Sabah a Malaysian success story on forest restoration
Published on: Sunday, January 17, 2021
By: Dr Robecca Jumin
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Presence of orang utan babies discovered in Ulu Segama that was gazetted by previous administration under Musa (mugshot).
ON 6 January 2021, Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin planted a Merbau tree in the grounds of his official residence, Seri Perdana – the first of the 100 million trees the government plans to plant between 2020-2025. To further boost the 100 Million Tree-Planting Campaign 2020 – 2025, Sabah Chief Minister, Datuk Seri Panglima Haji Hajiji Noor, announced that the state government, on its part, will plant 36 million trees in Sabah. This will include the development of forest plantations, rubber plantations, forest restoration as well as enrichment planting within forests.

The campaign and its aim for a greener Malaysia is the right direction towards a future of sustainability for the country in line with the Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Agreement, and WWF-Malaysia applauds the government for conceiving it. Above all, it is a positive sign that we are now putting nature first – nurturing and protecting it so that it may, in turn, nurture and protect us.

Forest restoration is one the initiatives identified in this campaign. Despite being challenging and expensive, forest restoration efforts are immensely rewarding and fruitful – a fact which WWFMalaysia can most certainly attest to. One need only look at Sabah as a poster child of forest restoration.

Amid endless acres of palm oil plantations in Lahad Datu in the northern part of Ulu-Segama-Malua Forest Reserve, lies a Class I Protection Forest Reserve that is small in size but huge in significance, known today as Bukit Piton Forest Reserve. 

In the 1980s right up to 2007, the forests of Bukit Piton, previously known as North Ulu Segama (NUS), saw tremendous decline due to unsustainable logging practices and drought-induced forest fires that took place in 1983 and between 1997-98. The result was its vulnerability for conversion to agricultural lands, not unlike the areas that surround it. 

But NUS had one last golden card to play. Being the home to approximately 300 (Alfred et. al.,2010) orangutan individuals, its retention as a protected forest reserve was recognised as being critical to ensure the continuous survival of the orangutan population. 

As it was, the orangutans were already isolated by the palm oil plantations at the north and east, and the Segama river at the south of NUS, which prevented them from foraging out of the isolated area for food and breeding purposes. With the decline that their home was seeing, it appeared that the chances of their population’s survival was close to none.

It was then, in 2007, that WWF-Malaysia, together with the Sabah Forestry Department (SFD), spearheaded the forest restoration programme for NUS.

The North Ulu Segama reserve, then known as a Class II – Commercial Forest Reserve, was reclassified by the Sabah State Government as a Class I – Protection Forest Reserve in 2012 and renamed as Bukit Piton. 

The change in classification was a significant move as it meant that the forest was now protected by law from any form of land conversion, timber exploitation or extraction of forest products.

[The reclassification was carried out under the administration of former CM Tan Sri Musa Aman].

WWF-Malaysia’s collaborative reforestation efforts here began in 2007, where open and exposed areas were planted with fast growing pioneer species such as Binuang (Octomeles sumatrana) and Laran (Neolamarckia cadamba). To support the orangutan’s feeding habits, fruit trees which form part of the orangutans’ diet such as Sengkuang (Dracontomelon dao), Terap (Arthocarpussp) and Figs (Ficus sp) were also planted, besides Dipterocarps which were planted in shaded areas.

Restoration efforts at Bukit Piton saw completion in November 2019, with 2,400 ha of the degraded forests successfully restored with the planting of over 300,000 trees. Trees are now seen to thrive in the area, growing and maturing at its expected pace.

As in all cases, the real success of reforestation can only be measured by its implications, when wildlife begins deriving benefits from the replanted trees as its food source, shelter and means of travelling. In 2011, after years of careful observation on the field, WWF-Malaysia’s Orangutan Conservation Team found that the orangutans have indeed began utilising the replanted trees in Bukit Piton. Nests were found on the Laran and Bayur trees that lined the forest. 

Individual orangutans were seen eating on trees that had begun to fruit. The presence of orangutan babies was also found in the area, a sure sign that the orangutans were eventually recognising Bukit Piton as the home that they once lost and was now revived.

The success of Bukit Piton in restoring orang-utan habitat was a result of a vision quite similar to the 100 Million Tree-Planting Campaign 2020 – 2025 that was launched recently. 

Its vibrant existence today is a reminder that forest restoration is not an impossible task if relevant authorities and entities come together to make it happen.

The unfortunate reality today is that there are far more challenges than opportunities when it comes to protecting our natural resources. Forests are continuously being converted into agricultural lands, which not only impact human livelihood, but also rob our wildlife of their homes and sources of food. 

Our iconic wildlife – the Malayan tiger, the Bornean elephant, and Bornean orangutans are losing their habitats at alarming rates – all due to thoughtless acts of converting forests in the name of human advancement.

As we enter 2021, and as we all learn to adapt to the new norms that have become standard features of our lives, it is necessary for us to remember that what has been taken from nature must be duly replenished. This must be done if we wish to build a future in which humans can live in harmony with nature.

The responsibility to restore nature is one that we all shoulder equally – the government, private sectors and citizens alike can do their part. 

Effort taken by companies like Sabah Softwoods Berhad who have factored nature into their business model, which has benefitted both their company as well as the forest and its wildlife should be emulated.

Bukit Piton is a reminder that this harmonious co-existence between the people and the planet is indeed possible and we hope that more such initiatives will be introduced by the government to make this world a better place for all species to thrive in.

- Dr Robecca is Head of Conservation 

Sabah WWF-Malaysia


Muhyiddin and Hajiji launching the million trees campaign recently.


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