The Lower Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary, in Sabah, Malaysia, is one of the most important landscapes for Bornean elephants, as well as a spectacular array of other wildlife, with important populations of orangutans, proboscis monkeys, saltwater crocodiles, and phenomenal birdlife, including the rhinoceros hornbill.
Yet forest clearance for timber in the past and intensive cultivation of oil palm since the 1980s has eaten into this biodiversity hotspot, leaving just isolated blocks of forest, people and elephants fighting for space, and all other wildlife threatened.
Through its involvement as lead charity in Jungle City – which has now transformed the streets of Edinburgh into a jungle – Elephant Family is raising awareness of this wildlife paradise, and securing funds for its partner organisations and projects that are working hard to save it.
Oil palm plantations began replacing the Kinabatangan forest in the 1980s. The Malbumi Oil Palm Estate developed the Tanjung Panjang area along the Kinabatangan River, and constructed buildings to accommodate their workers and a collection centre for the fruits produced in their plantations. A road connects the plantations to a jetty from where a ferry transports fruit-laden lorries and people. Because of the dominance of the estate in the area, the local villagers have come to forget its original name and know it simply as Malbumi.
Tanjung Panjang is also an important area for elephant movements within the Lower Kinabatangan Landscape, and the Malbumi Estate had created a break therein. In 2005, the local NGO, HUTAN – Kinabatangan Orang-utan Conservation Programme (HUTAN – KOCP), the Sabah government and WWF Malaysia successfully reclaimed a 200m strip along the river for the Wildlife Sanctuary, forcing the Malbumi Estate to relocate their employees, and allowing wildlife to continue moving within the landscape.
However, the gravel road left behind is still used for transporting palm oil, and continues to disturb the landscape. Nurzhafarina Othman – Elephant Family’s Representative with HUTAN-KOCP, and researcher for the Danau Girang Field Centre – reports that she and the HUTAN-KOCP’s Elephant Conservation Unit have observed more than 20 vehicles using the road (pictured above) from morning to night, transporting oil palm and plantation workers to the jetty. The drivers sound their horns to keep the elephants within the remaining pockets forest. On one occasion recently, they witnessed an elephant group that had been forced into one pocket of forest by the drivers’ horns, and which was then scared again in another direction by a sound cannon (which are used regularly to keep elephants out of the plantations) from a nearby plantation. The group was left stressed and anxious, and trumpeted for some time afterwards.
Nurzhafarina is studying their behaviour and measuring the levels of stress hormone in their dung from differentlocations, in order to develop a better understanding of their movements and how the break up of their landscape is affecting them. The elephants are not a danger to people’s lives at the moment, but the more stressed they become, the greater the risk that this might change. HUTAN-KOCP have meanwhile recorded that this fragmentation of the landscape has reduced the Kinabatangan Orangutan population, and affected their diet and ranging patterns.
Through Jungle City, we are celebrating the incredible wildlife of the Lower Kinabatangan, alerting people to the threats as described, and hoping that they will be moved to support our vital partnerships to help save it. Support is needed for the Elephant Conservation Unit of HUTAN - KOCP, for example, to continue its work with the local communities and palm oil estates to find ways of keeping conflict between people and elephants to a minimum, and to secure safe passage for the elephants and other wildlife within the landscape. HUTAN-KOCP is also re-foresting the 200m strip of land to restore a “real” wildlife corridor for the elephants – in total this will be a land area of 12 hectares or about 7 1/2 times bigger than the Scottish Parliament Building – while discussing with the Sabah government whether the road should still exist. Meanwhile, Elephant Family is partnered with the Danau Girang Field Centre as well, for their work in tracking the elephants by radio collar, providing invaluable data on their movements and habitat availability, helping prioritise crucial areas for saving the wider landscape.
And now, if inspired by the sculptures on the streets of Edinburgh, supporters of Elephant Family and Jungle City can visit their real life counterparts in the Lower Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary, and even contribute to their protection and the research being carried out. Elephant Family is delighted to have partnered with The Great Projects, an award-winning, responsible tourism social enterprise, which is also a proud sponsor of Jungle City. The Great Elephant Project is a 12-day conservation volunteer experience where there is a chance to see the wildlife, participate in tree planting, spend time with the local community, and help collect information for the researchers. What’s more, some of the proceeds from the cost of the experience is invested directly back into the projects and Elephant Family. by Dan Bucknall, Elephant Family