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The Tabin-Kulamba Wildlife Corridor Project
Published on: Sunday, April 16, 2023
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Map by SFD.
SINCE the signing of an MoU with the Sabah Forestry Department (SFD) in November 2010, the German-based Rhino and Forest Fund (RFF) has been active in Sabah identifying crucial areas for habitat connectivity, purchasing land and restoring forest.

In cooperation with local authorities, research institutes and other NGOs, the RFF works on the reforestation of degraded forest areas as well as on the acquisition and reforestation of private land in order to reconnect reserves that are highly important for the protection of various species and to expand and improve wildlife habitats.

In addition, the RFF has been successfully campaigning for the protection of endangered forests that are important for species protection and has already been able to bring about the integration of at least 2,300 hectares of threatened forest areas and reserves through targeted lobbying with the responsible authorities. 

So far, more than RM7 million in donations mostly from Germany have been used efficiently for land purchases and reforestation measures covering project sites in Tabin, Silabukan and Bukit Piton. Main donors of the RFF are the Zoo Leipzig, BOS Germany and many private individuals.

On the importance of the Tabin-Kulamba area

The current main project of the RFF in Sabah is the consolidation of two key areas for the survival of the endangered fauna and flora of Borneo in eastern Sabah: 

The Northeast Bornean orangutan (approx. 1,700 animals), the Bornean pygmy elephant (approx. 400 animals, which corresponds to 25-40pc of the total population), the last larger populations of the Bornean banteng (approx. 150 animals), the almost extinct hairy-nosed otter, the Sunda clouded leopard (with at least 30 animals), numerous other endangered large mammals such as the Bornean gibbon, the proboscis monkey, the sun bear and many other species of birds such as the highly endangered Storm’s stork, of which there are only a few hundred specimen left worldwide, the lesser adjutant or the helmeted hornbill, which is critically endangered due to poaching, still live in Tabin and Kulamba.

The effective connection of the two currently hardly connected areas and the control of poaching can, therefore, be seen as a basic requirement for the conservation of entire species.



Map by Lands and Surveys / FRC / RFF showing the progress since 2011. 



Map by RFF / FRC showing the progress in details



The Bornean banteng. (Danau Girang pic)

Without this corridor, particularly the Bornean banteng would hardly have a chance of survival. Because wildlife populations can only survive on a long run if they have protected habitat of a sufficient size and quality to support viable population sizes. Otherwise inbreeding and other effects will slowly draw small populations into an extinction vortex.

Additionally, the local ecosystems as a whole are highly worthy of protection as well. Tabin makes up a considerable part of the remaining lowland rainforest in Sabah. 

Connecting the whole Tabin landscape would allow the re- establishment of habitat and ecosystem connectivity from the coasts of the Lower Kinabatangan and Segama Wetlands through Tabin down to Darvel Bay comprising several threatened ecosystems that are crucial to preserve Sabah’s unique biodiversity from the coral reefs up to the mountains such as considerable parts of Sabah’s last remaining bigger tracts of: beach forest, mangrove forest, lowland peat swamp forest, lowland freshwater swamp forest, seasonal lowland freshwater swamp forest, lowland mixed dipterocarp forest and upland mixed dipterocarp forest including all the associated flora and fauna.

All these ecosystems interact and can hardly survive on their own as they all depend on each other. E.g. destroying mangroves will degrade coral reefs behind the mangroves, destroying riparian forest will degrade the river ecosystem. 

So maintaining or restoring the transition areas (ecotones) between the different ecosystems is essential to maintain or restore their ecosystem functions and services. 

Also for biodiversity conservation the ecotones between different ecosystems are crucial as many species depend on different ecosystems and prefer the highly diverse edge areas with access to different habitats. 

The protection and consolidation of Tabin with other lowland rainforest areas is therefore of utmost importance for the preservation of the entire biodiversity of Borneo.

What happened so far?

