- The Rhino and Forest Fund (RFF), a conservation NGO, is working to create wildlife corridors in eastern Sabah, in Malaysian Borneo, by reforesting land converted for oil palm plantations — a strategy that includes purchasing land legally being farmed.
- RFF works closely with the Sabah government, and reports that rare species are already making use of the developing corridor, including Bornean elephants, orangutans, sun bears and clouded leopards.
- However, raising funds to buy oil palm plantations has proven challenging, with many funders more focused on preserving intact forests or shying away from any involvement with the oil palm industry.
- Unable to rely on piecemeal donations, RFF is looking for other sources of revenue, including a plan to harvest and sell oil palm fruit while restoration gets underway.
SABAH, Malaysia — Inside a former oil palm plantation, the palms appear to be sinking into a sea of greenery, their fronds meeting with spindly saplings that forge upward.
In comparison to the regimented rows of oil palms in an adjacent plantation, where the earth is bare from chemical spraying, it’s like standing in an enchanted forest where nature has taken back control.
This regeneration has taken place since October 2020, when the Rhino and Forest Fund (RFF), a conservation NGO, began replanting 65 hectares (161 acres) of land that was previously legally converted to oil palm near the Tabin Wildlife Reserve in the Malaysian state of Sabah. As Mongabay previously reported, RFF purchased the land using charitable donations, an approach its executive director Robert Risch says was the first of its kind for an international NGO. Restoring this parcel of land is part of a wider plan to reforest a 7,000-hectare (17,300-acre) corridor between the Tabin and Kulamba wildlife reserves and a stretch of mangrove forest.
These protected areas of prime lowland forest are strongholds for many of Borneo’s most endangered flora and fauna, including what may be the largest remaining population of the Bornean banteng (Bos javanicus lowi), a type of wild cattle.
Mongabay visited RFF’s restoration project in May to see how it’s coming along and whether the wildlife corridor strategy can become a model for wider oil palm restoration.
Outside of protected forest areas, nearly all of eastern Sabah has been cleared for oil palm. The three-hour drive to the restoration project from the nearest town, Lahad Datu, gives a sense of the scale of fragmentation on the isolated peninsula where Tabin lies. Passing through vast commercial estates is a tour of every stage of oil palm growth: hillsides cloaked with spiky young coronets, dizzying rows of full-grown palms, and desolate stretches of bare earth awaiting replanting.
RFF’s restoration project aims to reverse the destructive effects of monoculture agriculture by replanting a diversity of tree species that will enrich and enhance biodiversity and restore ecosystems, Risch says.
“We are actively planting certain species that won’t come back on their own and maintaining them by cutting climbers and creepers to get a closed canopy,” he says, pointing out one of a variety of tropical dipterocarp saplings that have been planted throughout the site.
The predominance of dipterocarps in Sabah and other parts of Borneo makes reforestation particularly difficult. These towering trees mainly reproduce during mast fruiting events that may only occur a few times a decade, so natural regeneration is very slow. But they also provide an important habitat for threatened species such as the Bornean orangutan (Pongo pygmaeus) and proboscis monkey (Nasalis larvatus).
RFF is also focusing on reintroducing rare tree species like Bornean ironwood (Eusideroxylon zwageri), also known as belian, that have been depleted by logging. The organization is also planting a higher density of fruit trees than would naturally occur in a forest, to enhance the carrying capacity for wildlife. Fruit trees like durian (Durio spp.) or strangler fig (Ficus spp.) are “keystone species for restoration,” Risch says, “because they attract lots of animals that then disperse other seeds in their intestine.”
Some 40 tree species have been planted, including fast-growing pioneers. “We can expect some canopy closure after five years, but we don’t have the experience yet, it’s just an estimate,” Risch says.
Experience has taught RFF the importance of maintaining shade cover while seedlings establish themselves, so the project doesn’t fell the standing oil palms all at once. Instead these will be thinned and phased out over several years.
