Experts Say Sabah Is Doing Right Thing For Orangutan Conservation

A flanged orang-utan male. (copyright HUTAN-KOCP/Kapar)

KOTA KINABALU: Some 100,000 orangutan have disappeared in the last 16 years in Borneo. This is what a new study, published last week in Current Biology, reveals.

Two Sabah-based co-authors, Dr Marc Ancrenaz, co-director of the NGO HUTAN and Dr Benoit Goossens, director of Danau Girang Field Centre and Reader at Cardiff University, took part in the study and they explain the significance of these results for Sabah and praise the government’s hard work to protect orangutan in the State.

“This figure is staggering and means a few things at the scale of Borneo, explained Ancrenaz.

“First of all, the rate of decline is much faster than what we thought, and this is worrying. If we cannot stop this decline, many more of this population is going to disappear in the next few decades.


“It also means that there were more orangutan in the past than what we thought, and this illustrates how difficult it is to know exactly how many wild orangutan are surviving in Borneo. Counting these animals is indeed a very difficult task and most (if not all) estimates published in the past have been shown to be wrong,” confirmed Ancrenaz.

According to him, the major reason explaining this decline is the killing that happens in non-protected and protected areas. Forest conversion for agriculture explains less than 50% of the decline.

“This also means that it is urgent to change our approach to conserve the orangutan,” he said.


“What does that mean for Sabah,” asked Goossens. “Most large populations have been relatively stable for the past 20 years in the State thanks to the creation of new fully protected forests by the State government.

“The goal of the State Government to set aside 30% of its forests as totally protected areas will certainly increase the chance of survival of orangutans in Sabah.”

Goossens pointed out that severe habitat fragmentation and further land conversion could take a heavy toll on small orangutan populations.

For example, he said, data from HUTAN and Sabah Wildlife Department showed that the fragmented population of orangutan living in Lower Kinabatangan was about 1,100 in the early 2000’s.

Today, it is believed that this population numbers less than 800 individuals.

“Hunting is not an issue in Lower Kinabatangan. This decline is explained by habitat loss and the fact that orangutans need a landscape with sufficient natural forest to survive,” added Ancrenaz.

An orang-utan foraging in oil palms. This behaviour is increasingly common in the oil palm estates of Sabah. Copyright HUTAN/KOCP-Kapar)

“Many other small groups of animals that were isolated in the late 1990s-early 2000s because of oil palm conversion were not accounted for during the orangutan state survey of the early 2000s. Most of these small populations are now gone.”

Goossens goes on to suggest that there are ways to improve the chance of long-term survival of this iconic species in Sabah.

“We need to create forest corridors at the landscape level that will allow the orangutan to move freely and to find new lands to establish their own territories. Here the efforts of the government to protect 30% of the forest need to be applauded: this will be a game saver for the largest populations,” he said.

“And the move from the Chief Minister of Sabah to scrap the Sukau bridge that would have further fragmented the Kinabatangan orangutan population was highly commendable.

A female and her young in Kinabatangan. (credit HUTAN/KOCP-Kapar)

“We also need to ensure that no orangutan is killed but if this happens, the poachers must be brought to justice. Finally, we need to improve the management practices outside of protected areas. Indeed, orangutan are large roaming species and they need vast areas to forage and to disperse.

“The CSPO jurisdictional approach is also a real hope to ensure a brighter future for the species in Sabah,” added Goossens. “However, even if the larger orangutan populations seem to be somehow secure, there is still a real risk that smaller groups of animals that are unaccounted for today may disappear in the next few years. The clock is ticking,” added Goossens.

Ancrenaz and Goossens have been working in Sabah for more than 20 years and the duo sincerely believe that the major orangutan populations in Sabah are secure thanks to the commitment from Sabah government to protect 30% of their land mass.

Moreover, they add, hunting is not a big issue here, compared to other parts of the island.

There is definitely hope for wildlife in the State. Sabah might be in the future the last place where it is possible to find wild orangutan,” they concluded.

REFERENCE: Voigt et al. 2018. Global demand for natural resources eliminated more than 100,000 Bornean orangutans.Current Biology 28: 1-9.


Loss Of 100,000 Orangutan In Borneo – Sabah Wildlife Refutes Claim…/fulltext/S0960-9822(18)30086-1