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Spotlight on...Sabah, Malaysia – the last pocket of abundance

  • Written by  Mark Rowe
  • Published in Places
The best known of all Bornean species, the orangutan, are under serious threat The best known of all Bornean species, the orangutan, are under serious threat
04 Jan
The land around the Kinabatangan River in the state of Sabah is home to a remarkable number of charismatic species, but this very abundance hints at the destruction beyond

Just as the light begins to fade, an orangutan appears, gathering leaves, twigs and small branches together; making a bed for the night. Once the sylvan hammock is constructed, it sits back, contemplates its work and unhurriedly rearranges everything, just so. It then settles into its creation, so that all that remains visible are two feet, an elbow sticking out and a scalp. It’s as though it has eased into a bath tub.

The Kinabatangan River flows for 560 kilometres through eastern Sabah – the Malaysian state that occupies the northern part of the island of Borneo – to the Sulu Sea. Its catchment covers 23 per cent of the entire land mass of Sabah and it flows across one of the last forested alluvial floodplains in Asia. This is an area of enormous importance for wildlife, one of just two places on Earth where ten primate species can be found together, including the orangutan, proboscis monkey and Bornean gibbon, along with 250 bird species, 20 reptile, 50 mammal and more than 1,000 plant species. In short, the Kinabatangan is astonishingly abundant. Troops of proboscis monkeys gather in the late afternoon, the alpha male sporting fur patterned in such a way that it looks as though it’s wearing a pair of patchwork pyjamas; macaque monkeys, entirely unbothered by humans, chew berries at the water’s edge; rhinoceros hornbills swoop from one side of the river to the other; yellow-ringed cat snakes doze. 

Map of Malaysia
Geographic location: 
Part of the island of Borneo, between the South China Sea and the Sulu Sea, 1,500km east of peninsular Malaysia
Latitude/longitude: 5°9’N 116°E 
Land area: 72,500 square kilometres
Habitat types: Mountainous regions, beaches, tropical rainforest
Population: 3.9 million (2018), including 33 indigenous groups speaking more than 50 languages. The Kadazan-Dusun form the largest ethnic group, representing 30 per cent of the population. Chinese make up the largest non-indigenous group
Key species: Orangutan, sun bear, pygmy elephant, proboscis monkey, Sumatran rhino (functionally extinct), slow loris, oriental pied hornbill and banteng

At night, baby crocodiles snap at frogs, which furiously hop for their lives along the river bank. Mouse deer wander and wide-eyed tarsirs cling motionless to tree trunks. In the morning, sun bears emerge, standing on rear legs and methodically pulling at branches in the mangrove swamps. 

The verdant backdrop to all of this activity – the emergent trees rising like periscopes above a thick, knotted mass of nipa palms, lianas and mangroves – feels as though it stretches away for hundreds of miles in each direction. But it doesn’t. Eastern Sabah has been so affected by the rampaging palm oil industry that this remnant rainforest now covers little more than a mile-wide strip on either side of the river. Within such a diminished range, it isn’t so surprising that wildlife is abundant – it has nowhere else to go. ‘It’s pretty bad. We’ve come to a point where palm oil has been catastrophic for wildlife and rainforest,’ says Michelle Desilets, executive director of the Orangutan Land Trust.

Palm plantationBy 2003, some 87 per cent of all cultivated land in Sabah was under oil palm

‘Oil palm plantations are responsible for a significant percentage of deforestation – about half – in the state,’ adds Marc Ancrenaz, scientific director of the conservation NGO Hutan. ‘But it doesn’t explain all the issues. Poaching and human–wildlife conflicts are all factors.’ Habitat degradation and fragmentation also occur due to mining and quarrying, which account for 30 per cent of Sabah’s gross domestic product. 

Sabah’s modern-day troubles began with the onset of logging during the 1950s. In a pattern seen in rainforests around the world, once the loggers had taken out what they needed, cash crop industries such as cocoa, tobacco, rubber and coffee moved into the cleared land. Large tracts were re-designated for permanent conversion to agriculture. ‘The native forests have been impacted by selective logging, fire and conversion to plantations at unprecedented scales since industrial-scale extractive industries began in the early 1970s,’ says Ancrenaz. 

