Split by Oil Palm

The response to this article by Tan Sri Yusof Basiron can be read at his blog

With their forested home gone, orang utans are driven into oil palm plantations but the cultivated landscape is unlikely to sustain them for long.

THE sight of an orang utan feasting on oil palm fruits will certainly be the ultimate vindication for the plantation industry that is battling criticisms over its impact on the endangered species. After all, the industry has insisted that an oil palm plantation is no less rich in biological diversity than natural forests.

Hence, Malaysian Palm Oil Council (MPOC) chief executive officer Tan Sri Dr Yusof Basiron highlighted this fact at the two-day Orang Utan Conservation Colloquium – Developing Models for Orang Utan Conservation Within Fragmented Ecosystems in Sabah recently.

Trapped between fragments of forests, orang utans have been found to build nests in oil palm landscapes in eastern Sabah – mostly on trees but some on oil palm trees.

But Yusof’s suggestion that oil palm plantations are good habitats for orang utans was quickly dispelled by orang utan conservationist Dr Marc Ancrenaz, co-director of the Kinabatangan Orang Utan Conservation Project, who has researched the primate in the Kinabatangan region for the last 12 years.

Ancrenaz, who is also scientific director of non-governmental organisation Hutan, clarified that although orang utans have been found chewing on oil palm fruits, the behaviour should not be interpreted to mean that plantations are a viable ecosystem for the Asian great ape.

“Plantations alone cannot support the orang utan in the long term. The nutrients are insufficient and the animals will likely starve to death,” he noted.

The exchange, which was expressed cordially, nevertheless underscored the long tension between the industry and the conservation community over the fact that plantations are carving up orang utan habitats in Borneo and Sumatra, home to the sole Asian great ape. Both sides are seeking a middle path to realise each other’s objective – saving the orang utan for the conservationists and ensuring market access for the plantation companies.

Towards this end, MPOC funded a 30-hour aerial survey in March 2008 by Hutan and the Borneo Conservation Trust, a state government-mandated body set up in 2006 to spearhead the establishment of wildlife corridors.

The survey revealed that a significant number of animals were surviving in mangrove forests disconnected from dry forests by plantations and in isolated forests within oil palm plantations in eastern Sabah. More than 1,000 nests were detected in some 100 fragmented forests.

The presence of nests indicated that orang utans are commuting between the patches of forests and because the plantations are too vast, they have to rest for the night in the plantations.

“We estimated that a few hundred orang utans are currently found in the extensive oil palm landscape of eastern Sabah, which is a significant part of the entire orang utan population in the state. The industry, at large, had been in denial but the results of the survey shows that it does affect orang utans,” said Ancrenaz.

The report dismissed the likelihood of a stable and resident population surviving within the plantations. But, for the moment, these roaming orang utans enable gene flow between the major orang utan populations in Sabah.

Herein lies the opportunity for the industry to get involved in orang utan conservation efforts in man-made landscapes. But the window of opportunity is closing.

“The longer we wait, it becomes more difficult to halt the erosion of biodiversity. When forests are too small, they can’t provide enough food. For the orang utan, time is running out fast,” warned Ancrenaz.

To aid orang utans in crossing vast expanses of oil palm estates, these landscapes can be connected. Conservationists suggest two approaches: step-stone forests and contiguous corridors by river banks. Step-stone forests can be created by rehabilitating existing forest patches. This will lead to a network of natural forests within oil palm estates. Green corridors are envisaged from reforesting degraded river reserves.

Ancrenaz proposed that the corridors and step-stone forests be at least 500m wide along major rivers and 250m wide along major tributaries, in order to create a network that is ecologically robust to sustain wildlife.

“Fast-growing trees could provide a decent cover in three years and grow into a semi-matured forests after 10 years,” he said.

Sabah Wildlife Department director Laurentius Ambu said creating the corridors would require 11,000ha of land to be included in the existing 26,000ha Lower Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary, which was the focus of the much-talked about wildlife corridor initiative mooted a decade ago.

Currently, the sanctuary is all but 10 lots of forests, some disconnected and others narrowly enjoined. Existing forest reserves surrounding the sanctuary need to be secured against further degazettement and reconnected to the sanctuary.

Ambu said besides Tabin Wildlife Reserve which harbours 1,400 individuals, the sanctuary is the second most important place for the orang utan. Some 62% of the apes in Sabah (or 6,800 of the total 11,000 animals) live outside protected areas (such as national parks, forest reserves and wildlife sanctuaries).

The Sabah population that is distributed among 16 populations is the stronghold for the Bornean subspecies Pongo pygmaeus morio. There are only 5,000 individuals in eastern Kalimantan.

“In the Lower Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary, 1,000 animals are further isolated in more than 20 sub-populations because of oil palm plantations, drains and other man-made features. To ensure their survival, the habitat has to be enlarged,” said Ambu, adding that there should be no further expansion of plantations in the region.

As plantations occupy 1.3 million hectares of once lowland forest and prime orang utan habitat, he said the industry should play a key role in conservation efforts.

Borneo Conservation Trust chief executive officer Cyril Pinso Tan said four pieces of land of 2ha each have been acquired and another 3.9ha is in the final stage of acquisition.

“We’re trying to acquire more land and encouraging oil palm companies to do the same. MPOC has promised a matching grant on the amount that Borneo Conservation Trust can raise. The fund is insufficient but we’re getting positive response from the private sector,” he enthused.

Source : The Star by Hillary Chew


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