Malaysia: Bridging wild habitats in oil palm estates

The Star 31 Jan 12;

Scientists and oil palm growers gathered recently in Kota Kinabalu for a common cause – to find ways to protect the wildlife of Sabah.

ENSURING the future survival of the endangered pygmy elephant, orang utan and rhinoceros in the state of Sabah hinges on these steps: stop further fragmentation and conversion of forests; establish wildlife corridors, such as along riparian reserves to connect forest fragments; and stringent enforcement against poaching.

These are the key strategies highlighted in the five-year action plans to conserve the three species drafted by the Sabah Wildlife Department (SWD) and launched early this month at the two-day Sabah Wildlife Conservation Colloquium in Kota Kinabalu.

“Today, Sabah is considered as being rich in wildlife but in actuality, much has been lost and what we are trying to do today is damage control, which is why we have prepared action plans for keystone species,” says SWD director Dr Laurentius Ambu at the meeting, organised by SWD and the Malaysian Palm Oil Council, and supported by Borneo Conservation Trust, Danau Girang Field Centre and Hutan.

He says Sabah’s wildlife remains under threat despite 15.5% of the state being gazetted as totally protected areas. Surveys estimated that 300 orang utans were lost in the past seven years in the Kinabatangan region alone, leaving the state with 11,000 orang utans today. The population of proboscis monkeys, now at 5,900, is on the decline too, as their habitat has shrunk and is degrading, while poaching remains a major threat.

Poor land use planning in the past has led to a situation where Sabah’s forests are now isolated islands surrounded by urban settlements and agricultural land, and too small to nurture a healthy array of wildlife. Connecting these forest patches is crucial to the future survival of threatened animals as it will allow animal movement within a larger habitat.

One green link identified by SWD is the Sabah Ecological Corridor which will bridge forest patches from Kinabatangan through Batu Putih to Deramakot. Over 70% of elephants, orang utans and rhinos populations in the state can be found in this green corridor, says Ambu.

Surveys by SWD and conservation group Hutan have found that over 60% of the estimated 11,000 orang utans in Sabah are found not in protected reserves and parks but in forest fragments, many of which are located within plantations. Primatologist Dr Isabelle Ancrenaz says even in those protected areas where the primate is found, the habitat is largely unsuitable, being hilly, with steep slopes. Orang utans prefer lowland areas. “It is very clear that protected areas in Sabah will not achieve orang utan conservation on their own. Orang utans outside of protected areas must be protected and properly managed.”

While there is consensus among the 280 colloquium participants that maintenance of forest corridors along plantations is important, there is equal agreement that establishing these corridors is expensive and challenging. For one, securing land for the linkages is difficult since much of it is a private property.

“Creating wildlife corridors will take a lot of commitment from the public, plantation owners, companies and government. But it is the ideal thing as it allows movements of animals. We’re working with different landowners on this,” says Ambu. He adds that a year 2000 estimate on the cost of purchasing land critical for the wildlife corridor in the Kinabatangan area alone puts the sum at RM40mil to RM60mil. “The cost will be higher now with the hike in land prices. We are talking about splitting the cost of buying the land between the federal and state governments.”

Alternatively, corridors can be established on river reserves but Ambu says such land is almost non-existent, and there are no buffer zones between rivers and plantations in most places.

While plantations have been accused of encroaching on riparian reserves, in reality there are discrepancies between legal set-aside obligations of such land. Biologist Dr Junaidi Payne explains that while the Land Ordinance 1930 allows the state government to put aside land alongside rivers for whatever reason it deems necessary, this has hardly been done as most documents and land titles do not indicate allocation of river reserves.

The Water Resources Enactment 1998 states that 20m of river banks are to be riparian reserves, but it does not specify what can or cannot be done there. Likewise, land titles issued to the private sector do not say what must be done on that strip of land. Hence, according to Payne, “the land owner can say there is nothing there that obliges me to put aside the river reserve.”

“The state government needs to resolve this. The alternative is for land owners to voluntarily give up the land for the river reserve,” he says.

Private sector support

Nonetheless, some headway has been made in securing land for wildlife corridors. Borneo Conservation Trust (BCT), which is implementing the Borneo Ecological Corridor, is in talks with plantation companies like Sime Darby, Genting, Kwantas, IOI, Borneo Samudera and Yu Kwang Development. So far, Yu Kwang has supported the endeavour by establishing a kilometre-long and 50m-wide corridor at Bukit Melapi in Sukau. This will allow some 200 elephants to move between several forest patches in the Lower Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary.

