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Sunday, 1 June 2014

Rise of the Apes

Motherly instinct: A female orangutan with her baby.

Motherly instinct: A female orangutan with her baby.

THE size of the Batang Ai National Park and Lanjak-Entimau Wildlife Sanctuary (BALE), which has been extended in the last few years, could be made larger again, following the discovery of more orangutans outside protected areas.

Surveys by non-governmental organisations (NGO) like the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) have uncovered the existence of about 200 orangutans in and around Ulu Sungai Menyang. The area — inaccessible by road and borders Kalimantan, Indonesia — is south of the BALE landscape.

“Close to 200 were estimated, and there could be more. The state government wants to protect the area. At the same time we are surveying new sites, as there is potential of more in the north-west,” WCS-Malaysia programme director Dr Melvin Gumal told The Star in Kuching.

WCS is working together with state authorities like the Forest Department and Sarawak Forestry Corporation, as well as the private sector including a tourism company Borneo Adventure, on the surveys.

Passionate: Dr Gumal (right) and his companion during a recent outing.
Passionate: Dr Gumal (right) and his companion during a recent outing.

“The Ulu Sungai Menyang area is interesting as it will probably include some form of collaborative management with local communities in the area,” Dr Gumal added.

At the same time, the boundaries of Batang Ai National Park itself could be widen westwards, where two other surveys have shown an estimated over 120 orangutans.

Last May, the Lanjak Entimau Wildlife Sanctuary was also extended at two sites where a total of about 65 orangutans were discovered.

Currently, WCS is deploying more survey teams to Ulu Sungai Menyang for more accurate estimates, said Joshua Pandong, the NGO’s orangutan unit assistant coordinator.

“We are going back because we have approval and collaborations with state authorities to explore more plots. We’ll have better estimates,” Joshua said. “The survey is for the purpose of estimating orangutan population. We look out for nests. The second objective is to conduct education talks and dialogues sessions at longhouses. Sometimes, we need their permission to track on their land.”

All-out expedition: The WCS survey teams working with longhouse residents during a recent trip to Ulu Sg Menyang; (Inset) Joshua (standing, left) with his surveyors.
All-out expedition: The WCS survey teams working with longhouse residents during a recent trip to Ulu Sg Menyang;

“Thirdly,” Dr Gumal added, “we help equip wildlife enforcement agencies with information and feedback, because put it this way, not everyone stops at red lights all the time. Having an extra set of eyes is useful in enforcement.”

Dr Gumal said WCS was readying plans to conduct surveys of new potential expansion sites in areas west of Batang Ai, which if combined are as large as the existing national park.

The winner of the prestigious 2014 Whitley Awards — better known as the “Green Oscars”, — said the NGO focused on orangutans because it was one of the last “iconic” wildlife left in existence in Sarawak and “the only great ape in South East Asia”.

“We used to have rhinos but they are gone. So orangutans, it is. Orangutans might not be predators at the top of the food chain like tigers or clouded leopards, but they are the umbrella species. When they are around, habitats are protected and with enforcement, it gives other wildlife a chance to exist too,” Dr Gumal said.

. Photo courtesy of Wildlife Conservation Society.
Joshua (standing, left) with his surveyors.

Earlier this month, Dr Gumal was honoured with the Whitley Award for Con­servation in Ape Habitats at a special ceremony at the Royal Geographical Society in Britain.

At present, he is the first Malaysian winner in the award’s 21-year history.

A field biologist and long-term conservationist, Dr Gumal was picked among 174 experts worldwide as recipient for the award. Judges took into consideration his long-term commitment to the sites and the species.

The organisation behind it, Whitley Fund for Nature, has natural history expert Sir David Atten­borough as a trustee. For more information, visit whitleyaward.org.

Tags / Keywords: Environment , Sarawak , Batang Ai , Lanjak Entimau , wildlife , orangutan , Dr Melvin Gumal


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