Site icon Conservation news

Sarawak pledges to protect its last remaining orangutans

  • Bornean orangutans have declined more than 50 percent over the last 60 years, primarily due to deforestation.
  • In a video statement released last month, Adenan Satem, Chief Minister of the Malaysian state of Sarawak, announced that protection of Sarawak’s tropical forests and the orangutans that inhabit them will be prioritized
  • Satem’s administration has put its money where its mouth is on prior conservation pledges, raiding 240 timber camps between January and July 2015.

Bornean orangutans (Pongo pygmaeus) have declined more than 50 percent over the last 60 years, primarily due to deforestation. Of those that remain, most live outside of protected areas. But the tide may be changing for the island’s only apes in one portion of their range. In a video statement released last month, Adenan Satem, Chief Minister of the Malaysian state of Sarawak, announced that protection of Sarawak’s tropical forests and the orangutans that inhabit them will be prioritized.

“I am very concerned about the state of Orangutans and other mammals in Borneo,” Satem said in the statement. “… I am a naturalist by inclination, and I have made some concrete decisions with regard to our natural resources, especially with regard to our fauna.”

Satem announced that his government would not allow the establishment of new agricultural plantations, palm plantations in particular. This would be done to protect existing forested areas, Satem said in the video.

The Bornean orangutan (Pongo pygmaeus) is one of two orangutan species. The other is the Sumatran orangutan (Pongo abelii). Photo of a Bornean orangutan in Kalimantan by Rhett A. Butler.

He also declared that his government has stopped issuing new licenses for timber logging, and some licenses that are due to expire will not be renewed. Moreover, the Chief Minister pledged to protect orangutan habitats, and totally prohibit any commercial dealing in the great apes.

“The message by the Chief Minister is powerful and sends a clear message that orangutans and other wildlife are a priority in Sarawak,” Melvin Gumal, Director of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) Malaysia Program said in a press release. “This statement gives conservation much hope especially at a time when a lot of wildlife across the region face doom and gloom as forests are cleared in a wanton, needless, and greedy manner.”

Satem became Sarwak’s Chief Minister in 2014. This was after former Chief Minister Abdul Taib Mahmud resigned from his post after 33 years of governance. Taib and his family have been accused of allegedly plundering Sarawak’s tropical forests for personal gain.

After coming to power in 2014, Satem declared that his government would not tolerate illegal logging. He announced that the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Agency would probe the Sarawak timber industry and place a check on illegal logging.

Between January and July 2015, Sarawak’s Forest Department raided 240 timber camps and companies, and confiscated about 12,000 cubic meters of timber believed to have illegal origins.

In his video statement, the Chief Minister also welcomed foreign researchers and naturalists into Sarawak to carry out research in the state’s national parks and tropical forests to conserve orangutans and other fauna.

Under former Chief Minister Taib’s administration, researchers who had a track record of portraying the negative side of the state were not welcome, Gumal told mongabay.com.

“The Adenan Satem administration is much more critical of their actions and do not attempt to hide behind their mistakes,” he added. “This greater transparency is helping the state agencies as it means researchers are much more willing to engage.”

WCS Malaysia has signed two agreements with the Sarawak government to aid conservation and research efforts in the state.

The first agreement is with the Forest Department of Sarawak, Gumal said. “It includes continued research and conservation of orangutans and their habitats, as well as capacity building and conservation education.”

WCS Malaysia has signed the second agreement with Sarawak Forestry Corporation.

“This [agreement] is about collaboration in research, education and conservation projects to promote knowledge and management of flora and fauna of Sarawak. This second agreement has a greater research slant and is not focused on orangutans specifically,” Gumal explained.

Orangutans in Sarawak

Sarawak’s rainforests are host to the rarest subspecies of Bornean orangutans called the northwest Bornean orangutan (Pongo pygmaeus pygmaeus). These apes have undergone a sharp decline over the past few decades, largely due to rampant logging and conversion of their habitat to oil palm plantations.

“Currently, there are an estimated 1,800-2,500 animals in the state at locations that have been surveyed,” Gumal said. “The range of these orangutans in Sarawak has shrunk greatly during the past 60 years.”

For instance, between 2001 and 2013, 16 percent of Sarawak’s tree cover – nearly two million hectares – showed human impact from deforestation or plantation harvesting, according to Global Forest Watch. At least 50,000 hectares of primary forest was lost during this period.

Sarawak’s tree cover loss is focussed near its coast and consists of both deforestation and tree cover harvesting. Intact forest landscapes (IFLs) are areas of undisturbed primary forest large enough to retain their original levels of biodiversity. Of Sarawak’s few remaining IFLs, 50,000 hectares were lost between 2001 and 2013. The state’s largest non-degraded IFL is protected by Lanjak-Entimau Wildlife Sanctuary and Batang Ai National Park and is home to most of Sarawak’s orangutans.

Almost 90 percent of Sarawak’s orangutans are now almost entirely restricted to the Lanjak-Entimau Wildlife Sanctuary and Batang Ai National Park areas. Some parts of Sedilu and Sebuyau National Park areas host these orangutans too, according to Gumal.

“The status of orangutans in the Lanjak-Entimau/Batang Ai area looks relatively healthy,” Gumal said.

In fact, according to WCS, the Lanjak-Entimau/Batang Ai area, together with the Betung Kerihun National Park located in West Kalimantan in Indonesia, form the largest protected area complex where Bornean orangutans are found. These protected forests are also home to Bornean gibbons, white-fronted langurs, long-tailed and pig-tailed macaques, bearded pigs, clouded leopards, and other rare and threatened species.

“There is also anecdotal information of more animals outside this current knowledge of sites, and if these other smaller patches of orangutans are confirmed, we could see greater numbers,” Gumal said.

In 2013, the Sarawak Forest Department, assisted by Sarawak Forestry Corporation, Wildlife Conservation Society and Borneo Adventure, discovered an additional population of about 200 orangutans in Ulu Sungai Menyang, close to Batang Ai National Park.

“WCS together with both the Forest Department Sarawak and Sarawak Forestry Corporation will survey sites which have had anecdotal information of orangutans to confirm their presence,” Gumal said. “If orangutans are indeed found there, a lot of work is needed to encourage local communities into protecting the site.”

A number of challenges need to be overcome to ensure successful and sustainable conservation of orangutans in the Bornean state. These include increasing number of staff, increasing their commitment and passion, as well as their level of competence in biodiversity conservation, Gumal said.

“While this is something that has been floating in the thoughts of NGOs for several years, it is refreshing to hear it from the Chief Minister himself that the staffing, passion and competence has to increase,” he added.

But all in all, Gumal and WCS Malaysia are optimistic about protection of rainforests and orangutans in Sarawak in the near future.

“[Malaysia] is the only country in the world that has said that it will give priority on orangutans over logging and oil palm,” Gumal said.

“With the change in the Chief Minister, [we have] seen greater priority given to conservation, and this is definitely trickling into the government agencies especially in the Forestry and enforcement sector,” he added. “Hundreds of illegal logging cases are awaiting to be charged in court and over two hundred bank accounts of logging companies have been frozen. I think conservation is having a clear window of opportunity and it is something that should be pursued with great vigor.”