Saturday, May 15

A centre dedicated to conserving wild figs of Borneo

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Propagation of Ficus microcarpa, a strangling fig that can grow to large size in swamps.

KOTA KINABALU: When we read “biodiversity conservation” we might think of wildlife, parks and reserves, or international agreements.

Sabah has several kinds of biodiversity conservation programmes.

One of the newer ones is the Sabah Ficus Germplasm Centre in Tabin Wildlife Reserve.

Ficus is the general name for about 150 wild species of figs found in Borneo. Fig fruits provide food for many wildlife species, and some Ficus species have potential as ornamentals and the leaves as domestic animal food.

Germplasm means living genetic resources. This unique Centre now houses over 70 species of Bornean wild figs and more are being added.

Chief Conservator of Forests Datuk Mashor Mohd Jaini explained: “About half of Sabah’s land area is Forest Reserve, much of that now regenerating after a long history of logging. But to conserve certain wild species, we need to establish targeted programmes.

“The Ficus Germplasm Centre not only aims to be a store of the diversity of living fig species of Sabah but also a source of planting materials for restoration work in Forest Reserves and for private land owners.

“We want to encourage companies and individuals to play a bigger role in conservation of Sabah’s biodiversity heritage.”

The centre is managed by Borneo Rhino Alliance, a non-governmental organisation, whose field manager Dr Zainal Zahari Zainuddin explained, “Bornean rhinos’ favourite food is the fresh leaves of wild Ficus. We started planting and cultivating many kinds of local Ficus in Tabin in 2011 as a means to supply rhino food.

“With the death of the last rhinos in Sabah, we realised that we had inadvertently created a unique garden.

“We have been experimenting with various ways of producing seedlings, and it turns out that most species can be propagated vegetatively by a method called marcotting.

“In 2018, we started supplying marcots to a small number of oil palm estates where the management were interested to cultivate food plants for wild orangutans within the estates.

“Under Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil standards, if endangered species or high biodiversity values are present in a plantation, appropriate measures for management planning and operations are required.

“This can take the form of cultivating wildlife food plants such as Ficus on riparian zones and steep areas.”

Among the Ficus species in the germplasm centre are microcarpa, which can grow to large size in swampy land; racemosa, locally known as tangkol, a riverside specialist that has fruits edible to humans; crassiramea, a large strangling fig whose fruits are favoured by hornbills; minahassae, found only in eastern Sabah, Sulawesi and the Philippines; and several species that offer potential as livestock feed.

The Centre conducts research into propagation methods and training for interested parties. There is potential for collaboration with universities and other research institutions.