Incredibly, since these industries really took off, there has been no island-wide documentation of the forest clearances or logging. While this creates an information gap for conservation planning, satellite images gathered by NGOs have revealed that plantation industries have been the principal driver of deforestation. Over-harvesting, poor logging practices, short logging cycles and the absence of rehabilitation following harvesting resulted in an initial massive reduction of primary forest cover in Sabah between 1975 and 1995, estimated at 2.8 million hectares. Were that not enough, since the 1980s, Sabah has been held in the firm grip of the palm oil industry and is now Malaysia’s largest palm-oil-producing state, accounting for a quarter of the nation’s 2019 production volume. By 2003, some 87 per cent of all cultivated land in Sabah was already under oil palm. Those pressures continue and while the economy is dominated by the export of palm oil, petroleum and cocoa, other sectors, including timber milling, agriculture, tourism and manufacturing, are ‘growing vastly’, according to the Sabah state government.


Sun bear

The Bornean sun bear, known for its pale horseshoe-shaped chest pattern, is the world’s second-rarest bear, after the giant panda. It’s also the smallest and most arboreal. The sun bear population has declined by 30 per cent since 1990 due to habitat destruction and poaching; sun bears are targeted by hunters for their gall bladders, which are popular in Chinese medicine, and for the pet trade. As well as dispersing seeds, sun bears dig for invertebrates, which enriches the soil. Their predilection for shredding tree bark also creates nesting holes for hornbills and flying squirrels.

Oil palms and the palm oil they yield are much demonised, and often rightly so. Yet Sabah offers a typical example of the complexity of the issue. Oil palm cultivation is said to have played a significant role in poverty alleviation among smallholders and the rest of the rural population, with rates of poverty dropping from 68 per cent to 12 per cent between 1970 and the turn of the century. Since then, overall poverty in the state has further reduced to just 2.9 per cent in 2016.

Conservationists believe that a strategic long-term shift from oil palm is necessary, not only to boost biodiversity but to avoid an economic over-reliance, with all of the associated pitfalls. Alternative ways of living need to be considered, says John Payne, executive director of the Borneo Rhino Alliance. ‘It may turn out to be necessary for many people outside urban areas to revert to old-style, small-scale farming of multiple crops. Sabah is less than 30 per cent self-sufficient in rice because almost everyone currently finds it easier and cheaper to buy the government-subsidised rice imported from other countries.’ 

Proboscis monkeysA troop of proboscis monkeys uses a makeshift bridge to cross a river

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Such long-term thinking appears likely to stay on the ‘to-do’ list for a while yet. ‘It’s been easier to get a claim for a forest area and convert it – it’s cheap and there are usually no overlapping claims,’ says Desilets. ‘When rainforest gets cleared, you wipe out 80 per cent of mammal species in the area.’ Species found in plantations tend to be generalist, non-forest species (including invasives) and pests, while specialists and those of highest conservation concern are generally absent. ‘Those that do survive are facing depleted resources and elephants and orangutans wander between the fragmented areas and become pests in the eyes of farmers,’ she adds. 

Orangutan conservationists became acutely aware of the environmental impacts of the conversion of forests to oil palm several years ago when large numbers of the primates were suddenly reported in distressed situations. The designation of protected areas doesn’t always make a difference as most orangutans live outside such areas. By 2025, the orangutan population across Borneo is forecast to decline by up to 86 per cent from its 1973 population. Other species are arguably under even greater threat. Proboscis monkeys, while easily spotted, are regarded as being in steep decline, with their range now limited to the Kinabatangan floodplain and around Dewurst Bay. The banteng – a larger, wild version of domesticated cattle – is considered to be even more endangered.


Bornean banteng

The most endangered species in Sabah is one that few people have heard of. Now that the Sumatran rhino has become functionally extinct in the state, the dubious title belongs to the Bornean banteng, a species of wild bovid endemic to the island. Land use changes over the past 100 years have driven a decline of the banteng, as a huge human population increase and a shift from swidden (slash-and-burn) farming to permanent crops has altered their habitat. They are also subject to widespread poaching. The few remaining herds have, over time, been isolated into separate, highly inbred groups. They are already extinct in neighbouring Brunei and Sarawak.
Banteng are an important part of the Sabah ecosystem: their grazing controls tree growth, allowing plants to push through; their dung fertilises the soil, thereby supporting insects and animals further up the food chain such as birds. ‘They are on the path to extinction,’ says John Payne of BORA. ‘The inbreeding issue and slowly declining small herds can be addressed only by a combination of pastures developed wherever herds still exist to boost habitat carrying capacity and herd sizes, and by conservation.’
Payne believes a captive-breeding programme, similar to that which brought the European bison back from the brink, could reverse the animal’s fortunes, mix genomes and boost numbers. ‘Unfortunately, there is a bizarre sentiment nowadays against captive breeding of any endangered large mammal species, including in the big conservation NGOs, which are influenced by social media keyboard warriors, so governments are now afraid to stick their neck out and support captive breeding,’ says Payne. ‘It’s sad that fashions in thinking are now contributing to their decline.’

