A Shocking Surprise in Sabah’s Restored Forest

In Forest, Wildlife
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A slight twist in the outcome of our restoration work to restore Bornean orangutan populations. But we didn’t mind.

Enter Bukit Piton Forest Reserve.

A small yet essential protected forest area among acres of towering palm oil plantations in the humble district of Lahad Datu.

You know the story. Poor logging practices have, for decades, left our Bukit Piton forests brutally hammered since the 1980s. People were hungry for economic gains — but pursued them blindly. What made it worse: forest fires caused by droughts during 1983 and 1997-1998.

This resulted in a very degraded forest.

This also essentially means that the forest, which is home to an estimated 300 orangutans, was turning into a critically dangerous zone where the population’s survival could be a zero. On top of that, the orangutans were already living in an isolated area where 1) palm oil plantations filled up the east and north sections, and the 2) Segama river to the south was hindering them from access to food and breeding areas.

Plus, orangutans weren’t the only victim.

The Bornean elephants, found in the southern and eastern parts of Sabah, have also lost most of their home range thanks to aggressive forest conversion. This severely limited range has caused both humans and elephants to fight for land space to survive.

Something had to be done.

This was Bukit Piton Forest Reserve before our restoration initiative. What’s left is mostly undergrowth with very few trees in the area.

Acknowledging the severity and urgency to restore this precious forest and conserve its orangutan population along with another biodiversity, WWF-Malaysia with the Sabah Forestry Department (SFD) spearheaded the forest restoration programme in North Ulu Segama in 2007.

The North Ulu Segama Reserve was then renamed to Bukit Piton in 2012 when it was reclassified from Class II to Class I by the Sabah State Government. What it means: the forest was better protected by law from any form of agricultural land conversion and timber exploitation of any forest products.

This was a significant win for us.

In 2007, our uphill restoration efforts began. Empty forest areas were replanted with fast-growing plant species such as binuang and laran. To specifically support the orangutans’ diet, fruit trees like terap, figs and sengkuang were also planted.

Our restoration efforts are paying off. A total of 2,400 hectares of the committed area of reforestation have been fully planted.

Fast forward to 12 years later today, we are happy to see the orangutan population in the area thriving and can be seen to be utilising the planted trees as means of shelter, food and travel.

Now, there are more trees for orangutans and other primates like macaques and gibbons to travel from one area to another.

Restoring forests brings a ton of benefits for wildlife. Trees not only provide shelter and a variety of food sources, but they also reduce forest fire threat to wildlife and the forest itself.

Trees provide shelter for wildlife to thrive in the forest.

But wait. Here comes the shocking bit.

There have been reports of elephant groups visiting the Bukit Piton Forest Reserve. This was unexpected because reported surveys with plantation workers have it that only solitary male elephants were known to have used the area.

Groups of elephants, instead of lone ones, have been entering our replanted areas.
©WWF-Malaysia

We talked to elephant officer Dr Cheryl Cheah from WWF-Malaysia to give us more insights to the delightful occurrence.

“We started receiving news in September 2018 that a group of about 30 elephants has entered the smallholder oil palm plantation of Transkina Sdn. Bhd. — an area which was undergoing the replanting phase. We postulated that the chipping of palm trees by the company had attracted this big group of elephants, which were from the main Ulu Segama forest block, to cross the Segama river when the water levels were low.”

This is, of course, fantastic news.

The herd of elephants must have felt it safe to make the area their home. A hopeful signal that our restoration initiative is working.

Collaring one elephant will allow the team to monitor the movement of the groups of elephants to reduce human-elephant conflict.
©WWF-Malaysia

Dr Cheah also shared that the elephants generally fed on the fresh stems and shoots of the palm trees early in the morning and evening before retreating into the forest.

Exciting news, but it won’t be long before a new problem surfaces: people who think the elephants are destroying their crops.

This behaviour went on for a few weeks until the workers from the plantation company, with assistance from rangers from the Wildlife Department, had to keep the elephants away to protect them from the possibility of human attacks.

Though a happy problem, immediacy is key

While this is frustrating for the team who is responsible for reforestation in Bukit Piton, it is a beautiful sign that the forest is now providing a haven and active wildlife corridor for orangutans and elephants.

Since plantations surround the Bukit Piton forest reserve, the elephant groups were trapped. However, it wasn’t long before the team sprung into action and provided a solution: collaring the elephants to track their movements and prevent conflict with people.

In November, the WWF elephant conservation team, with assistance from the Sabah Wildlife Department’s Wildlife Rescue Unit, managed to sedate and placed a satellite collar on one of the elephants to monitor the groups’ movements.

The map shows their daily movements since the elephant group was collared. Here, the elephants have travelled northwards.
©WWF-Malaysia

“We have invited the plantation companies involved in the conflict to attend the Lahad Datu Human-elephant Conflict working group to discuss mitigation options to protect their crops and property.”

This helped ensure that elephants and humans can co-exist peacefully.

This ‘Saving Homes, Restoring Hope for Orangutans’ conservation project is made possible thanks to the support and kind generosity of four major philanthropists in Singapore to reforest Bukit Piton for WWF-Singapore.

If you like reading this, see more stories from the field: rare Sumatran tiger found near a human settlement, why was there a stranded sperm whale in Indonesia’s Wakatobi waters, and why the haze in Singapore could be much worse.

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