Collaboration to save endangered wildlife in Sabah plantations


‘Bring Back Our Rare Animals (BORA) field manager Dr Zainal Zahari Zainuddin (third, right) with BORA’s executive director, Datuk Dr John Payne (right) and BORA’s staff during a media visit to the banteng pasture at Tabin Wildlife Reserve, Lahad Datu, which was developed as part of the Bornean Banteng Action Plan, supported by the Sabah Wildlife Department, Sabah Forestry Department, WWF-Malaysia and BORA. – Bernama photo

LAHAD DATU (Sept 6): With its rich biodiversity, it is not surprising that the Tabin Wildlife Reserve, which is located in the eastern part of Sabah, has gained popularity as an excellent place for nature-based activities.

But more importantly, the reserve has shown that conservation and oil palm plantations can co-exist under the World Wide Fund for Nature-Malaysia’s Living Landscapes Approach (LLA) framework under the Sabah Landscapes Programme (SLP).

The LLA outlines three core pillars namely Protect, Produce, and Restore. It combines conservation and sustainable development by integrating forest protection, wildlife and rivers, with Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) certified production of oil palm, and restoration of ecological corridors and riparian reserves.

WWF-Malaysia Sustainable Agriculture senior manager, Max Donysius said the conservation measures included planting hundreds of fast-growing trees to establish an ecological corridor in the plantations, connecting the Tabin Forest Reserve to the Silabukan Forest Reserve, which can improve degraded habitat.

He said in Sabah, the LLA framework is used by WWF-Malaysia on three projects: the Tabin Landscape, the Tawau Landscape and the Lower Sugut Landscape, adding that the Tabin Landscape is funded by German’s Beiersdorf AG, producer of the Nivea cream.

“We are collaborating with various stakeholders from the state government, plantations, smallholders and community leaders such as Sabah Forestry Department, Sabah Wildlife Department, Bring Back Our Rare Animals (BORA), Kg Teburi, Sawit Kinabalu and Kuala Lumpur Kepong Berhad (KLK) Link,” he told visiting journalists here recently.

The Tabin Wildlife Reserve (123,779 ha) was established in 1984 with the additional area included as part of reserve, surrounded by oil palm plantations with the Silabukan Forest Reserve (10,600 ha) and Kulamba Wildlife Sanctuary (20,682 ha).

It holds the largest Bornean orangutan population with 1,250 individuals and is also home to other endemic species such as Bornean elephants (350), Banteng (50) and Sunda clouded leopard (40).

In June, Bernama and five other Sabah journalists were invited by WWF-Malaysia Sabah Landscape Programme to visit Tabin Landscape as part of its LLA project with palm oil companies, wildlife experts and local communities.

On the itinerary was a tour of the Sabah Ficus Germplasm Centre (SFGC) managed by BORA. The site was surrounded by 120,000 ha of the fully protected forest of Tabin Wildlife Reserve, rich in wildlife including elephants, sunbears, orangutans and gibbons all of which eat large amounts of figs.

In fact, SFGC is also recognised by the Malaysia Book of Records in 2021 for housing Malaysia’s largest collection of Ficus species.

Formerly known as the Borneo Rhino Alliance, BORA has now rebranded itself as ‘Bring Back Our Rare Animals’, following the extinction of the rhinos, offering more opportunities for other endangered species to thrive and survive.

Previously, the centre which was established about 15 years ago, played a crucial role in cultivating food specifically for Sabah’s last three Sumatran rhinos – Puntung, Kertam, and Iman – which resided at the nearby Borneo Rhino Sanctuary in Tabin.

Female rhino Iman, the state’s last rhino died on Nov 23, 2019 after a long battle with uterine tumour, signifying the extinction of her species, while Kertam died during the same year in May and Puntung in June 2017.

BORA’s field manager Dr Zainal Zahari Zainuddin said the centre had successfully bred over 90 out of the 150 ficus species found in Sabah since 2011 as a means to supply food to rhinos.

“The (ficus) trees exhibited faster growth and bore more fruits compared to other trees, making them ideal for feeding a variety of animals.

“With the death of the last rhino in Sabah, we realised that we had inadvertently created a unique garden,” he said, adding that currently BORA has planted more than 6,500 fig plants around the Tabin Wildlife Reserve.

The 64-year-old veterinarian said the fresh leaves of wild ficus trees are Bornean rhinos’ favourite food, but with the death of the last of the species, BORA found itself left with a veritable garden which could be used to feed other animals.

“We also supply marcots to some oil palm estates where the management was interested in cultivating food plants for wild orangutans within the estates in 2018, in collaboration with WWF-Malaysia.

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

Zainal said among the ficus species planted in the Germplasm centre is ficus macrocarpa, which can grow to a large size in swampy areas; racemosa, locally known as tangkol, a riverside native providing edible fruits to humans.

Others include 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, he added.

At the SFGC nursery, we saw several stone formations of the rhino, resembling rhinos’ burial ground, with its name carved beneath ficus trees.