‘The oil palm industry is here to stay,’ says Desilets, ‘and it’s likely going to grow, so we need to make sure it doesn’t aff ect biodiversity. Calling for a boycott of all palm oil in places such as the EU, Australia or the USA would have a negligible impact on the production of it, as the greatest take-up is from countries such as India and China, which have less insistence on sustainability.’ She is, however, optimistic because she sees NGOs, ‘progressive companies’ and some government agencies coming together and pushing for sustainable or responsible palm oil. 

Conservationists broadly agree that, if the world requires an edible oil to make everything from pizzas to toothpaste to margarine, then palm oil is the least bad option. As Michelle Desilets, executive director of the Orangutan Land Trust, points out, to obtain the same amount of oil from soybeans or coconuts you would need between four and ten times more land, which would just shift the problem to other parts of the world. Another factor in favour of oil palms is that, unlike many crops, or cattle ranching, they can thrive on poor soil for cycles of up to 25 years before being replaced on the same land with new oil palms – it’s not a case of land becoming useless after just a handful of years. This natural advantage provides the rationale behind the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil. To qualify as ‘responsible’, oil palms must meet several criteria, including a requirement that they generally be grown on existing plantations and not on purpose-cleared rainforest. Other mitigation measures include planting legumes around the oil palms and using dead fronds of old palms as soil coverings, a step that helps slow runoff and erosion from heavy rains and returns nutrients to the soil as they rot down.

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The majority of protected areas in Sabah are owned by the state government. In 2019, the Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Environment kickstarted efforts to create a more robust state-wide wildlife policy in order to address the increasing threats facing wildlife. The previous year, the Sabah state government launched its Sabah Forest Policy, which aims to maintain at least 50 per cent of the state’s landmass under forest reserves and tree cover, and for 30 per cent of Sabah to be designated as totally protected areas by 2025. In 2015, Sabah launched a ten-year jurisdictional plan to deliver 100 per cent RSPO-certified (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil) oil by 2025. At the national level, last year, the Malaysian Minister of Primary Industries announced that the country was halting oil palm plantation expansion to ensure that Malaysia’s forest cover remains above 50 per cent, a moratorium that extended to Sabah.

While this is undoubtedly good news, it remains wise to be cautious, given shifting political developments. ‘While there is a foundational policy framework in place in Sabah that supports biodiversity conservation, sustainable development and economic growth, the current political scenario is quite dynamic and may lead to erosion or non-implementation of such policies or even changes in priorities,’ says a spokeswoman for WWF Malaysia.

Yet, such moves are welcomed by Desilets and other campaigners, who hope they represent a meaningful shift towards long-term management, rather than firefighting in the form of centres such as the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, which is Sabah’s best-known visitor attraction and, until recently, a draw for tens of thousands of visitors every year. ‘With all the will in the world, picking up orangutans and putting them in rescue centres is not a sustainable option in the long term,’ says Desilets. ‘It’s not going to happen overnight, but things are going in the right direction.’

Borneo loggingThere has been no island-wide documentation of forest clearances or logging in Borneo

NGOs still have a significant role to play. Work by Hutan has included documenting how orangutans can adapt and survive in man-made landscapes and erecting orangutan bridges to help the primates traverse rivers where bankside deforestation makes it impossible. Hutan is also actively acquiring privately owned land to create forested corridors for wildlife. Ultimately, however, meaningful laws need to be put in place to achieve change and meet such goals, says Payne. ‘Large land owners, mainly oil palm estates, need to be compelled by government policy to allocate small percentages of the land to restoration of habitat for some species. A few of these land owners are embracing the idea on a voluntary basis, but most aren’t. This will need to be done on a pre-planned, landscape scale, so the plant species planted are beneficial and in the appropriate sites.’ In order to allow a wild population of orangutans to recover on the mixed oil palm–forest landscape, he adds, ‘their food supply has to be boosted significantly in order to raise carrying capacity of the species in the oil palm monoculture areas.’

Conservationists require paradoxical tactics, says Payne, whereby both urgency and patience are required. ‘We need to keep raising the bar slowly over the next few decades,’ he says, ‘and get things like restoring and managing wildlife habitat to become the new norm. We also have to wait patiently for the old guys to retire and die, and the younger managers, owners and shareholders to grow to accept this new norm.’


Subscribe to Geographical today for just £38 a year. Our monthly print magazine is packed full of cutting-edge stories and stunning photography, perfect for anyone fascinated by the world, its landscapes, people and cultures. From climate change and the environment, to scientific developments and global health, we cover a huge range of topics that span the globe. Plus, every issue includes book recommendations, infographics, maps and more!


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