Bringing Borneo back

By Chris Bray 10 December 2014
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Despite continued logging and smothering palm oil plantations, a small group of dedicated people are fighting to save Borneo’s wildlife

Tread carefully…” Dr Zainal warns me, “Don’t snap any sticks – that’ll freak her out.” I edge closer across the steaming jungle floor, my heart racing. I can hear her powerful breathing, as she scents the air.

“Ahh, she smells you. Keep behind the tree… here she comes!” Her name is Puntong, and when she was brought out of the forest on Christmas Day, 2011 after 20 months of tracking, she was alone – believed to be the very last Bornean Rhinoceros wandering the vast Tabin Reserve – 1225sq km – the biggest wildlife reserve in the whole of Malaysia.

Puntong’s left forefoot is missing below the ankle, evidence of a horrific escape from a poacher’s snare, and in the sole of her right is a golf ball-sized wound. With a limping lurch she heaves herself towards me, and at once I am flooded with a feeling of pity. Is this what’s become of the world’s smallest rhino species – one of the rarest animals on the planet?

It is a poignant finale to almost four weeks of travelling around the state of Sabah with the Borneo Conservation Trust on a mission to find and photograph the island’s disappearing species, and document the efforts undertaken to save them.

The three countries of Borneo

At 7.4 million hectares, the tropical island of Borneo is the world’s third largest island, contains the oldest rainforests in the world, and is divided between three countries.

Indonesia owns the significant lower portion, called Kalimantan,  and the tiny sovereign state of Brunei is perched upon the northern coast, almost sandwiched between the two Malaysian states of Sarawak in the west, and the wildlife hub of Sabah to the east.

It is to Sabah that I have travelled in what I anticipated would be a ‘last chance to see’ assignment, dodging trees as logging companies felled them, and staggering through an endless oil palm plantation that would expand to engulf me overnight. However, “It’s not like that anymore in Sabah,” explains Raymond Alfred, former senior manager of WWF-Malaysia’s Borneo Species Program, and now head of Conservation and Research at Borneo Conservation Trust (BCT).

“Here, the expansion of the oil palm and logging has slowed right down – if not stopped. The biggest problem facing the wildlife of Sabah today is the isolation of the remaining populations due to their fragmented habitat.”

The unfortunate reality is that any species that falls below a certain population threshold is likely to become extinct, simply due to lack of genetic diversity alone.

Even a healthy sized population that’s split into too many small pockets is doomed. In Borneo, the situation is dire – the populations of several key endangered species such as the pygmy elephant and Bornean orangutan and rhinoceros have been decimated by logging, plantations and forest fires – and those surviving few are now marooned inside separate forest reserves, in unsustainably small populations.

Even within the one sanctuary, such as the 270sq km Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary, animals find themselves separated by countless discontinuities where oil palm plantations encroach right down to the riverbanks with their electric fence boundaries.

Ecological corridors of Borneo

“The only way they can be saved,” Raymond said, “is to enhance the ecosystem’s ecological corridors, linking them all back up again.” Raymond has dedicated 12 years to mapping the spatial distribution of these three key species in northern Borneo’s rainforests, using satellite tracking collars, aerial surveys, camera traps and other methods.

Under Raymond’s guidance, BCT has created a map detailing corridors that need to be re-established to allow an ecosystem of species to intermingle and sustainably breed once more.

It is no simple task. Doggedly raising funds mainly through public donations and buying back one crucial slither of land at a time from plantation companies, then painstakingly re-planting a line of especially fast-growing, flood-resistant, orangutan fruit-bearing trees, BCT has already spent a total of RM 3 million (US$1 million) stitching together parts of the Kinabatangan Sanctuary.

Excitingly, it is already paying dividends. BCT’s Richard Sanggul proudly showed me the proof – there, sunk into the muddy ground beside a row of trees that he himself planted with the local communities, were the unmistakable plate-sized footprints of elephant following the newly opened corridor. “See?” he grinned broadly, “It’s working!”

Looking for pygmy elephants in the Borneo jungle

Eager to photograph these elephants, we spent days searching the surrounding river systems. Hornbills honked overhead, while stunning red and black squirrels darted up trees draped with vines, snakes, and proboscis and macaque monkeys.

We passed beneath several webbing orangutan bridges, also established with the help of BCT, and sometimes caught a whiff of the unmistakably pungent, musty smell of a nearby elephant – but couldn’t see anything through the dense jungle.

It wasn’t until I snuck ashore and set up my motion-sensitive camera-trap beside some fresh tracks that I turned to see a huge grey hulk lumbering right towards me, closely followed by nine others. ‘Pygmy’ they may be, but small they certainly are not.

