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Tuesday May 14, 2013

Oil palm firms team up with Sabah to protect Malua Forest Reserve

Keep it wild: Protection of Sabah’s Malua Forest Reserve means protection for myriad wildlife, including pygmy elephants. Keep it wild: Protection of Sabah’s Malua Forest Reserve means protection for myriad wildlife, including pygmy elephants.

Four oil palm firms join hands with Sabah to ensure wildlife continues to thrive and forests flourish in Malua.

DEEP within the heart of Sabah lies the 34,000ha Malua Forest Reserve. It has been previously logged but regeneration over the years means that it is still a significant area of rainforest in Sabah. It houses a globally threatened ecosystem – the lowland dipterocarp rainforest – and is part of a larger contiguous area of forest and buffers primary rainforest to the south, the Danum Valley Conservation area.

Malua is known to support one of the highest densities of orang utans in Sabah and is also a stronghold for banteng, the endangered wild cattle. It also harbours populations of globally threatened species – the clouded leopard, the pygmy elephant, the sun bear and the Bornean gibbon. Yet, like many other conservation areas in Sabah, Malua is still plagued by poachers and trespassers who threaten to empty the forest of its biological treasures.

Malua’s large sprawl and extensive boundary have stymied anti-encroachment efforts. Although incidences of tree-felling, gaharu theft, illegal cultivation and hunting have declined following protection efforts, rangers are still discovering snare traps, human trails and signs of hunters, especially where the reserve borders plantations.

This has prompted a unique public-private collaboration which kicked off last November. The Malua Wildlife Conservation Agreement sees Sabah Forestry Department and Sabah Wildlife Department teaming up with four oil palm companies (IOI Corp, TH Group, Kwantas Corp and Selangor Agriculture Development Board) and New Forests (which manages investments in sustainable forestry) to stem the illegal activities, as well as assist the plantations to improve their environmental management.

Sabah Forestry official Frederick Kugan says as the plantations of the four companies share a common boundary with Malua Forest Reserve, human-wildlife conflicts and other related offences can be minimised, if not avoided, through the active participation of the companies.

“The main threat to Malua is its long and porous boundary which is susceptible to illegal entry and poaching activities as plantations provide easy access to the protected area,” says Kugan, the deputy director for forest sector planning.

doing a
survey on
utans at
Malua. Rangers doing a survey on orang utans at Malua.

Merril Halley, project manager for Malua Biobank, says the partnership can be an effective model for improving conservation management where industry borders high conservation-value forests. (New Forests teamed up with Sabah to initiate the Malua BioBank project to generate funds to manage and conserve the forest reserve.)

“The agreement is voluntary and has been entered into by all parties with a desire to co-operate and make a difference. The four companies are involved as they have plantations that border Malua Forest Reserve. It is their co-operation that we need to strengthen security, educate the workers about environmental issues, and support conservation of wildlife which moves between the forest reserve and plantations. For example, elephants move out of Malua into the plantations for short periods of time and the plantations need to be able to deal with the elephants in a manner that is safe for both workers and elephants,” says Halley.

She adds that signs of trails are mostly found along the boundary with the plantations, and the numbers remain high unlike the other illegal issues which have declined. “This is why we have focused our efforts on working with the oil palm plantations to see if we can control this better as it is difficult for us to do it alone.”

Halley says an implementation committee comprising members from all parties was set up last December and it has agreed to have an implementation plan in place within six months. This is progressing well, with many actions already agreed to and some, implemented.

To prevent illegal entry into the forest reserve, the team will improve boundary security. Kugan says forestry and plantation staff are jointly patrolling the reserve boundary, and improving communication channels between plantation companies and the authorities to enable swift action whenever there are encroachers.

The four companies will develop plans to deal with human-wildlife conflict – such as when elephants enter the plantation and destroy crops. They will also improve their environmental management plans. “There are issues that they need to deal with, such as human-wildlife conflict, understanding, protecting and managing the biodiversity on their plantations better and reinstating or protecting riparian areas. Some companies have systems in place for this but there is no doubt for many companies, there is room for improvement,” says Halley.

The companies are also encouraged to go for certification schemes (for sustainable palm oil production) and they would be assisted in this area by both Forestry and Wildlife Departments. Plantation workers and villagers from nearby Kampung Balat will be roped in as honorary wildlife wardens and forest rangers. They will be given training to equip them with the skills and know-how to become wildlife champions, so that they are able to support governmental agencies in wildlife management and protection.

Another component is the education and outreach programmes. “We believe that it is important for staff and communities to understand what Malua Biobank is trying to achieve and why it is necessary to protect wildlife and rainforest and how people, including children on the plantations, can be involved in this. We give talks at the plantations but eventually, we want to develop an environmental education strategy that can be more broadly rolled out,” says Halley.

The collaboration with the four oil palm companies will more than help keep Malua secure for its wild inhabitants, for rainforests are valuable for many other reasons: regulating water flow, preventing floods and landslides, and storing large amounts of carbon.

Covering about half the size of Singapore, Malua stores an estimated 15 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent. Its loss means the release of huge amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which will contribute to climate change.

The Malua Biobank project is unique and is an example of how a public-private partnership between Sabah Forestry Department and New Forests can work to conserve biodiversity. The agreement is to restore and protect Malua for a period of 50 years, and can be renewed. Funds are obtained through the sale of “biodiversity conservation certificates” to corporations and individuals. Each certificate protects 100sqm of forest and one can buy any number of certificates.

“The purchase of biodiversity certificates from the biobank will allow buyers to support rainforest conservation and greening of the supply chain, whilst generating commercial returns for the investor and government. There are opportunities for local and regional businesses that have benefited from Sabah’s natural wealth to give back and support Sabah’s conservation efforts by purchasing biodiversity conservation certificates from the bank,” says Halley.