In memory of the rhinos, Zainal said he carved a personal tribute on a stone at the rhinos’ burial site within the centre, a testament to his years of dedication in preserving the species until their last moments.

“Even though they are no longer with us, we are still steadfast here in protecting the endangered wildlife by continuing this nursery,” he said.

It’s no wonder that Zainal is often mistaken for a plant expert rather than a veterinarian.

Under the ‘Protect’ pillar, WWF-Malaysia is also collaborating with BORA to monitor the population of Bornean banteng in Tabin, which is classified as endangered and endemic in Sabah.

“We were also brought to its pasture enrichment site which is 2.5 km long and 10 metres wide on both sides, developed for Bornean banteng.

“It looks like a golf course,” Zainal, who was accompanied by BORA’s executive director, Datuk Dr John Payne, said in jest while plucking plants that looked like weeds.

The banteng pasture was developed as part of the Bornean Banteng Action Plan, supported by the Sabah Wildlife Department, Sabah Forestry Department, WWF-Malaysia and BORA.

Payne said currently only 326 Bornean banteng species remain, with the largest known population of 52 individuals found in Tabin.

“The grass here is not native. It was planted with some artificial salt licks placed at the pastures as part of the habitat enrichment to provide additional minerals as well as supple grass for the bantengs to lie on.

“By doing this, the species will benefit from greater nutrition, adequate water, and space for safety and play,” he said, adding that it is also consumed by other wildlife such as wild boars.

Payne, who brings with him years of experience with rhino species from 1970s to 2019 in both Malaysia and Indonesia, hopes to see the world adopt wildlife management practices rather than mere conservation.

“The Bornean banteng should be prioritised as they might be the next species to face extinction.

“This is because they have a very low breeding rate, high calf mortality, and camera trap images show that they are often malnourished due to a lack of sufficient food to support successful breeding.

“The best banteng habitats are now no longer in a forest or protected areas – they are mainly in marginal habitats. Hence, we have decided to develop pastures here, and it seems to be working,” Payne said.

Two calves were born each year between 2019 and 2021. This year, four calves were born (last year: six) with at least two cows heavily pregnant to date.

Banteng, or wild cattle of Borneo, is classified as ‘Endangered’ under the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List. It is also listed under Schedule 1 in the Sabah Wildlife Conservation Enactment 1997 – affording it full protection.

To protect palm oil plantations from being attacked by wildlife such as Bornean elephants and orangutans, WWF-Malaysia and the Sabah Wildlife Department have also assisted in establishing a human-elephant conflict (HEC) working group committee led by the Lahad Datu District office since March 2021.

It also comprises some 16 oil palm plantation companies with a land bank of between 60 ha to 3,600 ha around the district.

According to WWF-Malaysia’s Donysius, one of the main objectives of the committee is to jointly install 50 to 60 kilometres of electric fences at the Tungku region bordering the Tabin reserve.

“The initiative is expected to take up to three years to complete.

“Once completed, it is anticipated that the HEC situation or crop damages will be substantially reduced and communities living in the south of the Tungku region, mainly near the coastal areas will also indirectly benefit from the fences installed through this initiative,” he said.

Human-elephant conflict (HEC) is a negative interaction between people and elephants which intensifies into incidents of conflict, often leading to loss of lives for elephants due to retaliatory killing, besides causing damage to crops and property.

WWF-Malaysia landscape lead Donna Simon said it is crucial that electric fences are jointly installed to deter elephants from entering oil palm plantations.

“The Bornean elephant population is endangered and could face extinction in our lifetime, with its population in Sabah estimated at less than 1,500 in the wild.

“Close cooperation is needed between neighbouring plantations to jointly install electric fences at the landscape level and to ensure habitat connectivity between fragmented forests.

“This is crucial to ensure the continued access of elephants between fragmented forests and for better protection of their crops,” she said.

As of May 2023, about 86 per cent of the plantation companies have already installed electric fences in the Tungku region, while the remaining 9.5 per cent are in various stages of installation.

She said in addition, the Bagahak Corridor had also been planted with trees to connect the Tabin and Silabukan reserves which began a year ago, and as of now, some 10 ha had been planted with fast-growing trees and figs.

“The trees were planted along a four-kilometre stretch of Sg Iban, a river that runs through Bagahak Estate 1 plantation.

“The planting was carried out up to 50m from each side of the riverbank or riparian area.

The corridor will protect the orangutan population residing in the Tabin and Silabukan reserves adjacent to the plantation.

“Currently, approximately 1,200 orangutans inhabit the eastern lowlands of Tabin, while 50 individuals reside in Silabukan,” she said.

Sawit Kinabalu Group Sustainability general manager Nazlan Mohamad said, the company had recently teamed up with WWF-Malaysia to conduct a 2km general transect survey with a few camera traps installed along the corridor in Bagahak Estate 1.

“Based on WWF-Malaysia’s data, 40 species of animals in total are recorded along the corridor which includes several rare, threatened and endangered species.

“This is set as a baseline for wildlife found along the corridor, in the first year of planting. An annual wildlife survey will be conducted to monitor the ecological changes along the corridor,” he added. – Bernama