KOTA KINABALU: One hundred thousand orangutans have disappeared in the last 16 years in Borneo, a new study published last week in Current Biology, reveals.
Two Sabah-based co-authors, Dr Marc Ancrenaz, co-director of the NGO HUTAN and Dr Benoit Goossens, director of Danau Girang Field Centre and Reader at Cardiff University, took part in the study and they explain the significance of these results for Sabah and praise the government’s hard work to protect orangutans in the State.
“This figure is staggering and means a few things at the scale of Borneo, explained Ancrenaz.
“First of all, the rate of decline is much faster than what we thought, and this is worrying. If we cannot stop this decline, many more populations are going to disappear in the next few decades. It also means that there were more orangutans in the past than what we thought, and this illustrates how difficult it is to know exactly how many wild orangutans are surviving in Borneo. Counting these animals is indeed a very difficult task and most (if not all) estimates published in the past have been shown to be wrong,?confirmed Ancrenaz.
He said the major reason explaining this decline is the killing that happens in non-protected and protected areas. Forest conversion for agriculture explains less than 50% of the decline. This also means that it is urgent to change our approach to conserve orangutans.
“What does that mean for Sabah,?asked Goossens who said most large populations have been relatively stable for the past 20 years in the State thanks to the creation of new fully protected forests by the State government.
“The goal of the State Government to set aside 30% of its forests as totally protected areas will certainly increase the chance of survival of orangutans in Sabah,?he explained after the Sabah Wildlife Department refuted and disagreed with a foreign media report that claimed over 6,000 orangutans have been killed in Sabah between 1999 and 2015.
However, Ancrenaz pointed out that severe habitat fragmentation and further land conversion could take a heavy toll on small orangutan populations. For example, data from HUTAN and Sabah Wildlife Department showed that the fragmented population of orangutans living in Lower Kinabatangan was about 1,100 in the early 2000’s. Today this population numbers less than 800 individuals.
“Hunting is not an issue in Lower Kinabatangan. This decline is explained by habitat loss and the fact that orangutans need a landscape with sufficient natural forest to survive.
“Many other small groups of animals that were isolated in the late 1990s-early 2000s because of oil palm conversion were not accounted for during the orangutan state survey of the early 2000s. Most of these small populations are now gone,?he added.
Goossens said there are ways to improve the chance of long-term survival of this iconic species in Sabah.
“We need to create forest corridors at the landscape level that will allow the orangutans to move across the landscape and to find new lands to establish their own territories. Here the efforts of the government to protect 30% of the forest need to be applauded: this will be a game saver for the largest populations,?he said.
“And the move from the Chief Minister of Sabah to scrap the Sukau bridge that would have further fragmented the Kinabatangan orangutan population was highly commendable,?praised Goossens. ?
He added there is also a need to ensure that no orangutan is killed and ensure that if this happens, the poachers are brought to justice. ” Finally, we need to improve the management practices outside of protected areas. Indeed, orangutans are large roaming species and they need vast areas to forage and to disperse. The CSPO jurisdictional approach is also a real hope to ensure a brighter future for the species in Sabah.
“However, even if the larger orangutan populations seem to be somehow secure, there is still a real risk that smaller groups of animals that are unaccounted for today may disappear in the next few years. The clock is ticking,?concluded Goossens.
The two authors said they have been working in Sabah for more than 20 years and sincerely believe that the major orangutan populations in Sabah are secure thanks to the commitment from Sabah government to protect 30% of their land mass. Moreover, hunting is not a big issue here, compared to other parts of the island. There is definitely hope for wildlife in the State. Sabah might be in the future the last place where it is possible to find wild orangutans.
Sabah Wildlife Department director, Augustine Tuuga on Sunday said the report on the death of orangutan was baseless because it was based on a research finding without hard facts and evidence produced by three scientists based in Sabah.
He said research findings published in the PLOS journal in 2004 estimated the orang utan population in Sabah at 11,000, and at the time of the study, 60 per cent of the orang utan population in the state was believed to be outside of the protected areas.
He added based on that research findings, the state government took serious efforts to enhance protection of the orang utan population in Sabah by declaring and gazetting more and bigger protected areas.
Augustine was responding to foreign media reports based on the Current Biology journal authored by Maria Voigt and co-authored, among others, by Dr Marc Ancrenaz of HUTAN who is based in Sukau, Kinabatangan and Dr Benoit Goossens, Director of Danau Girang Field Centre.