Different Shades of Green

IT may be one of the highest-billed wildlife tourism spots in the country but the lush Lower Kinabatangan forest in the east coast of Sabah is taking on a different shade of green – that of oil palm fields.

Plantations owned by public-listed companies, private enterprises and family growers have carved up the floodplain, pushing wildlife into pockets of forest. In response to the situation, conservationists way back in 1998 called for the creation of wildlife corridors so that animals like the orang utan, elephant and rhinoceros can migrate from one pocket of forest to another.

Sabah declared the creation of this wildlife haven in 1999, calling it Gift To The Earth. But the gazettment of 26,000ha under the Wildlife Conservation Enactment 1997 came six years later, after more forests had been cleared, resulting in further fragmentation. The initial size of the sanctuary was 50,000ha.

Meanwhile, non-governmental groups like the World Wide Fund for Nature Malaysia and Hutan (an orang utan conservation outfit run by a French couple) have begun reforestation with the participation of villagers.

However, these small scale initiatives are no match for the rapidly expanding plantations.

Oil palms are planted right up to the river bank. Countless media reports highlighted the largely illegal encroachment into river reserves but the problem persisted. It is not only wildlife that is affected; the livelihood of villagers is compromised by dwindling catch of prawns and fish.

It is puzzling that state authorities like the Land and Survey Department preferred the “soft approach” rather than booking culprits for violating licensing conditions. Department director Datuk Osman Jamal said the persuasive method was more effective than prosecuting errant land owners as “one case could take years before it is concluded”.

A conservationist pointed out that Section 26 of the Land Ordinance is vague on the minimum size for river buffers and gives discretionary power to the state government to decide on that. He said developments of more than 500ha, which most plantations are, would be required by law to set aside riparian reserves.

Meanwhile, scientists warned that the Sabah orang utan population is reeling towards extinction if nothing is done to halt deforestation. In the last two years, orang utan researcher Dr Marc Ancrenaz of the Kinabatangan Orang Utan Conservation Programme has observed an unusual behaviour among the orang utan population that he had followed since 1997 – the primates are walking on the ground as shown by footprints found in oil palm estates. Known as an arboreal ape, orang utans hardly venture to the ground. With decreasing forest cover, the animal appeared to have adapted to its changing environment.

Ancrenaz acknowledged that scientists’ knowledge of orang utan has increased tremendously in the last few years. “They are much more adaptable to the changing environment than we thought. We know primates are smart creatures. They are surviving for the time being but we don’t know for how long.”

In a three-year DNA profiling study of the Lower Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary, wildlife geneticist Dr Benoit Goossens of Cardiff University and Dr Isabelle Ancrenaz of Hutan found strong evidence of a population collapse that coincided with deforestation. They warned that the population could go extinct in 50 years if nothing was done to reconnect fragmented forests and isolated populations.

At the recently concluded Orang Utan Conservation Colloquium, participants comprising orang utan experts, state officials, local and international NGOs and the plantation industry called for a minimum of 100m for wildlife corridors along riverbanks to be acquired by the Sabah Wildlife Department. Source : The Star

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