KOTA KINABALU: Environmentalists are calling for the conservation and rehabilitation of forests outside of protected areas in the Lower Kinabatangan home to a wide range of endangered species in Sabah.
Borneo Futures co-founder Dr Marc Ancrenaz said animals including the orang utans, Borneo Pygmy elephants and proboscis monkeys were losing their homes due to fragmentation of their habitat, and studies has found that non-protected forests were good home for orang utan.
He said despite their degraded status in the Lower Kinabatangan, these were high conservation value forests and key to supporting wildlife but further fragmentation would jeopardise the viability of animal populations.
“We need to recreate a contiguous forest corridor of about 52,000ha in the floodplain,” said the researcher who has spent almost 20 years in the lower Kinabatangan.
“One way of starting the process will be to address the future of forests that are not part of the Lower Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary and forest reserves,” Dr Ancrenaz said.
He said this was important because Sabah’s Lower Kinabatangan had lost almost a third of its orang utan population in the last 16 years, following continued loss of forests outside of protected areas and further fragmentation of their habitat that was home to other wildlife.
He said the forests outside protected areas – including private and state owned land – were largely composed of swamp areas that were increasingly becoming threatened in Borneo and had poor or no economic value for oil palm due to daily or seasonal flooding events.
“Long-term monitoring revealed that the decline of orang utans has not stopped in the Lower Kinabatangan, despite this being identified as a high priority area for the primate in Sabah’s Orangutan Action Plan,” Dr Ancrenaz said.
Habitat fragmentation in Lower Kinabatangan remains a major issue with 11,000ha of forests outside protected areas lost in under a decade up to 2014, and over 20,000ha on alienated and state land at risk of being converted for agriculture, primarily oil palm, further fragmenting the orang utan population and accelerating its decline.
This was why, he explained, it was critical to address the future of these forests outside of protected areas and to recreate contiguous forest corridors.
Dr Ancrenaz also said the orang utans was last year moved to The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)’s Critically Endangered category with numbers dropping from 4,000 individuals in the 1960s to 1,125 in 2001 to less than 800 today in the Lower Kinabatangan.
A study published this month in Scientific Reports indicates Sabah’s overall orang utan population has dropped by 20% since the last comprehensive survey in the early 2000s, which had placed their number at 11,000 individuals.
However, acquiring privately owned land and habitat restoration are both costly in a landscape that is about 82% covered with oil palm, a crop that is important to Sabah’s economy and a trade imperative for Malaysia.
Dr Ancrenaz said in a study on orang utans throughout Borneo, it was discovered that forest patches inhabited by this primate were the smallest in Sabah, compared with other states.
Hunting, poaching and over exploitation of forests were historical threats that kick started the decline of the species.
However, the species is facing new risks today, such as habitat fragmentation, emerging diseases and conflicts with domestic animals.