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Published on 15/07/2012 in Category: News

Borneo: The creation of a new wildlife corridor for orang utans, Sabah rhinos and other threatened species has started

To contribute to the fight against species loss in the rainforests of South-East Asia, the Rhino and Forest Fund (RFF) in collaboration with the Sabah Wildlife Department and the Sabah Forestry Department has started to reconnect several important conservation areas in Sabah in May 2012.

RFF project site at Tabin River

RFF project site at Tabin River

The lowland rainforests of Borneo belong to some of the most biodiverse areas on the planet. Predominately during the last three decades most of the forests of this island have been destroyed, due to the growing demand of the industrialized countries for tropical timber, paper, palm oil and "biofuels". What is left looks like a patchwork of fragmented forest remnants in the midst of endless oil palm plantations. To prevent the following loss of species at the last minute, it is necessary to create a network of reconnected conservation areas.

The Tabin Wildlife Reserve in the Malaysian state of Sabah, which is currently surrounded by huge oil palm plantations, is therefore supposed to grow together with adjacent conservation areas during the next years to allow threatened species to migrate between the remaining forest patches. The new wildlife corridor shall lead to the creation of  a continuous forest area of more than 200,000 ha. That's more than twice the surface of Berlin.

The importance of the project area:

The  Tabin Wildlife Reserve is one of the last places in Borneo where you can still find most of the original big wildlife at one spot. This includes the Borneo rhino (also called 'Sabah rhino'), Borneo pygmy elephant, orang utan, banteng (a rare wild ox) and sun bear. At the moment Tabin is in fact completely isolated by large oil palm plantations and therefore separated  from other forest areas.
In order to save threatened species suffering from habitat fragmentation from extinction, RFF aims to contribute to a network of protected areas of a sufficient size and quality. This is necessary to allow genetic exchange between currently isolated sub populations of threatened species, and will significantly help to maintain healthy populations. Restoration of certain forest areas that have been badly degraded by logging activities, and the reconnection of Tabin with other conservation areas, is crucial for the long-term survival of many endangered species in Sabah.

Dr. Petra Kretzschmar from the Institute for Zoo and  Wildlife Research of Berlin and RFF conservation specialist gives an example:

"The biggest problem for the less than fifty surviving Sabah rhinos is that the single individuals thrive in fragmented forest patches making natural encounters and mating among Sabah rhinos quite unlikely. The establishment of wildlife corridors combined with the running rhino breeding programme gives hope for the last Sabah rhinos to come back from the brink of extinction. Reforested wildlife corridors combined with the running rhino breeding programme could significantly enhance the likelihood of a long-term survival of the threatened Sabah rhinos. Of course all the other species like orang utan or proboscis monkey that are currently trapped in isolated forest patches and threatened by inbreeding depressions and undernourishment would benefit as well from the new corridors."

The history of RFF's forest restoration activities

The RFF, founded in 2009, has started its first forest restoration project in March 2011 in collaboration with the Sabah Forestry Department.

The project site consists of a piece of heavily degraded lowland rainforest inside the Tabin Wildlife Reserve, that has been badly logged during the eighties and couldn't recover until today.

A precondition for RFF's involvement in Sabah was the promise of the local government that the restored areas and Tabin won't be logged again in the future or converted to any other land use. This was underlined in two agreements between the state government of Sabah and the RFF in 2010 and 2012.

The aims of the forest restoration programme are:

  • to reconnect crucial forest areas with wildlife corridors
  • to restore the original ecosystem in degraded forest areas
  • to maximise species diversity by planting indigenous tree species
  • to enhance the carrying capacity for endangered wildlife by planting fruit trees for a bigger food supply
  • to raise awareness for the importance of the project area
  • to include local communities creating alternative income projects

How does the reforestation work?

We plant the original tree species that mostly disappeared due to logging activities during the last decades. During the next twenty to thirty years the seedlings are supposed to rebuild a closed canopy for a new forest. That's how the former ecosystem with its unique climate can be restored. Additionally we plant indigenous fruit trees to ensure a better food supply. This allows a higher number of animals to survive on the same surface and significantly improves the likelihood of endangered populations to survive.

In order to plant new trees we start with cutting gaps into the secondary vegetation to deliberate the overgrown forest floor. Then we plant seedlings in the gaps, which will be liberated from competing vegetation for several years. After three to five years the trees are tall enough to succeed in the struggle for sunlight and the process of restoration will continue without further human help.

Priority on diversity

For the selection of the used seedlings the RFF  ensures a high level of diversity.  We currently plant more than 50 tree species. But the seedling stock is not just species rich, we also emphasize the intra specific diversity. Therefore the RFF seeks to get seedlings of the same species descending from different mother trees of different areas. So we organize seedlings from over 10 different sources to assure genetic diversity as well.

"Our approach is to plant a wildlife corridor with many different local canopy and fruit trees that occur in natural forest. Although this may sound obvious, the concept of planting trees in high diversities is not practiced in most reforestation projects. For our project in Tabin and the surrounding area, we use a seedling stock that is high in species and genetic diversity to accelerate the regeneration of the original ecosystem," Dr. Philippe Saner, University of Zurich and RFF's reforestation expert.

Funding and development of the programme

The initial funding for the two first project sites comes from Leipzig Zoo and from private donors from Germany and Switzerland. The project sites will be extended according to available funding in the future.

The RFF plans to launch further projects in 2013.

The last Sabah Rhinos

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Forest Restoration in Sabah, Borneo

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