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Tuesday May 23, 2006

Creating a forest corridor

By growing tree seedlings for reforestation, youths in Kinabatangan, Sabah, are assisting in orang utan conservation. 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 fragmented by development, logging and oil palm plantations. 

Thus, patches of protected greens are surrounded by degraded forest and plantations, which in turn affects the abundance of food, distribution, behaviour 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 0.4ha 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 Joannie 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 non-commercial 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 been cultivated at the nursery and some 3,000 food trees planted in Lot 5, chosen because it is close to Bilit.  

Jonitol said the seedlings have a 50% mortality rate and are monitored every three months. The biggest obstacle the project faces is one beyond their control – floods. Kinabatangan is flood-prone and Lot 5 is especially susceptible, being located between two rivers. 

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

Taking the floods into account, the project is trying to focus on water-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 benefitted 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 encouraged 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. 

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