Standing up to 2.5m tall, the Borneo pygmy elephant is a recognised subspecies of the Asian elephant, with an estimated remaining population of around 2000 mostly in Sabah, and only about 20-30 in northeastern Kalimantan.

Not only is their habitat under threat but unfortunately they enjoy wandering into oil palm plantations to browse on the buttery palm fruits, which terrifies the workers and upsets productivity.

As a result, many are killed. The Asian elephant population as a whole is considered endangered by the global IUCN Red List (

Sabah’s conundrum

Further up the river I was introduced to Dr Benoit Goossens, founding director of the Danau Girang Field Centre (DGFC – a collaborative research and training facility managed by Cardiff University and Sabah Wildlife Department) and advisor to the Sabah Wildlife Department. “We have to try and keep things in perspective,” he cautioned.

“We must understand that Malaysia is a developing country, and it needs money to develop. Palm oil is Malaysia’s main export and without it the government wouldn’t have any money to spend on its people, let alone protecting its wildlife.”

It was impossible not to be inspired during my days at the field centre, surrounded by such passionate students devoting years of their lives to understanding the myriad different facets affecting Sabah’s wildlife.

One night found me sloshing through boot-deep mud, flicking off leeches and ducking thorny, snake-wrapped branches as I followed two such students, Alice and Priscillia, as we painstakingly honed in on their tiny, radio-collared research subjects. It was close to midnight when the ‘ping-ping-ping’ of their directional antenna reached a crescendo and two huge, glowing eyes reflected the beam of our headlamps.

First-up, a tarsier – a tiny gremlin-like nocturnal primate. Just as I framed the shot of it messily devouring a huge stick insect, the tarsier suddenly leapt horizontally across onto a neighboring tree, then another and another. As silent and swift as a ninja, it slipped away into the night.

The illegal poaching trade

Two leeches later we located our second objective, a Bornean slow loris – another nocturnal primate with a face so cute it’d melt anyone’s heart. Unfortunately for this adorable species, this has only hastened its demise. Not only has habitat loss likely reduced total population by more than 30 per cent over the last 20-25 years, but many are also harvested for the pet trade.

They are pitifully easy to capture and, worse, it is still believed in traditional Chinese medicine that the tears from a loris act as a powerful love potion. “And guess how they collect the tears?” Alice whispered to me. “They hold them over a fire.” How romantic.

“Yes, illegal hunting and trade of protected species is a serious threat here in Sabah,” acknowledged Mohd Soffian Abu Bakar, District Wildlife Officer for the extensive Lahad Datu region. Ducking into a back room he emerged with a homemade yet horrifyingly lethal spear gun made simply from wood and hundreds of interwoven rubber bands,

“Used for small mammals like mouse-deer, civets, porcupines…” he grunted, handing me a nylon sack, “These are pangolin scales.” The worldwide population of the endangered Sunda pangolin (a scaly anteater) is estimated to have halved during the last 15 years due to extreme levels of illegal hunting.

Once captured, the pangolins are boiled and their scales pulled off. Although made simply of keratin like your fingernails, they apparently contain the power to treat an unusually wide variety of ailments despite, of course, a lack of scientific evidence.

Next he placed on the table the confiscated skull and horns of a banteng – an endangered species of wild cattle – and a stockpile of other animal parts. “We do random road blocks and searches,” he continued, “and the penalties are severe – fines up to US$17,000 together with mandatory imprisonment for some species – but the problem is that access is just too easy and, try as we do, we just don’t have the manpower to control it properly.”

Borneo’s sun bear

The sun bear – the world’s smallest bear – is another heavily persecuted species, and again a unique subspecies is found here in Borneo. I was privileged enough to visit the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre (BSBCC) in Sepilok, where founder Siew Te Wong explained just how precarious the species’ future is.

“Here at the centre we have 25 rescued bears, mostly free to roam our adjoining jungle reserve during the day,” he said, pausing as particularly vocal young bear stood and reached one paw through the bars to gently clasp Wong’s hand, while sucking adorably on the other like a child.

“This is Fulung – he’s 18-months old and was being kept as a pet.” Even now, the residual human-bond was moving to witness. “Yes, they are cute when they are small,” Wong said, nodding, “but when they grow up, they are impossible to handle. They are wild animals. They are bears.”

As their habitat has collapsed, sun bears stray into plantations in search of food, where frightened local workers and opportunistic wild-boar hunters shoot them with little repercussion. The bear may then be eaten, and any orphaned cubs are either sold into the illegal pet trade, or to China and Vietnam, where many live out their days cramped in a tiny cage with a metal catheter inserted into their gall bladder, constantly draining them of bile for use in traditional medicine.

