Tue, 21 May 2024


Prosper thy neighbour policy in Tabin
Published on: Sunday, May 12, 2024
By: Leonard Alaza
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A partial view of the 4km ecological corridor in Bagahak 1 Estate in Lahad Datu where WWF-Malaysia is supporting Sawit Kinabalu to reconnect the isolated Silabukan Forest Reserve and Tabin Wildlife Reserve through active tree planting activities. (Pic: WWF-Malaysia)
IN Tabin Wildlife Reserve, a Borneo Rhino Alliance (Bora) field staff inspects a Bornean banteng pasture wearing his sweat-soaked T-shirt with words on the back that read “Bringing Back Our Rare Animals”.

The colour of his T-shirt has faded around the edges, suggesting he has been out working in the field for quite some time. His job is to ensure there is quantity and quality of food for the banteng, which is classified as an endangered species and endemic to Sabah.

It certainly takes a high level of commitment and stamina to perform such a physical work daily just to prevent an animal species from going extinct. Hardly anyone talks about it because people, quite understandably, have their own struggles in life to deal with. 

But here, the field staff and other stakeholders are committed to their cause for they understand the science behind it all. 

Bora’s field staff taking the media to see the banteng pastures.

The world-famous naturalist, Sir David Attenborough, says “without biodiversity, the world as we know it doesn’t work. A less wild world is less able to provide for our needs, less able to maintain dependable weather and seasons, and less able to absorb our impact”.

Scientists would defend that what happens to the banteng deep in the forests affects humans in some ways. It is, after all, a fact that everything in nature and life in general is interconnected.

The words on the staff’s T-shirt suggest a critical mission to halt a potential decline and loss of more rare species in Sabah. 

In November 2019, Malaysia lost its last Sumatran rhino, a female affectionately called “Iman”, at the Borneo Rhino Sanctuary in Sabah, just six months after the country said goodbye to its last male rhino, “Tam”. 

Iman’s death marked the extinction of her species in Malaysia and was a grim reminder that unless people start to change the way they think about development, live their daily lives, and use natural resources, Sabah and the country could risk mourning more losses, and it will not just be its precious wildlife and plants.

Attenborough, had in March 2023 warned that “nature is in crisis” and called on the global population to unite to save it. 

At the same time, he believed that no one should feel overwhelmed or powerless by the scale of issues facing the planet for “we have the solutions.”

WWF-Malaysia’s Sabah Landscapes Programme (SLP) in Tabin serves as a solution being executed locally. The programme, funded by Hamburg-based Beiersdoft AG, a leading provider of Nivea cream and other high quality skin care products, adopts the Living Landscapes Approach (LLA) that enables multi-stakeholders such as communities, government and the private sector to contribute meaningfully to Sabah’s journey to sustainability.

The idea of sustainability started when the world realised that its resources are not limitless as was once believed. Sabah sort of learned this the painful way after it lost its rhinos that led to many stakeholders starting to ask the question: what could be next.

At its simplest, the LLA contains three pillars. Pillar One is Protect, as in protecting all things important for conservation. They are the forests and wildlife. Pillar Two is Produce, by producing all commodities, such as timber and palm oil, sustainably.

The third Pillar is Restore, which is undertaking forest restoration in wildlife corridors and degraded habitats.

WWF-Malaysia’s SLP combines conservation and sustainable development by integrating the protection of forests, wildlife and rivers, with the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) certified production of oil palm, and restoration of ecological corridors and riparian reserves. 

The programme aims to support Sabah’s existing policies to protect 30pc of its rainforest by 2025 and maintain 50pc of forest covers and attain 100pc RSPO certification through the jurisdictional approach by 2025. 

It is also SLP’s vision that by 2030, Sabah’s biodiversity, ecosystem services and agricultural systems are valued, protected and responsibly managed, is climate-resilient and benefit both people and nature.

Sawit Kinabalu Bagahak 1 Estate Senior Manager Osinton Magansal giving a briefing on how the two forest reserves will be connected.

