SPECIAL REPORT: Unlike most people, Markus Salutan’s backyard is not home to domestic animals. Instead, it is a playground for primates such as the Bornean orangutan and other unique wild creatures, some of which can only be found in Sabah.
As Sugut’s Sustainable Forest Management Field Manager, Markus’s home is Trusan Sugut Forest Reserve in the north-eastern part of Sabah. The former forest ranger has been working in Sabah Forestry Department since 1993, with the last four years served as a field manager in Sugut.
“Naturally, I feel quite invested in Trusan Sugut, especially because it is also a treasured home for our highly diverse wildlife,” he remarked.
DIVERSE WILDLIFE AND FOREST TYPES
Trusan Sugut is pint-sized but packs quite a punch. Although the Class I (Protection) Forest Reserve only covers 8,690 hectares, it is home to 365 butterfly species, 57 amphibian species, 103 reptile species, 335 bird species and 168 mammal species, including 40 species of medium-sized and large mammals.
Iconic wildlife such as proboscis monkey, banteng, Bornean orangutan and Sundaland clouded leopard are just some of the mammals that reside in this wildlife haven.
In terms of habitat, Trusan Sugut also boasts various forest types including endangered ones such as lowland mixed dipterocarp forest, a variant of which is the kapur (limestone) forest, lowland kerangas (heath) forest, lowland peat swamp forest, and lowland freshwater swamp forest.
The amazing variety of wildlife and forest types that this tiny haven possesses is very impressive considering that it was heavily logged for decades in its previous lifetime as the southern part of Sugut Forest Reserve was previously a Class II (Production) Forest Reserve.
First logged in 1960s, timber extraction activities came to a stop in 1996; however illegal logging persisted along the riverside of Sugut until 1998.
Currently the forest reserve is bordered by oil palm plantations and human settlements, which puts it at risk for agricultural and domestic waste pollution, encroachment, poaching, illegal harvesting of forest trees, and many more.
A FOREST MANAGEMENT PLAN WITH A STRONG WILDLIFE EMPHASIS
In 2013, WWF-Malaysia approached Sabah Forest to explore the possibility of re-classifying Trusan Sugut, then known as Lower Sugut, as a protection forest. The department was receptive of the idea and asked for assistance in conducting biodiversity surveys.
WWF-Malaysia was also asked to come up with a Forest Management Plan (FMP) from the standpoint of a protection forest reserve (Class I or Class VII) for the area.
“WWF-Malaysia hopes that the conservation-focused FMP will serve as a model for other Class I forest reserves in Sabah,” said Dr Dionysius Sharma, WWF-Malaysia’s Executive Director/CEO.
He added, “Our team of experts in protected areas, wildlife, Geographic Information System (GIS), and forest certification did the necessary research such as setting up camera traps to study wildlife before coming up for recommendations for the FMP.”
Tan Hao Jin, WWF-Malaysia’s Senior Officer in Protected Areas, led the efforts to prepare a High Conservation Value (HCV) assessment report for Trusan Sugut, which documented wildlife presence and abundance.
An HCV assessment also looks at endangered habitats and ecosystem services, along with basic and cultural needs identified of local communities. Results indicated that Trusan Sugut is one of the few places in Sabah where naturally occurring unique plants and animals, forest types and ecosystems can be found within a small protected reserve.
Parts of the Forest Reserve also provide shelter and habitat for aquatic life especially fish, a staple protein source for nearby local communities.
“The lowland freshwater swamp forest, lowland seasonal freshwater swamp forest, and the lowland dipterocarp forest have become increasingly scarce in Sabah over the past few decades, and are now considered endangered,” said Hao Jin.
“You can say that Trusan FR is one of the last refuges for these forest types and their inhabitants”.
While WWF-Malaysia and other collaborators were in the midst of preparing the FMP, SFD decided to duly recognise this nature powerhouse in 2014 by carving it out of Class II Sugut Forest Reserve and reclassifying the area as a Class I Protection Forest Reserve.