BSBCC is working towards a release strategy for its rehabilitated bears, and is currently building a public viewing platform over its main foraging area. This is partly an attempt to raise awareness but also to raise funds to build a second bear house to look after the increasing number of new arrivals.

Orangutans: Borneo’s darlings

Across the road, the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre is also feeling the pressure; there are now more than 50 orphaned orangutans swinging through the trees in the centre’s 43sq km of forest. While undeniably a winner for tourists who flock to the supplementary feeding platforms twice a day, the reality is that it’s overcrowded, with thousands of other orangutans in rehab centres across Indonesia and Malaysia.

More need to be reintroduced into the wild to supplement the species’ dwindling population. Many have already been released but no one really knows what happens to them after the handlers drive away.

“Post-release monitoring,” began James Robins from Orangutan Appeal UK, director of the Tabin Orangutan Project (TOP) inside the Tabin Wildlife Reserve.

“Very few people have done it before, so I’m trying to create a blueprint for how to best reintroduce and manage rehabilitant orangutans in the wild – you know, what release site is best based on what foods they eat and their ranging habits; at what age they should be released; what promotes learning and post release independence; how long we need to follow them for; and what kind of social interactions they have with each other and any other resident wildlife.” 

Ex-captive orangutans

There’s a misconception that once an animal has been ‘rehabilitated’ in a centre then the job is done, but that is far from the reality on the ground.

“Reintroducing any ex-captive animal – but particularly an orangutan – back into its natural habitat is a massive challenge for that individual to overcome,” James explained. “They learn a huge amount of information from their mothers in the wild, which humans and rehab facilities can never replicate. In 2011 we had two individuals die almost a year into their reintroductions, which to me really highlighted the need for all active reintroduction projects to adopt thorough, long term monitoring programmes to get to the truth about the viability of reintroduction as an effective conservation strategy.”

Early every morning James and his team fan out into the jungle to locate  their subjects, brought to Tabin from the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, using tiny surgically implanted VHF transmitters – with large necks and small heads it is likely that orangutans would simply escape radio collars.

The researchers then stick with their orangutan from dawn til dusk, noting its feeding habits and behaviour every five minutes, collecting fallen faeces for parasitology analysis, and assessing the animal’s overall wellbeing. I went with them to locate a female aptly called Hope.

“The hardest thing is sometimes just maintaining contact and getting a good view of the orangutan when they can be so high in the canopy,” James panted, “not only is the ground slippery, muddy and steep – and tangled with vines and other plants – but each day they can move further and further away, meaning we have to get up earlier and earlier to find them before they’ve moved again. Oh, and if you see an elephant,” James added, “get yourself behind the biggest tree you can find.”

“And then?” I enquired. “Dodge.” It would have been humorous had not an Australian vet student been gored to death by an elephant in this very same patch of forest just five months earlier.

It’s estimated there may be 11,000 endangered Bornean orangutans marooned inside separate pockets of forest in Sabah, and I visited one of the key project areas, located inside the KTS Plantation Segaliud Lokan Forest Reserve.

Logging reforms in Borneo

Here, a static 57,000ha of re-growth forest is divided into four zones: Research and Protected zones are logging-free, Nature Forest Management zones can be logged subject to strict guidelines, and Industry Tree Planting (ITP) zones are selectively logged, re-planted and logged again – on average every 20 years.

“We are the first company to follow the new Reduced Impact Logging guidelines,” KTS official, Mr Kelvins told me proudly. “Other companies are now starting to follow our lead.”

It’s a positive step, and the number of conspicuous orangutan sleeping ‘nests’ that we passed (even within the recycled ITP zones) was reassuring, but further reforms are still needed. For example, after an ITP compartment is selectively logged, the region is still completely destroyed before replanting begins, as this allows new seedlings to grow quickly in unobstructed sunlight.

“The orangutans and elephants are quick enough to escape,” Raymond reassured me, “but many of the smaller animals are not.” In the end however, it doesn’t matter how internally sustainable the practice is, because KTS is itself still largely just an isolated habitat surrounded by oil palm barren lands.

“So here too,” Raymond pointed to a line of bright ribbons adorning a pathway of newly planted trees, “we are working hard to establish corridors – both within KTS, and linking it to neighboring logging habitats, and in turn to reserves like the Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary.”

Depressingly, in the Kinabatangan region alone, BCT’s land acquisitions to date represent only 0.3 per cent of the corridor land needed – to buy it all, they’d need to raise RM120 million (US$40 million) – and that’s only to stitch back together the land inside the sanctuary itself.

Donations and volunteers in Sabah

There must be a better way, and I posed the question to Augustine Tuuga, the deputy director for the Sabah Wildlife Department.

