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63,700 ha of Borneo rainforest gains protection in Sabah

Protected forest in Sabah. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

The Sabah Forestry Department has reclassified 63,700 hectares of rainforest zoned for logging as protected areas.

The reclassification applies to four commercial forest reserves: Malua (33,969 hectares), Mt. Magdalena (6,665 ha), Tambulanan (3,265 ha) and Sungai Tiagau (19,870 ha). It will increase contiguity between the Maliau Basin, Imbak Canyon and Danum Valley conservation areas within the Yayasan Sabah concession area, a million hectare estate that is managed by the Sabah Forestry Department.

The move comes as part of the department’s effort to set aside large areas of intact and selectively logged forests for strict conservation. The region has the highest biodiversity on the island of Borneo and includes key habitat for endangered orangutans, Bornean clouded leopards, Sumatran rhinos, and pygmy elephants.

The reclassification also comes shortly after at least 14 elephants were poisoned within the Yayasan concession area. Commercial hunters employed by the plantation sector are leading suspects in the case, which remains unresolved.

Forest classification map of Sabah, Malaysia, 1990 and 2010.
Map showing Sabah’s forest classification in 1990 and 2010. From Reynolds el al (2011) published in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B.

Local conservationists welcomed the decision.

“The elephant poisoning tragedy earlier this year was a rallying call, and we in the NGO community are ramping up our efforts and collaborating with government,” said Cynthia Ong, the Executive Director of Land Empowerment Animals People (LEAP), in a statement. “It is of particular importance that the private sector plays its part.”

“We wish to remind Forest Management Unit (FMU) license holders, and both oil palm and timber plantation companies at the borders of the newly upgraded areas of their accountability. Every effort must be made to ensure there is no encroachment into these forest reserves by poachers and others who may have their own motives.”

Beyond setting aside new conservation areas, the Sabah Forestry Department is also pushing concession holders toward less damaging forest management practices, including selective harvesting of secondary forests under standards set by the Forestry Stewardship Council (FSC). Destructive logging practices in the past is a large reason why revenue from timber within the Yayasan Sabah area are in decline. Declining timber revenue has lately created intense political pressure to re-gazette some of the forest estate for oil palm plantations, which environmentalists say could be a disaster for resident wildlife. Sabah already has a larger area of oil palm plantations than protected forests.

“We are in a critical region, at a critical time,” said Ong. “Political courage and leadership from government is essential. Such courage and leadership from all sectors – civil society, industry and communities, is equally important for us to make shifts to tip the balance towards deep sustainability for all.”

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