and you try to live harmoniously and independently of each other, despite the many differences that you might have. Over time, you discover new ways to improve your livelihood. However, this improvement would require that you take away part of your neighbour’s land. Not just any land, but the land on which his house is built on, and claim it for your own. Your ability to thrive economically depends on you taking land from your neighbour and therefore considerably depriving him of the necessities that he needs to survive. 

If this were your scenario today, would you take that leap? Would you deprive your neighbour of his survival necessities for your gain?

Sadly, this same scenario has been the plight of our orangutans for decades. For many years, the magnificent man of the jungle – the orangutans – have been forced to retreat further into the forest as they watch the man of civilisation – us, human beings – plunder their home, cut away trees and burn their land in the name of development and economic gains. In this battle between two species who share up to 97% of their DNA with each other, the man of civilisation thrive but force the other toward the brink of extinction. One man thrives and the other finds its kind headed toward the brink of extinction.

The Man of the Jungle

The Borneo orangutans – the man of the jungle in Malay – inhabit the forests of Borneo, both within the borders of Sabah and Sarawak in Malaysia as well as in the Kalimantan provinces of  Indonesia. Their numbers were once insurmountable, but now thanks to decades of logging, land clearance and mining, in some places, their population have arguably been reduced to a point of no return. A recent study in Current Biology took the world by storm as it concluded that nearly 150,000 Bornean orangutans have been lost over a 16-year period between 1999 and 2015. The current estimates of orangutan population put their numbers between 100,000 to 148,000. In Sabah, the Borneo orangutan numbers are even smaller. Population estimates are currently at about 11,000 individuals. While the Current Biology’s numbers can be debated as it is based on forest loss instead of a direct count of the population, it rings an alarm bell as to the severity of the problem at hand.

In 2016, the International Union for Conservation Nature (IUCN) classified the Bornean orangutan as a critically endangered species, calling for conservationists to step up their game and do more in order to prevent the species from heading down the path toward ultimate extinction. It was a resounding cry for help – one that conservationists in Borneo responded in kind. Efforts on the ground were heightened to push for the protection of the species. Calls for help to the public and governmental agencies were made in order to garner more support to fund projects that seek to restore orangutan habitats in the wild.

Yet, despite numerous efforts and strengthening support, the numbers of orangutan population are still precarious. The species face numerous threats; chief among those is the loss of habitat. Unregulated logging has now been replaced with the mushrooming of agricultural plantations. Palm oil plantations are arguably one of the orangutan’s biggest threat. Unlike degraded forests where the species have adapted to survive to a certain extent, palm oil plantations provide no food or shelter that can sustain the population. More critical, the encroachment of plantations, palm oil or otherwise, into orangutan habitats have also often resulted in the species being captured or killed.

The search for a balance between conserving species in the wild and economic development for the betterment of society is a tricky one. On one hand, emerging economies like that of Malaysia needs to grow and develop, which, arguably necessitates the extraction and use of natural resources. On the other hand, there is a need to keep our iconic species alive, not only from an economic point of view as it attracts tourists from the world over but also from a sense of national pride – we cannot lose even more of our national heritage than we already presently have. The difficult question, therefore, remains.

Can we not prosper at the expense of our orangutan? Does one “man” have to die to ensure that the other man survives?

The question is a complex one with many variables and interests at play. Conservationists acknowledge this complicated relationship and have for many years try to work around the boundaries of this argument, and only time will tell if we would ever find a solution to this crucial problem.

Forest Restoration as the Way Forward

While we cannot turn back the clock to a time when we could have reconsidered our choices to plunder the land in an unregulated manner, we can rectify our past mistakes. Efforts on the ground to help sustain the orangutans are ongoing and society’s mindset is shifting. The Sabah government in particular, acknowledges the need to protect the species even at the expense of economic gains as in the case within Forest Management Unit (FMU) 5. A portion of land within the area of FMU 5 had previously been intended to be converted into timber plantation. However, WWF-Malaysia’s orangutan aerial nest surveys in that area in 2016 showed that nests were found along a wide stretch of forest there.

Understanding the devastating impacts of this impending conversion can have on the orangutan population at FMU 5, the Sabah Forestry Department, in agreement with the licensee, Anika Desiran Sdn. Bhd., agreed to halt plans to convert the land. Instead, the area was turned into a Natural Forest Management (NFM) area, where timber harvesting can only be done using the Reduced Impact Logging (RIL) method. This meant that only trees above a diameter limit could be harvested. A non-governmental organisation (NGO) council of which WWF-Malaysia is also member, was subsequently set up to monitor the operations in the area. The case of FMU 5 was a step in the right direction for the orangutans, but there is still so much more that we can do. Another viable solution to the orangutan problem is one that requires our time, money and effort – in large quantities and in equal parts. We can return the orangutans their home quite simply by rebuilding it – that is, to restore the habitat to resemble what it once was. 

Forest restoration has been one of the most important efforts that WWF-Malaysia has taken to solve the orangutan crisis, and it is a solution that has been proven to work. Evidence of a successful forest restoration can be seen in Bukit Piton, Lahad Datu where some 300 orangutan individuals live. Up until 2007, Bukit Piton Forest Reserve was a prime example of a severely degraded forest. The area was logged extensively and harvested using unsustainable practices in the 1980s. Drought-induced forest fires further destroyed the reserve resulting in ultimate degradation. The forest reserve was also completely isolated, with palm oil plantations to the north and east and the Segama River to the south.

The future of Bukit Piton, and by extension, its orangutan inhabitants, then looked bleak. A degraded forest can only be economically attractive if it can be turned into agricultural land. From a business point of view, the next logical step for Bukit Piton was to convert it into a palm oil plantation, much like the plantations that already surrounded it. However, orangutans cannot survive in a palm oil plantation, and, being isolated to the area, it would have nowhere to go. Turning the reserve into a plantation would mean a death sentence for the 300 orangutans individuals.

