Mongabay Series: Global Forests

Christmas gift to the planet: massive rainforest reserve created in Borneo

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Christmas gift to the planet: massive rainforest reserve created in Borneo
  • The Malaysian state of Sabah has established a 68,000-hectare rainforest reserve that houses orangutans, elephants, and clouded leopards, among countless other species.
  • The decision was announced today by the Rainforest Trust, an NGO that raised money to support the designation of a logging concession as a Class I Forest Reserve.
  • Although the area was heavily exploited for timber, Kuamut Forest Reserve nonetheless serves as critical habitat for wildlife and connects two world-renowned protected areas — Maliau and Danum Valley — providing a vital corridor in a landscape that has been widely cleared for oil palm plantations.

Christmas has come early for some of the planet’s most endangered animals: the Malaysian state of Sabah has established a 68,000-hectare rainforest reserve that houses orangutans, elephants, and clouded leopards, among countless other species.

The decision was announced today by the Rainforest Trust, an NGO that raised money to support the designation of a logging concession as a Class I Forest Reserve. Although the area was heavily exploited for timber, Kuamut Forest Reserve nonetheless serves as critical habitat for wildlife and connects two world-renowned protected areas — Maliau and Danum Valley — providing a vital corridor in a landscape that has been widely cleared for oil palm plantations.

“The Kuamut Forest Reserve is a crucial link in a huge protected area complex extending across more than 77 miles of lowland rainforest and encompassing a wide variety of habitats for wildlife,” said Paul Salaman, CEO of Rainforest Trust, in a statement. “The declaration of the Kuamut Forest Reserve is one of the greatest refuges for biodiversity in all of Borneo.”

Rainforest in nearby Imbak Canyon. Photo by Rhett A. Butler
Rainforest in nearby Imbak Canyon. Photo by Rhett A. Butler
Rainforest in Sabah. Photo by Rhett A. Butler
Rainforest in Sabah. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

Rainforest Trust notes that the area is home to an estimated 700 orangutans, 340 species of birds, and at least 60 species of amphibians, 75 reptile species, and 40 fish species.

“Protecting Borneo’s remaining lowland rainforests from logging and expanding oil palm plantations is crucial for endangered wildlife like the Bornean Orangutan, Pygmy Elephant and a host of other species,” said Salaman.

Rainforest Trust, which supported the work of a UK-based carbon trading-forest conservation company, Permian Global, and the Royal Society South East Asia Rainforest Research Programme (SEARRP) to assess the carbon and ecological value of Kuamut, helped support the Sabah Forestry Department’s demarcation of the area as a fully protected reserve. The Sabah Forestry Department has committed to protecting a further 56,000 ha of the Kuamut area, which lies within a concession managed by the Sabah Foundation (Yayasan Sabah), within the next three years.

Several Malaysian NGOs — including Land Empowerment Animals People (LEAP), Borneo Rhino Alliance (BORA), Danau Girang Field Centre, HUTAN, and WWF-Malaysia — have been involved in the effort, which is part of a broader push to conserve an important block of wildlife habitat within a million-hectare government-controlled concession in the middle of Sabah.

Young orangutan in Sabah, Malaysia. Photo by Rhett A. Butler
Young orangutan in Sabah, Malaysia. Photo by Rhett A. Butler
Kingfisher in Borneo. Photo by Rhett A. Butler
Kingfisher in Borneo. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

Glen Reynolds, the Director of SEARRP, says the move is a critical advance in protecting Sabah’s biodiversity.

“This is fantastic news,” Reynolds told Mongabay, noting that the extent of protected forests in Sabah roughly tripled between 1990 and 2015. “Taken with the additions to the network of fully protected forests over recent years really does put Sabah at the forefront of forest conservation in SE Asia.”

“I can’t emphasize strongly enough the crucial importance of the 600,000+ hectare (6,000 sq km) forest corridor within which Danum is now embedded. This, to my knowledge, represents Borneo’s last remaining intact forest gradation running from the coastal lowlands to central uplands,” he continued. “The conservation value of this area is immeasurable; the area has been subject to only minimal hunting pressure and all of the large mammal and bird species known for the forest types and locations represented are present and at near natural levels of abundance (orangutan, sun bear, clouded leopard, pygmy elephant, all seven species of hornbill, etc).”

Reynolds added that the protection of 200 kilometers of altitudinal gradient, extending from sea level to sub-montane forests, will help species better cope with the effects of climate change.

“[The corridor] will allow for the movement of plant and animal species as temperatures warm and rainfall patterns change,” he explained. “The conservation value of this area – which includes 150,000 ha of pristine forest (at Danum Valley, Maliau Basin and Imbak Canyon Conservation Areas) – is immense.”

Malay harlequin butterfly in Borneo. Photo by Rhett A. Butler
Malay harlequin butterfly in Sabah. Photo by Rhett A. Butler
Juvenile Yellow Spotted Climbing Toad in Borneo. Photo by Rhett A. Butler
Juvenile yellow-spotted climbing toad in Danum Valley. Photo by Rhett A. Butler
Green forest dragon in Danum Valley. Photo by Rhett A. Butler
Green forest dragon in Danum Valley. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

Sabah’s forests — the most species-rich on the island of Borneo — have been widely degraded and destroyed by the logging and plantation sectors over the past half century. According to research published in 2014, the area of intact forests in Sabah declined from nearly 58,000 square kilometers in 1973 to just 14,000 in 2010. The cycle of destruction began with selective logging, which was quickly gave way rapacious overexploitation and eventual conversion of large areas to oil palm plantations.

But in recent years, Sabah has changed course by substantially expanding its area of permanently protected Class I Reserves like Kuamut. Today more than a fifth of Sabah — including nearly all of its old-growth forests — is under some form of protection. Sam Mannan, the director of the Sabah Forestry Department, says he has a target of protecting 30 percent of Sabah in the next decade, including “as much good forest as possible”.

“Totally Protected Areas in Sabah now cover 1.8 million hectares,” Mannan told Mongabay. “The target is 2.2 million hectares or 30 percent of Sabah by 2025.”

“Kuamut is vital to the protection and conservation of the Danum, Imbak, and Maliau corridor of life.”

Global Forest Watch map of Sabah showing the location of Danum Valley, Kuamat, and Maliau Basin.
Global Forest Watch map of Sabah showing the location of Danum Valley, Kuamat, and Maliau Basin.
forest-reserves-sabah-1990
1990 map showing fully protected areas in dark green (Class I Forest Reserves), orange (National Parks), red (virgin jungle reserves) and blue (wildlife reserves).
forest-reserves-sabah-2015
2015 map. Danum is marked on both maps with a purple circle. The Kuamut area on the 2015 map with a blue square. Courtesy of Glen Reynolds.

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2015-Dec-23 10:45 pm Pacific update: Added quotes and maps from Glen Reynolds.

2015-Dec-24 10:30 pm Pacific update: Added “Several Malaysian NGOs — including Land Empowerment Animals People (LEAP), Borneo Rhino Alliance (BORA), Danau Girang Field Centre, HUTAN, and WWF-Malaysia — have been involved in the effort, which is part of a broader push to conserve an important block of wildlife habitat within a million-hectare government-controlled concession in the middle of Sabah.”

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