Special Reports: Restoring connectivity for orangutans in the Kinabatangan landscape

In the Kinabatangan region, support of oil palm growers, like Sawit Kinabalu is key to secure safe passage of orang utans between forest fragments and throughout the protected and privately administered landscape. Our initial area of engagements is the lowlands of Kinabatangan River, an area where both oil palm plantations and orangutans exist.

Today, the wild orangutan population in this area is at a critically tipping point, and without the oil palm industry direct involvement, the long-term viability of this Critically Endangered and Fully Protected species in the wild is at risk.

Follow this link to download the published reports: special reports- restoring connectivity for orangutans in the Kinabatangan landscape

Our mission is to create a landscape that allows for co-existence between development and the needs for nature in Kinabatangan, Sabah. By working together, we aim to create a paradigm shift that reframes the oil palm industry as one that supports rather than destroys orangutan habitats.

These collaborative efforts are supported by PONGO Alliance partners: Sawit Kinabalu, and HUTAN-KOCP, with fundings from Yayasan Sime Darby and the Alliance for the Preservation of Forests.

Oil Palm and Orangutans: A Fresh Look and a New Idea

The April 2020 edition of The Planter magazine, the oldest and one of the most respected journals that deals with issues and developments in the palm oil industry, includes a feature article that poses the question: Can oil palm and orangutans be compatible? Though this question, on the face of it, may seem absurd, our paper presents a new example of how even the most logical of presumptions can be proven insufficient in light of new study. In the featured article entitled “Oil Palm and Orangutans: a fresh look and a new idea”, the executive director of PONGO Alliance, John Payne and the Alliance’s project director for Kinabatangan in Sabah, Felicity Oram, explain how oil palm growers now have an opportunity to play a  key role in conserving the very species that is often perceived as the first victim of their activities. 

Over the past year of work, in collaboration with visionary oil palm growers, In the Kinabatangan landscape,  the authors have found that damage done by wild orangutans to both mature palms and second planting is minimal and concerns, for the most part, are due to misperceptions about this great ape that generally does its best to avoid humans.

Based on this evidence, the PONGO Alliance vision is that, rather than continue the old habit of catching orangutans and translocating them elsewhere, it is better to support them where they have already adapted to survive. However, sustaining a viable orangutan population in a mosaic landscape of oil palm with forest patches requires full compliance with the law that prohibits harassment, retention of all natural forest patches within the commercial landscape, restoration of riparian zones and capacity building to facilitate co-existence. To halt the progressive decline in the regional population: (1) Migratory male orangutans require free passage through estates between forest fragments where resident females and dependent offspring live. (2) Resident orangutans must be retained where they have adapted to live, regardless if it is on protected or privately administered forested land. If these conditions are met, the population could stabilise and sustain itself in the long-term. Additional field work done by several PONGO Alliance partners shows that similar situations exist in various areas outside of Kinabatangan, both in Sabah and in the provinces of Kalimantan where orang-utans are still found. Based on these collective findings, PONGO Alliance is developing Best Management Practices and Standard Operating Procedures to inspire and engage partners throughout the industry.

PONGO Alliance also supports industry sustainability initiatives to restore habitat especially in highly degraded areas such as riparian zones and steeper slopes within estates. This is done by facilitating the use of plant species that are truly relevant to supporting orangutans and other forest wildlife. Additional field work done by several PONGO Alliance partners shows that similar situations exist in various areas outside of Kinabatangan, both in Sabah and in the provinces of Kalimantan where orang-utans are still found. Based on these collective findings, PONGO Alliance is developing Best Management Practices and Standard Operating Procedures to inspire and engage partners throughout the industry.

Follow this link to read the full published article: Oil Palm and Orangutans: A Fresh Look and a New Idea

PONGO Alliance welcomes feedback and new dialogue with the oil palm industry throughout the supply chain,

Current funders for ground engagement are Sime Darby Foundation, Unilever/WWF, and the Alliance for Preservation of Forests.

Oil palm growers in Alliance to Protect orangutans

Press release

PONGO Alliance: Oil Palm Growers and Conservation Practitioners Collaborate for Orangutan Conservation 

Yayasan Sime Darby has channelled RM1.2 million for the programme to create a paradigm shift in traditional agriculture and conservation practices 

KINABATANGAN, 23 June 2020 – An alliance of oil palm growers, businesses and conservation practitioners, called PONGO Alliance, is developing guidelines for best management practices (BMP) to support sustainable palm oil production that includes safe spaces for wild orangutans outside of protected areas. With a vision to make resilient landscapes for wildlife and people a reality, PONGO Alliance uses an evidence-based approach, that has found some orangutans not only survived large-scale habitat loss in the 1980s and 1990s but adapted to a landscape of forest patches and oil palm plantation.

PONGO Alliance Kinabatangan project director Dr Felicity Oram said that measures can be put in place to support co-existence of the surviving wild orangutan population where only ten percent of the half-million-hectare land area is forest. PONGO Alliance Kinabatangan project director Dr Felicity Oram said that measures can be put in place to support co-existence of the surviving wild orangutan population where only ten percent of the half-million-hectare land area is forest. “We need to better understand orangutan habitat needs in this altered landscape and work out how to facilitate human and orangutan co-existence in the long term. In practice, this means leaving wild orangutans wherever they are in the landscape and developing better ways to support the adaptions these animals have made thus far,” she added.

Under a two-year sponsorship agreement titled “Creation of a Human and Orangutan Coexistence Landscape in Kinabatangan”, Yayasan Sime Darby (YSD) has committed RM1.2million to enable the programme to conduct detailed information-gathering, engagement with various players, and develop best management practices. The sponsorship is in line with YSD Environment pillar’s focus area of protecting and preserving vulnerable and endangered species; as well as the education and awareness focus area as it involves building awareness within oil palm plantation communities, environmental NGO’s, government agencies, and international communities.