2011:
After the gazettement of the Lower Segama Wildlife Conservation Area (2,226ha between Tabin and Kulamba under SWD) in 2011, the RFF conducted first recces together with Sabah Wildlife Department (SWD) and SFD to assess the situation on the ground. 

Result: although the new LSWCA covered considerable crucial areas, the buffer zone of Sg Tabin (20m left and right) was the last and only connectivity on dry land connecting the elsewhere completely isolated Tabin WR to the north. Additionally the riparian forest was badly degraded and partly even clear cut, framed with oil palm plantations together with mangroves completely surrounding Tabin.

2012: After signing of an MOU with the SWD in January 2012, the RFF started restoring c. 2km of the river bank of Sg Tabin (c. 14ha) in May 2012. Around 4,000 trees of at least 40 species have been planted and maintained partly till today where necessary.

At the same time the RFF, strongly supported by SFD, started identifying and assessing all the different land parcels and state land patches between Tabin and Kulamba using existing maps, field trips, boats, interviews with various stakeholders, satellite images and even a helicopter provided by SFD. The picture became better and better. 

Around 462ha of crucial forest patches belonged to Liew Ping Chung. Another nearly 2,000ha were still state land, mostly forested and under immediate threat to be deforested for agriculture.

Years of lobbying for the protection of these crucial areas followed without a sign of success. But suddenly the situation started changing mostly thanks to a few SFD officers who were not afraid of all the extra work it meant to start fighting for the crucial areas.

2014: We found out that Liew Ping Chung was about to sell 462ha of forest in the area.

2015: In 2015 we got surprised by the sudden gazettement of the new Sg Segama Forest Reserve south of Kulamba (nearly 800 ha) that we have had highlighted for years being a crucial area.

In November 2015 after one year of negotiations and reflections, Liew announced at the Heart-of-Borneo Conference that he decided to donate the 462ha for the purpose of conservation. An unprecedented land gift for conservation in Sabah and an essential contribution for the Tabin-Kulamba Wildlife Corridor (thank you!).

2016: In 2016 more than 1,500ha of crucial State land patches have been gazetted as Tabin WR extension, Kulamba WR extension and Kuala Segama FR extension.

But there was still a nearly complete interruption at Sg Tabin.

Without these gazettements, an efficient consolidation of Tabin and Kulamba would no longer be a realistic scenario anymore. Mainly because the repurchase and reforestation of these areas alone would cost well over RM100 million today and take decades while several species are running out of time.

In addition, the emission of at least one million tons of CO2 that would have accompanied the possible deforestation and land use has been prevented.

2017: In 2017 the RFF could for the first time buy a small piece of forest (6ha) at the river bank of Sg Tabin for the purpose of being gazetted as Tabin extension.

2018: Another 12ha adjacent to the first lot have been purchased (c. 9ha of forest and 3ha of oil palm)

2019: In early and late 2019 the RFF bought altogether 47ha of oil palm adjacent to the prior restored river bank of Sg Tabin creating a connectivity with a width of more than 800m.

2020: Since February 2020, we have been working on reforesting 50ha of acquired oil palm plantation areas along the Tabin river. 

The reforestation area will close the last gap between Tabin and the Lower Kinabatangan and Segama Wetlands and thus reconnect approx. 200,000ha of key biodiversity areas, that are essential for the survival of endangered fauna and flora of Borneo. 

We have since grown thousands of seedlings from more than 40 tree species and at least 14 tree families or procured them from other tree nurseries in the region. 

These exclusively comprise of wild species that occur in the neighbouring forests and species native to the region. For this purpose, we either collected seeds and wildlings around the project area and grew them in the tree nursery or purchased preexisting seedlings from neighbouring lowland rainforest areas. 

The area was prepared for reforestation between July and September. This included dividing it into blocks, determining and marking the planting points via GPS and collecting and disposing of rubbish scattered in the area.



The Sunda clouded leopard. (Danau Girang pic)



(Left pic): Bornean Pygmy elephant. (RFF pic). On the right Sunbear howling. 



