2009/10/11 New Straits Times, Malaysia
The fate of orang utans in fragmented ecosystems in eastern Sabah was the focus of a two-day Orang Utan Conservation Colloquium. JASWINDER KAUR sat in to get details on the way forward.
WEAVING its way through the jungle, nibbling on fruits and tree bark, an orang utan suddenly finds itself in unfamiliar territory.
It looks ahead and sees row after row of oil palm, and soon starts foraging through this man-made landscape in search of another patch of forest for its next meal, and a tree to build a nest to sleep in.
This is the story of orang utans that move about in more than a hundred forest "islands" which mushroom from vast plantations at fertile flood plains on Sabah's east coast.
An aerial survey last year discovered over a thousand nests were seen on tree tops in jungle fragments that ranged from a few hectares to a startling single tree.
The study became the basis for a two-day Orang Utan Conservation Colloquium on the outskirts of Kota Kinabalu aimed mainly at discussing the fate of the primate in fragmented ecosystems.
Dr Marc Ancrenaz of the French non-governmental organisation Hutan says the finding indicates orang utans are using plantations for short periods in their search for new territories and food.
"Between 2002 and 2007, there was a 30 per cent drop in the number of orang utans in the Lower Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary but we didn't find any dead ones.
"We started asking ourselves where these orang utans had gone, and we felt that they must have dispersed somewhere else."
The 26,000-ha sanctuary gazetted four years ago is divided into 10 lots, which neighbour estates and several villages on the Kinabatangan flood plain.
Ancrenaz's study done in collaboration with the Borneo Conservation Trust (BCT) and funded by the Malaysian Palm Oil Council (MPOC), found 200 nests in 25 forest islands in plantations in the Lower Kinabatangan area.
At plantations south of Sandakan, there were more than 200 nests in 10 forest patches and at yet, another location in the Sugud area, there were over 150 nests in 15 tiny tracts of jungle.
"Yes, orang utans can find food in plantations by eating palm fruit, but they can't sustain themselves on a single plant. It is like telling a vegetarian to just eat carrots, and nothing else.
"It is unlikely that there can be a stable orang utan population in the long term in plantations. We have to find ways to reconnect the forests."
A long-term result that factors in the crucial role of planters is what conservationists are pushing for, as it is clear that the palm oil industry is here to stay.
As the largest exporter of palm oil in the world, Malaysia raked in RM65.2 billion last year from this golden crop, making it the country's third largest export contributor.
In Sabah, oil palm covers about 1.4 million hectares or about a third of the country's total cultivation of 4.5 million hectares.
And then, there is another statistic: Sabah has 11,017 orang utans at last count, making it a stronghold as it shelters a fifth of its population in Borneo and Sumatra, and yet, 62 per cent live outside protected areas.
"There are two groups -- the green people and the oil palm people. Each side wants to own what is left but if you want to get long-term results, we must sit together and talk.
"The important thing here is the fact that orang utans are getting isolated, and this affects gene flow which is needed for the long term survival of the species," Ancrenaz says.
Genetic modelling carried out a couple of years ago showed a majority of isolated populations in the Kinabatangan area would be extinct in less than 50 years if nothing was done to reconnect the various groups.
Sabah Wildlife Department director Laurentius Ambu says inbreeding of the species will lead to extinction and is an urgent problem that needs to be solved quickly.
"This is why we are working with an NGO (Borneo Conservation Trust) to buy land from the locals at market value so that we can start reconnecting forests in the Lower Kinabatangan Wildlife Santuary.
"There are two lots in the fragmented sanctuary that are almost connected after BCT was able to buy the land. Planters have so far refused, but we are hoping that MPOC can come in to assist us."
As the meeting progressed and it became clear that an overnight solution was not on the cards, the possibility of translocating orang utans in fragmented areas to forest reserves was raised.
The department's chief veterinarian, Dr Sen Nathan says it could complement efforts to make sure orang utans in fragmented areas do not disappear, but it is not a solution.
"You have to look at the population of orang utans in the area marked for translocation. It is not that simple. There are issues of food sources and competition from other orang utans.
"Though the primate is solitary, it is territorial, especially the males," Dr Nathan says.
The department translocated more than 550 orang utans in the last 18 years, but it was done when the primate was in a "life and death" situation such as during floods, or when an area was cleared for oil palm.
Apart from the fact that translocating one orang utan can cost up to RM10,000 and takes up to a week of already stretched manpower, no post release monitoring was done for those shifted from one area to another.
"This is being done now, but only for rehabilitated orang utans sent from the Sepilok Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre to the Tabin Wildlife Reserve. In the case of wild orang utans, we moved them and just hoped they were able to survive."
The human-orang utan conflict is not going to go away, and is one that needs answers now.