Recognising the dire importance of restoring Bukit Piton to preserve its orangutan population, WWF-Malaysia together with the Sabah Forestry Department (SFD) spearheaded the forest restoration programme there in 2007. Open and exposed areas were being 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.

Restorations efforts took over a decade to complete, and in 2018, it is just about done. To date, 2,266 hectares (ha) of the degraded forests in Bukit Piton have been restored, just 150 ha shy of its 2,400 ha target. This parcel of 2,400 ha makes up a contiguous block of a 12,000 ha degraded forest that is being restored by the Sabah Forestry Department in partnership with other parties. The restoration initiative has borne fruit – trees are seen to thrive in the area and various wildlife spotted, with the most important sign of success seen in the orangutans there which have been observed using the replanted trees for food and shelter. Moreover, baby orangutans have also been sighted, an evidence that the species is now thriving where it was once grasping desperately on to survival.

If previously Bukit Piton was a prime example of a degraded forest, today it is the poster child for a restored and thriving jungle.

Trusan Sugut and Its Potential 

The success of restoring degraded forests like Bukit Piton and therefore saving the 300 orangutans living there is a clear indication that man can move mountains when they so wish. Yet, Bukit Piton is not our only degraded forest that the orangutans call home. Unfortunately, many pockets of degraded forests in Sabah are home to a smaller but significant number of orangutans.

Located in the district of Beluran, the Trusan Sugut forest reserve’s tale is not so much different from Bukit Piton. Like Bukit Piton, Trusan Sugut is small, encompassing only 8,680 ha. The reserve is also home to orangutans – the biggest population in the northern part of Sabah. But while Bukit Piton is an isolated forest reserve, Trusan Sugut fares slightly better as it is still connected to the Sugut forest reserves to the west and north and mangrove forest reserves to the east. This connectivity is significant as it provides wildlife with continuous space, food and shelter.

The forest reserve on its own is not in pristine condition. Major parts of Trusan Sugut were severely degraded because of logging activities that took place in the 1960s until 2005. Rampant forest fire in the 1980s destroyed at least 450 ha of the area. Yet, the wildlife, including some 80 orangutans, have found a way to survive in these less than favourable conditions.

The orangutans’ ability to survive is in part due to the connectivity of the reserve to larger Sugut forest reserve, but this corridor may not last long. Already, Trusan Sugut finds itself face to face with large-scale oil palm plantations in the south. In the long run, Trusan Sugut may become isolated as more and more forest areas surrounding it are converted into non-forest land use such as for agriculture or commercial purposes.

The far more pressing concern at Trusan Sugut is to restore the forest to help better the orangutans’ chances of survival. A habitat assessment conducted by WWF-Malaysia in the area in 2014 showed that tree-species diversity was lacking in Trusan Sugut, which meant that the orangutans were unable to acquire adequate food source. The population there is in dire need of tree species that will provide them not only with food but also with shelter, and this can only be achieved through the restoration of the forest. 

Though effective, forest restoration is costly and cost has been the biggest inhibitor to the restoration works. The total projected cost to restore Trusan Sugut amounted up to RM1.8 million. WWF-Malaysia has made numerous efforts to secure funding for the restoration of Trusan Sugut but has yet to be successful. This has hampered efforts on the ground, leading to the stalling of this project, all while the orangutans there are clinging on to survival day after day.

A Future without the Orangutans

Last month, we bade goodbye to the last male northern white rhino ever to walk the earth. Though he is survived by two female northern white rhinos, the only possibility of preserving this subspecies is in developing an in vitro fertilisation technique using eggs from the remaining females and stored northern white rhino semen. The chances are there but they are second to none. It is highly likely that the northern white rhino will go extinct, and there is very little we can do about it.

Fortunately for us, there is still time to preserve our Borneo orangutan species but the clock is ticking. Contributing to the forest restoration project at WWF-Malaysia will bring us one step closer to securing a future for our orangutans. If we continue to view the loss of orangutans only in abstract terms as a problem that is detached from us, then the orangutans are certainly destined for the same path as the northern white rhino. The loss of the orangutans will mean the loss of an iconic species to Borneo, but more importantly, it would mean our failure as stewards of the land. We would be losing a species that, like all other species, play a vital role in maintaining a fully functioning ecosystem.

Let us not make the same mistake with our orangutans. Let us take action now and help restore their habitats that we had a hand in destroying. Every bit of contribution to the restoration project will help to further our fight in preserving the orangutan species. Let us give the magnificent man of the jungle back its home and a solid chance at survival.

To find out how you can donate to WWF-Malaysia’ forest restoration project in Sabah, please visit our website at wwf.org.my
Bornean orangutan, Sabah, David James, Malaysia, orangutan, heart of borneo, HoB
The Bornean orangutan inhabit the forests of Borneo, both within the borders of Sabah and Sarawak as well as in the Kalimantan provinces of Indonesia.
© WWF-Malaysia/David James
Lee Shan Kee, orangutan, borneo orangutan, heart of borneo, hob, sabah, malaysia
We share up to 97 percent of the orangutan's DNA.
© WWF-Malaysia/Lee Shan Kee
mazidi ghani, wwf malaysia, sabah, heart of borneo, hob, orangutan,, forest restoration
Forest restoration works.
© WWF-Malaysia/Mazidi Ghani
Sharon Koh, Orangutan, Sabah, Malaysia, Heart of Borneo, Borneo orangutan, HoB
Orangutans use trees as a means of shelter and food source
© WWF-Malaysia/Sharon Koh