YSD chief executive officer Dr Hjh Yatela Zainal Abidin noted that research has shown that female orangutans live and raise their young in forest fragments surrounded by oil palms, while the males travel long distances through oil palm plantations between these patches. “This project aims to find out in more detail what is going on in Kinabatangan, to the level of individual orangutans,” she said.

“We hope that this effort will also assist growers and NGOs alike to view and manage oil palm forest landscapes in favour of human-orangutan coexistence; government agencies to develop a new policy on orangutan management; and the international community to understand that such coexistence is possible in mixed landscapes such as those comprising oil palm plantations and forests,” she added. 

Full partner companies involved in this paradigm shift that have holdings in the project engagement area include Sime Darby Plantation Berhad (SDP), which hosts the secretariat of PONGO Alliance; and Sabah based partner, Sawit Kinabalu, which has committed 3,757 hectares of its land area to conservation set-asides. SDP’s group managing director, Mohamad Helmy Othman Basha said the initiative by PONGO Alliance aligns with SDP’s ambition to achieve a deforestation-free palm oil industry and the Company looks forward to implementing the BMP at its estates. “We are cognisant of the need and importance of safeguarding the habitats of endangered species and not only will continue to work with like-minded organisations such as YSD and our partners in the PONGO Alliance but encourage other plantation companies to come on board to achieve this goal,” said Helmy. Helmy also noted that the project in collaboration with PONGO Alliance is a logical follow-on of YSD’s 10-year collaboration with Sabah Forestry Department on the ‘Reforestation and rehabilitation of orangutan habitat in Northern Ulu Segama (presently known as Bukit Piton Forest Reserve)’ project. He explained that the RM25 million project, in which SDP provided its technical expertise and assistance, improved orangutan habitat by planting 1,448,822 trees within the previously highly degraded Forest Reserve and contributed economic benefits to the local community in the surrounding area.

The PONGO Alliance is an alliance of oil palm growers, businesses and NGOs, who aim to make resilient landscapes for wildlife and people, by seeking ways to allow lands outside protected areas to play a role in conserving wildlife. Our partners: PT Austindo Nusantara Jaya, Musim Mas, Sime Darby Plantation Bhd, Wilmar International Limited, Aidenvironment, Borneo Futures, Borneo Rhino Alliance, HUTAN, Orangutan Land Trust, Copenhagen Zoo, Bunge Loders Croklaan, Alliance for Preservation of Forests, Aksenta, Bumitama Agri, Sawit Kinabalu, and South East Asia Rainforest Research Partnership.

Future Feasts for Orangutans

It is probably fair to say that the most important biological requirement of all animals is food. All other things being equal, the greater is the productivity of any wild animal species favourite foods in the place that it lives, then the more individuals of that species can live and thrive. Unfortunately, in oil palm plantations, the fruits attract rodents and wild pigs. Orangutans, on the other hand, do not much like oil palm fruits, although some will nibble on them occasionally. It turns out, from studies over the past few decades, that wild orangutans feed on a very wide range of plant species and plant parts, as well as insects. But consistently, the top two things in their diet are fruits of wild fig plants, and the leaves, shoots and fruits of woody lianas of the legume family.

Commonly known as fig in English, scientifically as Ficus, ara in Malay and Indonesian, and nunuk in Sabah, there are over 150 species in Borneo, including tall trees, small trees, stranglers, epiphytes and climbers. A fig “fruit” is actually an arrangement of many small flowers within a receptacle, known as a syconium, but for convenience, we call them fruit. Figs are “keystone”, meaning a genus of plants that has a disproportionately large effect on the functioning of its natural environment relative to its abundance.

The importance of figs lies in the facts that orangutans and many other mammal and bird species relish them, and that in any one area at any one time, there are almost always fig plants bearing fruits.  Figs are “keystone”, meaning a genus of plants that has a disproportionately large effect on the functioning of its natural environment relative to its abundance. The importance of figs lies in the facts that orangutans and many other mammal and bird species relish them, and that in any one area at any one time, there are almost always fig plants bearing fruits. 

PONGO Alliance’s NGO partner, Borneo Rhino Alliance (BORA) has started planting a selection of fig species in 2012, in Tabin Wildlife Reserve, Sabah, as a means to supply leaves to critically endangered Bornean rhinos, which favour several species of fig leaves as food. At that time, it was imagined that there would be several rhinos living in the Borneo Rhino Sanctuary facilities in Tabin Wildlife Reserve. Sadly, that was not to be. Instead, BORA re-formulated the former rhino food garden as a unique resource where living fig plants of over 70 species now form a source of planting materials to support PONGO Alliance’s enrichment planting program.

Starting in 2018, BORA, as a PONGO Alliance partner, has been producing fig planting materials for oil palm plantations, to be planted and grown on selected sites within plantations in the Kinabatangan landscape. In 2019, Quentin Phillipps, creator of The Figs of Borneo blog (https://borneoficus.info) provided funding to upgrade the site as a nursery. In February 2020, the Sabah Forestry Department gave official recognition to this resource, as the “Sabah Ficus Germplasm Centre”. So now there is a combined arboretum, genetic resource bank and nursery specialising in figs. 

PONGO Alliance provides restoration techniques and specific recommendations for enrichment of set-asides that support growth for plants that are useful to both wildlife and people.

Interview with BBC’s CrowdScience

Listen to the sharing from PONGO Alliance – Kinabatangan Project Director, Dr Felicity Oram about on-going collaborative solutions to create a paradigm shift in agricultural practice in order to build resilient landscapes for orangutans.

To listen to the interview, click on the image below.