(Left pic):Orangutan. (RFF pic). On the right Proboscis monkey. (RFF pic)

The planting process began in October. During it, an average of five seedlings of one species was planted at 33 points per hectare. 

This meant a total of 8,250 trees were planted over an area of 50ha. During the process, care was taken to never plant the same species at neighbouring points in order to ensure a high structural diversity in the newly emerging forest. 

Instead, the different species were spread as widely as possible in the area. 

“We also made sure that about half of the points spread over a large area were planted with representatives of the dipterocarpaceae family in order to achieve a natural density of these particular tree species.” 

This family comprises almost 200 species found in Sabah and has been largely decimated by the timber industry. In the pristine lowland rainforest of Borneo, dipterocarpaceae form up to 80pc of the canopy and thus represent the backbone of the original ecosystem. 

Other tree species that were planted either fulfill other functions – such as the rapid closure of the canopy, the production of large quantities of fruit wild animals are interested in or nitrogen enrichment of the soil – or are highly endangered, such as the very slow-growing belian or merbau, which have largely vanished.

The first round of maintenance began in November 2020. It comprises of freeing 

all planted seedlings from overgrowth 

and replacing them in case they have died. All other trees that have started growing in the area by themselves are maintained as well. 

In the early stage, the fruits of the oil palms have been collected and disposed or, if possible, removed from the palms in an unripe state, and oil palm seedlings have been torn out to prevent the soil from overgrowing with young oil palms. 

The collection of the oil fruits also prevented damage caused by bearded pigs which are attracted by them. After the collapse of the bearded pig population due to the ASF pandemic in 2021, this was not a challenge anymore.

After about three years, we are planning to start actively removing the oil palms from the area. Until then, their shade can provide better growth conditions for the young trees.

As far as we know, the RFF has been so far the only NGO purchasing oil palm plantations to restore and protect them.

2022: In June 2022 we started further habitat enrichment measures on the purchased land and created an artificial lake of 1 ha size to make the area more attractive for wildlife. 

The lake will produce many insects, amphibians, fish and plants that will feed countless other species enhancing the carrying capacity for wildlife significantly. 

At the lake bank we have started to plant fruit trees with a special focus on ficus species. Adjacent to the lake we work on the establishment of pastures for elephants, deer and banteng on an open area prior completely covered with the invasive mukuna bracteata.

In the future we consider to further upgrade the area with artificial salt leaks, nest boxes for hornbills and other features. Target: to turn this place into a wildlife oasis!

But the biggest challenge for the Tabin-Kulamba Corridor is now: 

How to finance the remaining land purchases? 

To effectively connect Tabin and Kulamba we still need to acquire and restore well over 1,000ha (see orange areas below)…

Who made this happen?

Key persons with essential contributions to the Tabin-Kulamba Corridor 

Project to name are: Datuk Sam Mannan, Datuk Fred Kugan, Dr. Robert Ong, 

Hon Wai Kong, Alex Hastie, Mohd Jumri Abd Hamid, Jurimin Ebin, Siti Masturah Norbeh, Azman Said and Osman Bangkong. 

Further support came from SWD by Datuk Laurentius N. Ambu, Augustine Tugau, Mohd Soffian Abu Bakar, Silvester Saimin and especially Herman Stawin, who showed real dedication in the field kindly assisting with our recces and shared a lot of his experience with us. Unfortunately he is not with us anymore. We won’t forget him!

Many other SFD and SWD officers followed us to the field, assisting in recces, monitoring, helping to set up camera traps, providing transport, taking drone pictures and attending many meetings. 

“We also got consistent support from the start by our contractor Dr. Teo Yan Hock and his teams, whose contributions were far beyond what you could expect from a contractor.” 

Also, the community of Kg Dagat was always supportive. 

Many villagers assisted during recces and camera trap surveys, helped to collect seeds and planted trees for us. Last but not least we have to mention our new local team, founded end of 2022, under the dedicated management of Annuar Jain.



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