One year ago, the Rhino and Forest Fund (RFF) – a spin-off of the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research (Leibniz-IZW) – and the Borneo Orangutan Survival (BOS) Deutschland e.V. launched a collaboration to convert oil palm plantations into new rainforest in Malaysian Borneo.
These new rainforest sites will serve as a wildlife corridor between two protected areas that are currently separated by plantations impassable to many wildlife species: Tabin and Kulamba Wildlife Reserves. Within three years, the RFF and other partners have acquired 65 hectares of key areas (forest and plantation areas) with guidance from the Leibniz-IZW. The areas were transferred to the Sabah Forestry Department (SFD), which assigned them to the highest protection status. Since the collaboration of RFF and BOS started, approximately 8,000 new trees were planted and now grow to become valuable wildlife habitat.
The conversion from former oil palm plantation into pristine rainforest was conducted by planting various native tree species. An important milestone has now been reached: In 2020, around 8,000 new trees were planted on 50 hectares of former oil palm plantations. In the future, these key areas acquired by the RFF with the support of BOS, Zoo Leipzig and other partners will allow 200,000 hectares of currently disjoined protected areas to grow together, which are of central importance for the survival of Borneo’s threatened flora and fauna. This initiative would not have been possible without the substantial support of the SFD.
The individual plots purchased with the help of donations are degraded forest areas and oil palm plantations. “Our aim is to convert these and other key areas back into pristine rainforest so that they can act as wildlife corridors to link valuable natural habitats. This has to be achieved as quickly as possible before it is too late for endangered species such as the orangutan, the banteng, the pygmy elephant and many others,” explains Robert Risch, project manager and RFF board member.
The alliance of NGOs and scientific institutions plan to restore further degraded or overused areas soon and to set up a long-term scientific program to gain evidence-based knowledge of efficient methods of reforestation and of the return of wildlife into these reconstructed habitats. This research could yield a blueprint for the conversion of oil palm plantations, ready to be transferred to other areas and adapted to their specific conditions in the future.
“Together, RFF, BOS and Leibniz-IZW intend to pinpoint further important areas that are suitable for the planned research projects. We want to utilize national funding programmes, conservation associations as well as private supporters to finance the purchase of land and the science. Our aim is to combine conservation, science, agriculture and local communities in meaningful ways in order to provide long-term, sustainable perspectives to local inhabitants and the biological diversity of the region,” explains Steven Seet, Head of Science Communication at Leibniz-IZW and RFF board member.
“By supporting the purchase of land, we can make a very tangible contribution to the conservation of orangutans and other endangered wildlife here in Sabah. What we have achieved so far is a great success. The conversion of intensively used agricultural land is an indispensable element of a comprehensive strategy to protect biodiversity. And especially in times of corona it is a step in the right direction,” says Daniel Merdes, Managing Director of BOS Deutschland.
Land use change and the degradation and fragmentation of habitat are main drivers for biodiversity loss. Populations of endangered wildlife species isolated on habitat fragments are gradually disappearing because food supply is limited and their genetic diversity is curtailed. The smaller the remaining habitat fractions are, the faster these islands lose their biodiversity. Therefore, in addition to protecting the remaining wild landscapes and their wildlife populations, the creation of corridors between them is a key measure to prevent species extinction. The restoration of pivotal habitats such as swamps, mangroves, savannahs and rainforests also hold an enormous potential for binding large quantities of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.
To create corridors which connect isolated habitats, the RFF has planted around 8,000 trees on 50 hectares of oil palm plantations in 2020. The seedlings were taken exclusively from adjacent forest areas and natural forests in the region. During planting, the conservationists and scientists ensured a high level of species diversity. So far, they planted 32 tree species from 14 families. In the coming years the area will be enriched with additional tree species currently not available. In this way, the restored areas are destined to resemble the enormous diversity of Borneo’s original forests as closely as possible and will also ensure the survival of endangered tree species.
About half of the trees planted belong to “Dipterocarpaceae” family, which makes up to 80 percent of the natural canopy in the lowland rainforest of Borneo and thus forms the backbone of the original ecosystem. These tree species have largely disappeared from the area as a result of over-exploitation by the timber industry and would, without a targeted reintroduction, only reclaim the entirely deforested plantations after many decades – if at all. Additionally, various tree species are planted that produce fruits for wild animals or fulfil other important functions, for example by improving the soil through nitrogen enrichment or the rapid formation of a closed canopy. Furthermore, in addition to planting new trees, hundreds of trees per hectare that resettle naturally are included in the maintenance of the area by regularly clearing them of overgrowths caused by creepers and grasses. This significantly accelerates the natural regeneration of the forest. Last but not least, the restoration area will be enriched with small water bodies and meadow areas in order to specifically meet the needs of endangered wildlife species, including banteng, knob-billed stork, hairy nose otter, pygmy elephant, orangutan and many other species.
In the end, a habitat will be created that could be even more efficient for wildlife in terms of food supply and providing diverse ecological niches than a comparable old-grown forest area. As members of village adjacent to the project area are already working for the project, there are also direct benefits for local communities. The expected improvement in water quality in the nearby river systems should have a positive effect on the fish and shrimp stocks, which are the main source of income for the local fishing villages.
Rhino and Forest Fund (RFF) e.V.
The RFF is a science-oriented nature and species conservation organization that is primarily active in Indonesia and Malaysia. The goals of the RFF are the protection of flora and fauna in ecologically valuable rainforests, climate protection policy and the implementation of scientific pilot projects for the conservation and restoration of semi-natural rainforests. The RFF is a spin-off of the Leibniz-IZW.
Borneo Orangutan Survival (BOS) Deutschland e.V.
An international network of partner organisations, BOS Deutschland e.V. protects the Borneo orangutan. In two Indonesian rescue stations, injured and orphaned animals are taken in, cared for and rehabilitated so that they can be released into the wild again at the end of their training. BOS opens up new protected areas in which wild orangutans can live freely and reforests destroyed rainforest areas. In addition, BOS Germany carries out important educational and public relations work to sensitise people to the acute emergency situation of orangutans. BOS pursues a holistic approach in its work, which also includes the local authorities and communities, because only hand-in-hand is it possible to ensure the sustainable survival of the orangutan.
Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research (Leibniz-IZW)
The Leibniz-IZW is an interdisciplinary research institute, whose goal it is to understand the adaptability of wildlife in the context of global change and to contribute to the enhancement of the survival of viable wildlife populations. Drawing on expertise from biology and veterinary medicine the Leibniz-IZW scientists conduct fundamental and applied research – from the molecular to the landscape level – and develop the scientific basis for innovative wildlife conservation.
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