Hope for Sabah wildlife

SABAH's forestry chief believes that if the orang utan is going to survive as a species, it will be in the state -- due to its well-managed forests.

Datuk Sam Mannan's conviction stems from the forest governance which the state authorities had put in since decades ago although it was admittedly a different scene then when the forests were logged heavily.

During the boom period when lands were expanded at a rapid pace, an alarming number of orphaned orang utan was reported at rehabilitation centres. 

But Sabah is now a trailblazer in conservation efforts, fully aware that its rich biodiversity is crucial not only for Malaysia but globally. "Some 75 to 80 per cent of orang utan in Sabah are either in protected areas or areas which are well-managed. 

"The heartland of the orang utan is in Ulu Segama, Danum Valley, Malua and Deramakot -- which measures 450,000 ha in area," he said, in an interview at his office. Forest reserves and parks make up four million ha or 53 per cent of its land area and there is no more of that compromise which took place more than 25 years ago.

Borneo, the third largest island in the world, is one of the mega-bio diversity hot spots with a myriad of plant and animal species, many of which are endemic to the island. Deramakot is the world's first certified lowland mixed-dipterocarp tropical forest in 1997, and Sabah intends to repeat this success story in its other forest reserves like Ulu Segama.

Unlike decades ago when the land classification by the colonial masters enabled the rich lowland to be utilised for economic activities, the state government now insists that forest reserve land be replaced, and issues 50-100 year licences.

"If not for the revenue from palm oil which the Sabah government is enjoying, there is no way to expand our conservation efforts," he said, adding that the revenue has accelerated, beating that from forestry.

Forest revenue, which used to be a billion ringgit earner in 1979 (80 per cent of the state's revenue) has nose dived to RM100 million last year.

But "the drought period for timber earnings" should pass as through the long-term licences, Sabah should be able to receive RM500 million from the production of sustainable timber by 2030, he said.

In the interim period, the state must step up its efforts to be innovative and carve out earnings from non-timber sources. These include tourism or sourcing geo-thermal energy from forests. Money is needed to repair whatever damage done to the land but such conservation efforts would lead to a vibrant tourism industry, too.

Sam is all for plantation giant Sime Darby's support in the conservation efforts in Sabah, especially in the Ulu Segama area where it has been helping to restore 45,000 ha of degraded rainforest. This is where the Tabin wildlife reserve is located and the critically endangered Sumateran rhino is found.

Sabah's biodiversity conservation and reforesting efforts have attracted a large number of foreign agencies and non-governmental organisations like the World Wide Fund for Nature, Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), Alexander Abraham Foundation, as well as business corporations like Marks and Spencer.

Foreign organisations such as the Royal Society United Kingdom which celebrated its 25 years in the Danum Valley is continuing its work with the Yayasan Sabah Concession Area.

Of immediate concern to Sam and his team is the 40,000 ha of forest reserve which was encroached by the small oil palm developers. He hopes more corporations will take the cue from Sime Darby.

So far his enforcement has destroyed 5,000 of this encroached land but to embark on replanting a forest promises to be an expensive affair, costing not less than RM80,000 per ha. Sam blames the small companies or individuals with oil palm smallholdings for giving the industry a bad reputation.

The culprits, he said, are those with bad agricultural practices, especially the smaller companies which do not respect the riparian reserves which form buffer or protection zones for the wildlife.

Because the wildlife sanctuary of Kinabatangan came about after the land alienation exercise (which explains its odd shape), the Forestry Department is also ensuring that natural corridors are provided for primates and other mammals. In some instances, artificial bridges, using ropes, are provided to enable the primates to cross the rivers.

To Sam, the next 20 years is critical for Sabah, "we must not falter otherwise our rainforest will be in trouble".

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