Palm oil industry muscling out orang utans

By Michael Kaung, FMT

KINABATANGAN: About 300 orang-utans have vanished from the Lower Kinabatangan in the east coast of Sabah over the last seven years due to the fragmenting of the forests they live in, according to wildlife experts.

Dr Marc Ancrenaz, scientific director of HUTAN – Kinabatangan Orang-utan Conservation Programme (KOCP) – there is unmistakable evidence that the orang-utan population in Sabah is declining.

“What we are seeing with our latest surveys within the Lower Kinabatangan is a clear population decline of the orang-utans in this area,” he said.

He hoped that such issues would add urgency to events such as the Roundtable for Sustainable Oil Palm (RSPO) discussions which open here today.

“The biggest threat to the orang-utan and other wildlife populations in Sabah today is fragmentation.

“What this means is that agriculture development primarily oil palm has created small islands of forest, which are isolated and completely surrounded by human-made landscape.

“Because it is difficult for wildlife to move from one forest patch to the next, this situation leads to inbreeding and eventual population decline, which is what we are witnessing today in the Lower Kinabatangan,” said Ancrenaz.

Wildlife experts and environmentalists want the oil palm industry to rectify the situation rather than just paying lip service to rehabilitation efforts which are being carried out by local communities.

“We can still improve the situation for the Lower Kinabatangan’s orang-utan and other wildlife by actually replanting and planning for actual wildlife corridors or patches of forest to support wildlife movement between protected or forested areas,” said Ancrenaz.

Urgent need for trees

While singling out Wilmar/PBB Oil for praise for replanting 382 hectares with 50 meters on the banks of the river, he said other big corporations where mostly riding on the coat-tails for such endeavours.

“We mostly see signboards and newspaper articles but when you go to the ground you find that in reality it is all talk and no viable replanting is taking place,” said Ancrenaz.

He suggested that the money the government is spending for oil palm promotion such as the recent allocation of RM24 million for the Malaysian Oil Palm Council could instead be used for establishing real corridors and patches of forest in the Lower Kinabatangan.

“While there are many reforestation programmes taking place within the Lower Kinabatangan, the best known being the work by MESCOT-KOPEL in Batu Putih, we need oil palm companies to start planting back corridors along the riverbanks in particular.

“This will not only help wildlife but also improve the water quality for local communities living along the river.”

The situation is so grim in the Lower Kinabatangan that converting remaining forested areas as small as even 10 hectares will have a negative effect on the long term survival of the orang-utan population.

“If oil palm companies want to contribute to orang-utan conservation today, they have the opportunity to do so in the Lower Kinabatangan by stopping what little land conversion they are still planning to do carry it,” said Ancrenaz.