“Yes, I do agree,” he said, “and there is actually provision in our land legislation that sets aside a 50m riparian reserve (corridor) along our riverbanks. Unfortunately, this requirement was not adhered to by several of the plantations. Now that the government is aware of these breeches, the Land and Survey Department is working to reestablish these riparian reserves, and are actually forcing the plantations themselves to undertake reforestation within 50m of rivers.”

Encouragingly, this process has already begun, and considering it takes time for corridors to grow into a viable forest, Raymond from BCT has come up with an ingenious interim funding solution: “Rather than have them cut down the palms, in the meantime while the new trees grow, we’ll let them continue to harvest as normal, but all the profits they derive from this land must be given towards further corridor purchases and environmental management.”

Rules and regulations are all well and good but the other problem is lack of enforcement on the ground. There are only about 200 department staff – including rangers – for the whole of Sabah. “You are right,” Mr Tuuga admitted, “and to improve this quickly, we have recently implemented a policy granting Honorary Wildlife Warden status to over 600 NGO workers and other passionate people in the field.”

They have the same legal power as rangers to arrest suspected poachers.
The practice of clearing before logging replanting is being phased out by the Sabah government, and harvesting of swiftlet nests – for traditional Chinese medicine – is now strictly controlled and sustainably managed.

“Each year the Sabah government collects almost RM 20 million from the harvesting company,” Mr Tuuga said, “which goes into the government’s consolidated funds.” The WWF has labelled it ‘The best managed edible birds nest cave in the world’. “Even this needs reform though,” said Raymond, “The millions raised really ought to go directly back into wildlife, not the government’s general fund. Only about one per cent is spent back on wildlife.”

Corruption in Indonesia

The positive transformations in Sabah are not mirrored in the other Bornean-Malaysian state of Sarawak, and even less so in the Indonesian Kalimantan. Half the annual global tropical timber acquisition still comes from Borneo, and outside of Sabah, an estimated 300 football fields of primary Bornean forest is still being torn down every hour for timber, with the resultant wasteland converted to oil palm plantations.

This is largely due to corruption, where the governments are still being bought by the logging and palm oil companies, but also because of a lack of public awareness, both local and international.

“I think people are more aware in Sabah,” DGFC’s Dr Goossens explained. “We have more NGOs, and the wildlife is also more concentrated here… I genuinely believe that in 20 years we will still have orangutans, proboscis monkeys, pygmy elephants, sun bears, hopefully even rhinos, partly because the more people learn about the richness of our environment… the more they care, but also because wildlife drives tourism.”

Tourism has now overtaken logging as Sabah’s second largest export behind palm oil, and is steadily growing, along with awareness.

Breeding programs in Sabah

I spent my final days inside the Tabin Wildlife Reserve with BORA – the Bornean Rhino Alliance – photographing an animal that may not exist for much longer.

With the estimated total population of Bornean rhinoceroses being under 30, and no evidence of any living outside Sabah, “Its future is bleak, very bleak…” BORA’s vet and field manager Dr Zainal admitted as we both crouched beside the rhino Puntong, who calmly lay down on her side under the doctor’s soothing touch as he examined her.

“But with her capture, it is looking a little brighter.” Before Puntong was brought into the breeding program, all BORA had was one male called Tam Tam, and one elderly, blind, menopausal female that they had rescued from a zoo.

The Bornean rhino used to be considered a unique subspecies of the Sumatran rhino, itself one of the world’s rarest and most critically endangered animals. It’s the only species of rhino in decline, due to habitat loss and poaching for its horn.

Being classified as separate sealed the fate of the few remaining Bornean rhinos as an unsustainable population. However, in February 2012, a new study concluded that Bornean rhinos are not different enough to warrant subspecies status – a decision that allows BORA to work with other Sumatran Rhino programs, including one zoo in the USA that has succeeded in breeding three new babies.

With less than 200 Sumatran rhinos left worldwide, its future is still grim, but perhaps now not impossible to save. Even Sime Darby – one of Sabah’s largest oil palm companies – is helping out, having provided over RM 20 million to key NGOs including BORA, possibly in an attempt to clear it’s name of past malpractice, but whatever the reason, such funding is greatly welcomed.

“Soon we’ll introduce Puntong to Tam Tam in our new breeding enclosure and cross our fingers,” Dr Zainal said, “and there’s a German team from the Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research that’s developing her a prosthetic leg.”

His infectious grin split his face as he continued, “Saving our rhinos is like the Wright brothers… like the idea of metal up in the sky, flying… no one thought they could do it, but they did it.”

As with the rest of Borneo’s threatened species, it comes down to increased public awareness, subsequent government willingness and, ultimately, a handful of dedicated people on the ground, doggedly piecing back together a future, one animal and tree at a time.