Silviculture maintenance, which involves liberating the saplings from climbers and creepers and replacing any trees that have failed, will also continue for three to five years.
“We don’t expect all the saplings to survive,” says RFF field project manager Annuar Jain, who oversees the restoration. “So far, we have a 60-70% survival rate for planted trees.”
Not all restoration attempts are successful. On average, about half of trees planted in tropical and subtropical forest restoration efforts don’t survive more than five years, but there’s enormous variation in outcomes, according to a 2022 study by researchers at the U.K. Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (UKCEH).
Restoration experts with experience in Sabah say RFF’s restoration approach is promising.
Lindsay Banin, lead author of the UKCEH restoration study, suggests in a statement that RFF’s project could contribute a valuable demonstration of what works and where challenges remain in planting for biodiversity. The lessons learned, she says, could be “really powerful to share.”
“With restoration you’re trying to do the best you can with what information you have,” says Michael O’Brien, a senior research affiliate with the Southeast Asia Rainforest Research Partnership (SEARRP), who is based at the Arid Zones Experimental Station in Spain “It’s never a perfect process, it’s a learning curve … It will take time to see whether these approaches will be successful.”
It’s hard to visualize the Tabin-Kulamba wildlife corridor from a map that looks more like a jigsaw puzzle, but visiting a 14-hectare (34.5 acre) section of buffer zone along 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) of the Tabin River that RFF began restoring in 2012 gives a sense of what it could eventually look like.
“This was the last thread of protected dryland connectivity connecting Tabin to anything else,” Risch says. “Here there were only a few [non-oil palm] trees left, it was really badly degraded.”
Some 4,000 new trees have been planted along the buffer zone that extends 20 meters (65 feet) on either side of the river. It’s now hard to distinguish between the restoration activities and natural regeneration. “I would say this is successful restoration. Here we almost have a closed canopy,” Risch says. With the restoration of the adjacent oil palm site, the corridor has been widened further.
The Bornean pygmy elephant (Elephas maximus borneensis) is one of the key beneficiaries of this strip of corridor. Of the estimated 1,500 remaining in the wild, about a third reside in eastern Sabah. Before the project began, they were unable to pass this point for at least a decade because of elephant fences and being chased off by plantation workers. They still face conflict when they stray outside of the protected areas, Risch says.
With the aim of attracting more wildlife to the corridor, RFF also excavated an oxbow lake with three islands in a large open area between the buffer zone and the oil palm restoration sites that was unsuitable for replanting. A year ago, this area was a desert of mucuna, a legume commonly used in oil palm plantations to fix nitrogen and prevent other growth. “Now we call it a wildlife oasis,” Risch says.
RFF is aiming for the waterbody and additional fruit trees to attract Storm’s storks (Ciconia stormi) and lesser adjutants (Leptoptilos javanicus) — threatened birds that are regularly sighted in the area — and the extremely rare hairy-nosed otter (Lutra sumatrana) that has a population of less than 100 but has also been sighted in Tabin. Piles of recent dung around the lakeshore indicate that the elephants are also enjoying a new bathing area.
The lake has filled naturally with rainwater and is designed to benefit from overflow from the Tabin River to replenish fish stocks. However, this also brings the risk of people using the lake for fishing, so a trench has been dug all around as a deterrent. “We hope it may also attract crocodiles,” Risch adds ruefully.
Hunting is also a threat to the area’s wildlife; some hunters come from local communities where hunting is a tradition, but Risch says they’re more likely to be transient workers from nearby plantations or professional wildlife traffickers. RFF plans to raise funds to be able to employ a team of rangers, working in tandem with the authorities, to protect its sites.
Already, the team is seeing an increase in threatened species using the project sites. Proboscis monkeys, orangutans, Storm’s storks, red-leaf monkeys (Presbytis rubicunda), sun bears (Helarctos malayanus) and clouded leopards (Neofelis diardi) are some of the species that RFF has observed for the first time in the project area since the oil palm restoration project began.