During the colloquium, BCT also signed a memorandum of understanding with KTS Plantation for the setting up of a green corridor for orang utans and elephants in Segaliud Lokan Forest Reserve in north Kinabatangan. The three-year programme includes building capacity in biodiversity conservation in KTS, as well as enforcement work.

Raymond Alfred who heads the conservation and research division in the BCT, says RM3mil has been raised since 2006, enabling the purchase of 40ha of land for the corridor. “To secure the corridor from the private sector is a challenging effort and expensive. Our effort for the last five years has only secured 1% of the 16,000ha of the whole corridor. And the price of the land has risen. So this year, we intend to get partnership with the industry. Instead of buying land, we will work with them to establish the corridor.”

For smallholders, he says it might be necessary to purchase the land since they are unlikely to put aside a portion of their already small property. He suggests that the Malaysian Palm Oil Council (MPOC) set a policy requiring plantation owners to set aside riparian reserves, which are crucial to link up islands of forests.

On the establishment of wildlife corridors, MPOC chief executive officer Tan Sri Datuk Dr Yusof Basiron says there is currently a lack of national, co-ordinated effort. “They have pointed to such a need but who will implement it and how do we fund it? We need a dedicated committee to look at it and a regulated mandate to proceed.”

Calling for a co-ordinated and authorised approach, he says there should be consensus within the industry with regard to the creation of wildlife corridors rather than individual companies being approached by conservation groups.

The industry, meanwhile, is taking steps to mitigate any adverse impact on wildlife.

One oil palm grower who declined to be named says crop damage by wildlife is actually minimal since replanting of oil palm occurs only in 3% to 4% of the plantation at any one time, and measures such as electric fencing and trenches can be used to deter elephants from entering the plantation.

Another plantation manager says it is already a company policy to not harm animals. He says electric fences are used to protect palm saplings from elephants which regularly move through his estate, which borders Tabin Wildlife Reserve, some 40km from Lahad Datu.

“Each elephant eats only 40 to 50 palms, so it’s not a problem. The damage to crops by wildlife is accepted as part of our operation costs,” he says. He contends that it is not necessary for plantations to surrender portions of their property for the corridor, so long as it is planned and integrated into the overall land use. As such, he says conservation groups and SWD should consult plantation owners when planning placements of the corridors.

No killings

As poaching remains a threat to wildlife, colloquium participants stress the need for stricter enforcement. Towards this end, the SWD has initiated the Honorary Wildlife Warden programme, whereby local communities are trained to check on poaching and given the authority to arrest offenders.

Another contentious point at the colloquium is the proposal for “zero kill”. It was argued that “zero kill” cannot be achieved and what should be strived for is “zero tolerance” to wildlife killing. NGOs have urged plantation companies to adopt the policy and to self-regulate by penalising workers who violate the law, which prohibits killing, possession or disturbance of totally protected species and carries a mandatory jail sentence of between six months and five years.

“If there is zero tolerance in the company, if the workers know that they might lose their job if they’re caught doing something illegal, then it will reduce wildlife losses. You’d also need fewer rangers for patrols,” says Dr Ian Redmond, chairman of the Ape Alliance, a coalition of over 100 wildlife conservation groups.

MPOC’s Yusof, however, clarifies that various measures to protect wildlife are already part of oil palm certification requirements under the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). He says the industry cannot respond immediately to the zero tolerance policy and need to discuss it further to be sure that it can fulfil any new commitments. He says the industry has already met many demands from NGOs and is still grappling with compliance to RSPO requirements and numerous other sustainability rules. As such, a new commitment would burden it further.

Yusof asserts that the industry is already actively doing its part for wildlife conservation. The Malaysian Palm Oil Wildlife Conservation Fund (MPOWCF) was launched in 2006 with a RM10mil grant from the Federal Government and another RM10mil from the industry, to support environment conservation efforts. Yusof says the Fund welcomes donations and grants and will match third party funding on a 1:1 basis.

To date the Fund has contributed to various projects, including the Wildlife Rescue Centre in collaboration with SWD; jungle patrol unit in Tangkulap-Pinangah Forest Reserve in Sabah; inventory of orang utan population in Sabah; orang utan infant care unit in Bukit Merah, Perak; satellite tracking (for research on wildlife carried out by the Danau Girang Field Centre) and conservation of the Bornean banteng; Borneo Elephant Wildlife Sanctuary for rescued elephants.

“The MPOWCF has triggered greater interest and conservation efforts from the industry. We pledge to continue and upgrade these efforts, working closely with NGOs and conservation experts,” says Yusof.

