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Creating a forest corridor

Environment News - Tuesday, 23 May 2006
Star - MICHAEL CHEANG reports.

With only about 55,000 orang utans surviving in Borneo today, and with their population dropping by 30% to 50% over the past 30 years, things are not looking good for one of Malaysia's most iconic species. The biggest threat to the survival of these great apes, apart from poaching and illegal pet trade, is the loss of habitat to logging and plantations..

Gazetted under the Wildlife Conservation Enactment 1997 only last October, parts of lower Kinabatangan (which includes the Kinabatangan floodplain where many of Sabah's orang utans live) are degraded and degraded by development, lodging and oil palm plantation.

Thus, patches of protected greens are surrounded by degraded forest and plantations, which in turn affects the abundance of food, distribution, behavior and ecology of orang utans and other wildlife.

Under a project to green degraded Kinabatangan forests, conservation group World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) in 2003 started the Habitat Restoration Project (Habitat) by setting up a tree nursery in Kampung Bilit to grow seedlings for replanting.

It is part of its Corridor of Life effort, which aims to reforest both sides of the Kinabatangan River and create a 'forest corridor' for wildlife to move freely between isolated forest reserves, private plantations and the Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary, as well as from coastal mangrove swamps to upland forests.

Currently funded by tea producer BOH Plantations (which contributes RM50,000 a year to Habitat and another RM50,000 to generate awareness on orang utans), the project employs 10 local youths at RM26 a day as field assistants.

Their tasks are collecting and germinating seeds at the 0.4 ha nursery. Field activities include planting seedlings, clearing climbers and weeds, monitoring growths of planted trees and evaluating orang utans' use of the area.

Programme assistant Jonitol said youths learn how to identify food tree species, collect seeds and plant trees when they join. They have planted over 15 tree species so far, all of which form the diet of orang utans and are noncommercial trees. They include sengkuang, tangkal, bongkol, durian, rambutan and mango trees.

"The orang utan is not the only animal that will benefit as other animals also eat these fruits," said jonitol. "The reforestation also allows animals to move from one patch of forest to another more easily."

The replanting effort currently concentrates on Lot 5 of the Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary. There are 10 lots that need to be regenerated. As of December, over 10,200 seedlings have cultivated at the nursery 3,000 food trees planted in Lot 5 chosen because it is close to Bilit.

“It floods very easily especially, during the months of February and March," said Jonitol. The last a few weeks, and we can only begin replanting when the water subsides."

Taking the floods into account, the project is trying to focus on resistant plants that will survive floods better. Seedlings are also at the mercy of wildlife that they are supposed to be helping.

"We cannot fence up the area because that would defeat the purpose of the project. It will create a bottleneck that will hinder animals' movement," said Jonitol

The owner of the land where the nursery is sited, Johari, said villagers supported the project because it benefited them, especially youths who would otherwise have to seek jobs in the city.

"I was happy to let them use my family land because it is for a good cause," said the assistant supervisor of Bilit's homestay programme.

WWF also started a Home Cultivation Programme where villagers are encourage to start small scale tree nurseries. Just like in the project for local youths, they learn how to collect and germinate seedlings, and later sell these for reforestation projects by oil palm plantations.

"Besides generating additional income for villagers, the plantation companies will have a ready supply of seedlings when they start their reforestation programmes," said Jonitol

Saving the orang utan’s friends

By protecting the forest home of orang utans, we are also protecting other critically endangered species such as the Sumatran rhino and Borneo pygmy elephant.

Sabah is home to some of the less than 300 remaining Sumatran rhinos in the world. These survive in very small and highly fragmented populations, Indonesia and Malaysia are their last significant range states.

The smallest of all rhinos and the only two horned rhino in Asia, the Bornean subspecies of the Sumatran rhino is the most endangered of all rhinoceros species in the world.

Sabah is also home to some 1,000 pygmy elephants. Identified as a subspecies of Asian elephants only in 2003, they are smaller, chubbier and more gentle natured than other Asian elephants. They are found only on the northeast tip of Borneo, mainly in Sabah.

A few of these elephants were collared with satellite tracking devices last year, which confirmed that each Elephants belongs to a herd of 30 to 50 individuals led by a mature matriarch, and often split off into smaller groups for days or weeks at a time.

This tracking also revealed that the Borneo pygmy elephant is a lowland animal it lives only along river valleys and other low lying areas, except on occasions when the group has to travel over a hill to reach another valley. Thus elephants must have lowlands to survive. Their diet consists of at least 162 species of plants.

How You Can Help

Help us save the orang utan and other endangered animals by donating just RM1 a day. Call River or Ruby at 03 7803 3772. All donations are tax deductible.

Purchase Kogiuu and the Banana Tree (RM 23 per copy) at WWF Malaysia (49, jalan SS23/15 Taman Sea, 47400 Petaling jaya). Proceeds from the sale of this beautifully illustrated bi lingual a book will go to WWF Malaysia's conservation work in Sabah.

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