This essential legal move protects the forest reserve’s ecosystem functions, and also prohibits all major forms of destructive human activities, such as commercial logging.
INTERNATIONALLY RECOGNISED AS A WELL-MANAGED FOREST
The gazettement is just the beginning of its journey towards reversing the impacts of its extractive past. In order to strengthen its position as a protection forest, SFD decided to apply for a well-managed forest certification by the Forestry Stewardship Council (FSC).
The FSC is an international not for-profit, multi-stakeholder organization that promotes responsible management of the world’s forests.
According to Sam Mannan, Chief Conservator of Forests, Sabah, having a globally-recognised certification for Sustainable Forest Management such as FSC’s will give forest reserves credibility and inspires confidence amongst stakeholders, such as policymakers and conservation donors.
He also believes that it improves governance as the certified forest reserve needs to pass the strict yearly audit surveillance or risk losing the certification.
“Besides Trusan Sugut, we are also aiming for other forest reserves such as Sungai Pinangah, Sook Lake, and Sungai Lumaku Forest Reserves to be certified by FSC within the next 3 years,” said Mannan.
“Ultimately, we would like to see improvements in terms of management efficiency in all forest reserves across Sabah, not just those certified by FSC.”
Having a sound forest management plan also contributes to Trusan Sugut’s success in passing the stringent FSC audit process and getting certified on 16 May 2017. Markus was instrumental in coordinating and supporting the field surveys and also in providing input on the FMP which was completed in September 2016.
“To be honest, my team and I would not be able to complete this FMP without the help of our supportive collaborators,” said Markus humbly. “With the FMP in hand, we can better manage Trusan Sugut, especially in the aspects of wildlife conservation.”
THREATS TO THE TINY HAVEN
One of the parties involved is Sharon Koh, WWF-Malaysia’s Anti-Poaching Manager, who prepared the Minimum Enforcement Standards assessment and the patrolling zone prescriptions for the FMP.
Her team was responsible in setting up the camera traps to study the presence and types of wildlife found in the area.
As WWF-Malaysia’s anti-poaching expert, Sharon has trained many rangers in Sabah to improve their skills, particularly in detecting poachers in forest reserves.
“The management plan has a strong enforcement component for protection against encroachment and also illegal hunting, which unfortunately are some of the main threats for all forest reserves in Sabah,” said Sharon.
“Poachers need to be deterred from entering Trusan Sugut, not only because they trap or shoot wildlife, but also because they may start forest fires simply from littering; discarding their cigarette butts or leaving a camp fire unattended,” Sharon added.
RESTORING THE HEALTH OF THE HAVEN
Some parts of Trusan Sugut occupied by the Bornean orangutan have become severely degraded due to past logging activities and fires; therefore WWF-Malaysia is keen to assist the department in restoring the landscape with native and fast-growing tree species.
“The Bornean orangutan is a tree-dependent species that use trees for food and shelter. They also travel by swinging from the treetops,” said Donna Simon, WWF-Malaysia’s Senior Programme Officer for Orangutan Conservation.
“The Trusan Sugut population is small and isolated. Therefore, connecting the peat swamp forest to the west of Sugut River will serve as the last lowland area hosting a significant population of orangutan in the northern half of Sabah,” she further commented.
In October 2016, a restoration proposal by WWF-Malaysia was approved by Sabah Forestry, and the non-profit organisation is currently finding donors to fund the restoration. About RM1.8 million is needed to restore 150 hectares for five to eight years of maintenance, depending on the type of planting method for the compartments involved.
“Natural regeneration takes a long time and more often than not the forest will regenerate to a different condition, which may not be ideal for orangutan and other wildlife,” said Dr Sharma.
“We intend to lend nature a helping hand, and we hope that the public will support our fundraising efforts for Sabah’s wildlife haven. Together, anything is possible,” he concluded.
To donate to WWF-Malaysia’s restoration efforts in Trusan Sugut FR, please visit www.pandashop.my/symbolically-adopt-orangutan