In Tabin, the SLP targets to protect 157,000ha of forests, wildlife comprising orangutan, banteng and elephants and freshwater, and support 15,000ha of middle-sized growers and smallholders to be RSPO-certified.

It also aims to restore 200 ha of wildlife corridor connecting Tabin Forest Reserve to Silabukan Forest Reserve and improve degraded habitat in Silabukan Forest Reserve.

WWF-Malaysia’s Sabah Landscape Programme is currently collaborating with multi-stakeholders for conservation work in Tabin. They are Bora (banteng pastures) and human-elephant conflict working group committee (Sabah Forestry Department, Sabah Wildlife Department, plantations, smallholders, Kg Teburi), Management zones for wildlife protection (Sabah Forestry Department, Sabah Wildlife Department, plantations, community leaders), palm oil smallholders, Sawit Kinabalu (Bagahak Ecological Corridor), KLK Link and Sabah Forestry Department. 

Banteng pastures

Once widespread in Borneo, the Bornean banteng’s numbers have declined dramatically as a result of years of deforestation, land conversion and hunting have caused their numbers to decline dramatically. 

Today, the population in Sabah is estimated to be at 326 individuals, making the species at risk of being next to go extinct. 

“We’ve learned our lesson from the rhinos,” says Bora Field Manager Dr Zainal Zahari Zainuddin.

The banteng is endemic to Borneo and is classified as “Endangered” under the IUCN Red List. The banteng is also listed under Schedule 1 in the Sabah Wildlife Conservation Enactment 1997 – affording it full protection. 

In Tabin, a pasture enrichment site measuring 2.5km in length and 10 metres width on both sides was developed for banteng, where grass eaten by this animal is planted to improve the quality and quantity of food for their growth, breeding and survival.

The banteng pasture was developed as part of the Bornean Banteng Action Plan that is supported by the Sabah Wildlife Department, Sabah Forestry Department, WWF-Malaysia and Bora.

Dr Payne and Dr Zainal.

Artificial salt licks were also placed at the pastures, as part of habitat enrichment, to provide additional minerals, as well as supple grass for the bantengs to lie on. By doing this, the species will benefit from greater nutrition, adequate water, and space for safety and play.

Aside from the banteng pastures, Bora contributes to enriching food source for certain types of species in the forests. The Sabah Forestry Department has entrusted the organisation to develop and curate Sabah Ficus Germplasm Center at Tabin Wildlife Reserve.

This facility contains more than 90 species of native wild fig (Ficus) species (earning an entry into the Malaysia Books of Records), maintained as living plants, and all able to produce materials for planting elsewhere. 

Bora Executive Director Datuk Dr John Payne shares that these plants have been planted in oil palm plantations including the Bahagak Ecological Corridor that would provide food for certain types of animals.

Bagahak Ecological Corridor

WWF-Malaysia is supporting Sawit Kinabalu to reconnect the isolated Silabukan Forest Reserve and Tabin Wildlife Reserve through active tree planting activities along the 4km ecological corridor in Bagahak 1 Estate in Lahad Datu. 

The ecological corridor will facilitate the safe movement of wildlife populations, mainly forest-dependent species such as orangutans, gibbons, and small and medium-sized mammals, and also highlight the importance of the riparian reserve.

The project also aims to enhance riparian function through active restoration for erosion control and improve water quality to support sustainable production. Since planting commenced in Oct 2022, at least 10ha of areas in the Bagahak Corridor have been planted with various fast-growing tree species and figs.

Dr Zainal showing the media one of the fig species.

WWF-Malaysia’s Orangutan Conservation Team and the Sawit Kinabalu Group Conservation Unit have recently joined together to conduct 2km general transect surveys and set up a few camera traps along the corridor.

In total, 40 species such as orangutan, sunbears pangolins and sambar deers, are recorded along the corridor which includes several rare, threatened and endangered species.

This is set as a baseline for wildlife found along the corridor, in the first year of planting. An annual wildlife survey will be conducted to monitor the ecological changes along the corridor.