The six words on a framed photo of an orang utan given to Plantation Industries and Commodities Minister Tan Sri Bernard Dompok who opened the colloquium is perhaps reflective of the grave situation: "Will you still see me tomorrow?"
Oil palm sector playing a responsible role
THE palm oil sector can take some blame in the conservation debate, but not all of it.
This is the view of Malaysian Palm Oil Council (MPOC) chief executive officer Tan Sri Dr Yusof Basiron who spoke on responsibilities of the industry at the colloquium.
"We live in a world where sustainability is difficult to define.
"There has to be a percentage for agriculture and for forests and we don't really know what the optimal ratio is."
Aware of criticisms by some groups in the west that claim orang utans are being sacrificed for oil palm, Dr Yusof says if the world stops using Malaysian palm oil, it will have to substitute it with rapeseed, sunflower and soyabean which will take up much larger land areas.
Malaysia has 4.3 million hectares planted with oil palm and contributes 31.2 per cent to the world's supply of edible oils, compared to soyabean which takes up 92 million hectares producing 28 per cent of oil for consumption.
Rapeseed is planted on 30 million hectares producing 14 per cent of edible oils, and sunflower grown on 23 million hectares contributes 7.8 per cent of the world's edible oil supply.
"The world will have to fell 23.6 million hectares more to plant rapeseed or it has to clear another 41.5 million hectares to plant soyabean if it decides not to use Malaysian palm oil.
"This will be a tremendous loss of biodiversity."
He says the industry has shown responsibility, and that Malaysian companies were among the first to receive the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) certification.
The Malaysian Palm Oil Wildlife Conservation Fund, a collaboration of the industry and the government, is now in place to fund studies on sustainability of wildlife.
"One of the projects from this fund is the aerial survey of orang utans in plantations which resulted in this meeting.
"Other projects include jungle patrols to protect wildlife in forest reserves that border plantations in Sabah, and a biodiversity conservation study of ox-bow lakes in oil palm plantations."
Sabah Tourism, Culture and Environment Minister Datuk Masidi Manjun however feels that the palm oil industry must not get defensive when scientists come up with proposals to restore habitats.
"The industry must self-regulate itself. Eventually, by the full force of global pressure on the need for sustainable harvesting, it will have to be done.
"The industry can make money and be socially responsible at the same time.
"Profit comes from the soil and while the state government is dependent on (revenue) from palm oil, we need planters to be responsible," he says.
Masidi says recommendations from the meeting, which centres around the need to re-establish connections between orang utan populations, will be handed to the Sabah Cabinet once a paper is prepared.
Much to gain from protecting wildlife
HELLO Kitty, a popular caricature and brand in Japan, is helping to save Sabah's wildlife.
The "cat" with a red ribbon is featured on Saraya Corporation's soaps and a range of products that use palm oil, and one per cent of their sale goes to a fund that buys back land to reconnect forests in the oil palm landscape.
It was bad publicity the company faced five years ago that led it to learn what it could do to make sure that its use of palm oil would not further degrade wildlife habitats, especially in Malaysian Borneo.
There was anger among consumers when a television programme in Japan featured a Borneo pygmy elephant with a rope tied to its trunk at an oil palm plantation, its president Yusuke Saraya says.
"Our consumers wanted to know if our products were friendly to the environment after this programme was aired. We sent an officer to Sabah in November 2004 and found out that incidents like this were happening."
Within two years, Saraya pushed for the setting up of a body to buy back land to reconnect forests in oil palm landscapes and the state-mandated Borneo Conservation Trust was born.
One per cent of sales from Saraya's products went into a fund to buy land, and some of its consumers who won a contest were brought to Sabah to see for themselves what the company was doing.
"I feel that oil palm companies should donate to this fund when prices go up, even if it is only one per cent of their earnings."
Plantations too can gain from protecting wildlife and a diverse species of plants in forested areas at their borders or within their land by setting up conservation units.
This is the message that PT Rea Kaltim Plantations head of conservation, Rob Stuebing, sent to a handful of planters who attended the colloquium.
He says such a move could help the industry in effectively answering criticisms from conservation groups and non-governmental organisations that feel oil palm is bad for wildlife.
"It may not be a perfect solution, but it does help to save species," Stuebing says.
The plantation he works for in Kalimantan, Indonesia, still has 20 per cent under forest cover, providing a safe harbour for some 20- odd orang utans, and a range of other mammals, snakes, birds and frogs.
Stuebing says some plantation owners prefer to hire public relations companies to pump up their names claiming they are involved in conservation work, but these estates are often over-planted with oil palm.
He is hopeful that plantations will eventually "come around" and start caring for the species within their estates.
"The palm oil industry is young. It is like a teenager, and it acts like one. It throws things on the floor and it is defiant.
"Mature industries like the oil and gas sector don't react this way. They just do what they need to when others say something about them."