Educating oil palm growers about conservation and biodiversity management is a priority too, and MPOC does this through courses and information on its website (

Meanwhile, an increasing number of oil palm growers are independently carrying out their own conservation and biodiversity programmes. For instance, at Sime Darby’s Tanah Merah Estate in Negri Sembilan, trees planted along a river form a forested pathway linking a hill in the middle of the estate with mangroves in the coast. The Sime Darby Foundation has to date, committed RM37.1mil to fund conservation projects in Sabah for the orang utan, rhinoceros, pygmy elephant and proboscis monkey.

Some plantations are working with the non-profit Wild Asia to train their workers on ways to conserve and enhance biodiversity in their estates. Environment consultant Dave Bakewell says plantation managers often have little knowledge on how to implement biodiversity management plans. To overcome this gap, his group conducts training on biodiversity issues and prepares posters and guidebooks, such as on migratory birds. Bakewell says plantation managers, when armed with the knowledge, can then draft effective management plans that provide a habitat for wildlife.

Wise land use

At the colloquium, wildlife scientists also stress the need to address issues of land use practices. “As we speak, more islands of forests are created, more areas are opened, and these are privately owned. These are not protected areas but they do have a lot of orang utans,” says Dr Ancrenaz, who has studied the primate in Sabah for over 10 years. “Orang utans living in pockets of forests within plantations will not survive (in the long term). Animals need diversity in their diet. They are going to die unless we create corridors and ropes to connect the pockets but if you look at the cost and the effort in creating one little bit of corridor, it is ridiculous. It is very expensive and requires enormous work. Translocation (of orang utans) is also expensive and you cannot move huge numbers as it is already full house in other forests.

“Rather than spending so much money and effort in creating corridors which we don’t even know will work, let’s plan ahead in a wiser way so that the situation does not worsen. Let’s not create more new islands of forests and make sure there is no more conversion in areas which are important for the orang utan. In future we need to plan how we open up land.”

Ecologist Dr Erik Meijaard shares her views, and points out that forest cover in South-East Asia declined by 11 million hectares – an area almost double the size of Sabah – between 2000 and 2010. Losses were especially high in peatswamp forest, which is of concern as exposed peat oxidises and releases carbon dioxide; so deforestation of peatswamps contributes significantly to global warming.

“All countries in their economic development go through the phase of exploiting natural resources,” says Meijaard of People and Nature Consulting International. “But this has to be stabilised. We need to maximise forest cover and forest connectivity, optimise land use in a multi-function landscape, and focus development of monoculture on degraded land, not on forest.”

Reducing land pressure

On the subject matter of wise land use, MPOC’s Yusof points out that the oil palm industry plays an important role in alleviating the need for further land expansion to meet global food demands. Oil palm occupies less than 5% of the global oil crops area and less than 1% of total agricultural land area in the world, yet it accounts for 27% of global oils and fats supply. Oil palm produces 11 times more oil than soyabean, 10 times for sunflower and seven times for rapeseed, for each hectare of planted area. Yusof says seven to 11 times more areas of land will be needed if other oil crops were to substitute Malaysian oil palm to meet future demand.

Yusof also points to the need for a new sustainability definition where countries should have a minimum of 33% of their land area set aside as permanent forest and 50% for agriculture to ensure a balanced forest conservation and agriculture development needs . This would also allow for developed countries to have more land dedicated to permanent forest while providing an opportunity for developing countries to develop land for agriculture yet maintaining 33% of the country’s land area as permanent forest. Eventually, this will generate more food as new agriculture areas can be developed to meet greater demand for food crops thereby addressing food security issues.

SWD’s Ambu says that besides the financial support such as that received from primarily the oil palm industry, greater understanding and co-operation between relevant stakeholders must be prioritized to solve issues faced by wildlife in Sabah.

“We also need commitment for a change of attitudes and practices on the ground for all the industries and groups that have an effect on wildlife conservation.”

A point raised at the colloquium is the lack of a shared platform for all relevant parties to plan and implement integrated land use management. “These discussions are held within silos but there is no effective integration. Good oil palm companies are calling for the development of such a forum, and they assume that once this integrated planning is happening, more companies will follow, leading to overall improved landscape-level management,” says Ambu.

This was pointed out from the onset by Plantation Industries and Commodities Minister Tan Sri Bernard Dompok when he opened the colloquium.

Describing the gathering as a step forward to better address and manage wildlife conservation issues through a multi-stakeholder approach, he said: “This is important, taking into account that any recommendations should be holistic in nature and aimed at balancing the needs of the people, economy and nature, which form the tenets of sustainability.”