Sawit Kinabalu Group’s Sustainability General Manager Nazlan Mohamad affirms the company’s commitment to its sustainability journey as well as Sabah’s in general, suggesting there must be a balance between economic development and environmental sustainability. It has proven to have played the role of a good and environmentally responsible neighbour within the landscape.

Supporting palm oil smallholders on their journey to sustainability

Under the Produce pillar, WWF-Malaysia has set up a dedicated Sustainable Palm Oil Team (Spot) to provide technical support to growers located within the landscapes to form growers’ groups and subsequently guide them to undergo the group certification process under MSPO and RSPO.

As of June 2023, 95.6pc or 1.44 million hectares of oil palm plantations in Sabah is MSPO certified (source: MPOCC) and at least 26pc or 425,882ha is RSPO certified (source: RSPO). The total oil palm plantation area in Sabah is 1,508,060ha as of Dec 2022 (source: MPOB).

MSPO is the Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil standard. The Malaysia Government has made it mandatory for all palm oil products to be certified under MSPO. In contrast, RSPO is the main internationally recognised certification standard that is based on voluntary compliance.

Attaining the MSPO certification is an essential step toward the RSPO certification.

Many large companies have the resources to get RSPO certification. In contrast, small-holders and medium-sized growers find difficulty complying with the requirement and they need a policy framework and support system to achieve full certification.

Spot aims to support and assist 15,000ha of middle-sized growers and smallholders in the Tabin landscape to be RSPO-certified.

Human-elephant conflict working group committee and joint electric-fencing initiative

Human-elephant conflict (HEC) is a negative interaction between people and elephants which intensifies into incidents of conflict, often leading to loss of lives for elephants due to retaliatory killing, besides causing damage to crops and property.

There also have been a few accidents related to HEC, ie; plantation workers getting injured whiles running away from elephants and two to three known cases of human mortalities related to HEC in Sabah.

The Bornean elephant population is endangered and could face extinction in our lifetime, with its population in Sabah estimated at less than 1,500 in the wild.

Close cooperation is needed between neighbouring plantations to jointly install electric fences at the landscape level and to ensure habitat connectivity between fragmented forests. This is crucial to ensure the continued access of elephants between fragmented forests and for better protection of their crops.

Since March 2021, a human-elephant conflict working group committee to collectively manage Human-elephant conflict at the Tabin Wildlife Reserve and the Tungku region.

This multi-stakeholder committee is chaired by the District Officer of Lahad Datu and is facilitated by the Sabah Wildlife Department and WWF, who form the Secretariat. It also comprises around 16 oil palm plantation companies ranging in size from 60ha to 3,600ha.

A herd of elephants in an elephant pasture 24km west from Bahagak corridor and on the southern edge of Tabin Wildlife Reserve spotted on June 21, 2023. (Pic: Bora)

One of the main objectives of the committee is to jointly install 50-60km of electric fences at the Tungku region bordering the Tabin reserve. The initiative is expected to take up to three years to complete.

Once completed, it is anticipated that the HEC situation /crop damages will be substantially reduced and communities living to the south of the Tungku region, mainly near the coastal area will also indirectly benefit from the fences installed through this initiative.

As of May 2023, approximately 86pc of the plantation companies have installed electric fences in the Tungku region bordering Tabin Wildlife Reserve. The remaining 9.5pc of the plantations are in various stages of installation.

Every quarterly, the Secretariat will conduct site visits on the ground to monitor the status of the installation of the fences and to ensure that the fences have been well maintained.

A three-day media trip to Tabin was organised by WWF-Malaysia to witness first-hand the works being carried out on the ground by the different partners and stakeholders to realise the shared SLP goals and targets. 

During the walk along the banteng pastures on the first day of the trip, Dr Zainal delightfully announced there were calves seen among the herd, suggesting a promising future for these endangered species.

But it will not just be their future and place in the entire landscape. Communities and businesses will thrive as well. Every dot is inter-connected. Each will thrive in its place in the landscape when it ensures the others prosper.



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