Camera traps have recently been installed to try to quantify the wildlife presence, comparing the restoration site with an oil palm plantation and adjacent natural forest, “so this will most likely reveal that in our area there is already more interesting activities than adjacent oil palm areas,” Risch says.
Since 2021, RFF has extended its restoration activities to two new project sites in eastern Sabah. In Bukit Piton, the team is restoring a section of degraded forest along the Segama River and creating more wildlife oases with three new ponds. This area is home to a significant population of orangutans. RFF is also restoring 63 hectares (156 acres) of illegally encroached forest that’s part of a 1000-hectare (nearly 2,500-acre) protected forest in Silabukan to the south.
“All these activities at the same time contribute to the protection of these areas because if there is an active project, there is more awareness and it becomes a priority area for the authorities to make sure that they tackle illegal activities,” Risch says. This has included the discovery of an illegal hunting camp in Silabukan, which was destroyed by the authorities, but may not have been spotted otherwise, he says.
RFF’s restoration work in eastern Sabah has only been possible, Risch says, through close collaboration with the Sabah Forestry Department and the support of key individuals, in particular the state’s deputy chief conservator, Robert Ong, who also heads the Forest Research Centre in Sepilok. RFF funds a core team of five local staff who work under the forestry department, but specifically on joint projects with RFF, which means they represent both a government agency and an international NGO, facilitating access to private oil palm land and making it easier to talk with communities.
After decades of deforestation and land conversion across Sabah, the state government has in recent years set ambitious conservation targets. In 2018, Sabah made a commitment to significantly increase its totally protected areas, which stood at 11% in 2000. “The idea is by 2025 to have at least 30% of Sabah under conservation protected status,” Ong says. “We are closer to 28% now. I think ultimately we can achieve 32%.”
This equates to 2.2million hectares (5.4 million acres), which is being achieved largely by protecting forests once zoned for production, and acquiring and converting land critical for connecting conservation areas, Ong says.
Risch says Sabah’s conservation strategy is good overall, but also needs to focus more on tackling existing fragmentation, even though acquiring land in critical areas is costly.
Where it can, RFF is working with the forestry department to gazette and restore state-owned land that’s been encroached on for oil palm, which can be protected without buying land. This includes 2,300 hectares (nearly 5,700 acres) of the Tabin-Kulamba corridor project, which Risch says “was the most crucial achievement.”
But this strategy hasn’t always been successful. RFF was confident it would secure a 100-hectare (247-acre) state-land plot within the planned corridor, part of which had been illegally planted by squatters two decades earlier. Recently, the state government gave out land titles to the squatters and other applicants, so now it’s mostly private land used for oil palm.
“A lot of local people consider the land theirs when they apply for a land title, before it’s official,” Risch says. “Our biggest setback was that we couldn’t prevent the alienation of this crucial state-land area.” This is a widespread issue, other sources told Mongabay: if there’s local political support, state land encroached on for agriculture can become degazetted.
So far, more than half of the planned 7,000 hectares of the Tabin-Kulamba corridor is already protected. The rest is state land that needs to be restored, along with private land, mostly oil palm estate, which Risch says is essential to acquire and protect. The first target is a 540-hectare (1,334-acre) estate that abuts the restoration site, which causes a bottleneck where the corridor is just 800 m (about 2,600 ft) wide.
“This is not sufficient for all species,” Risch says. “Some will make use of it, but timid species such as the banteng need a bigger corridor.”
Securing this plot would widen the diameter to 2.5 km (1.5 mi). RFF would then aim to acquire a 1,000-hectare estate further north. “If we get both of these estates, we expect the corridor to be effective for all species,” Risch says.
RFF has spent the past few months fervently campaigning to fundraise 1 million euros ($1.1 million) to secure at least part of the estate, for which the owner is asking 4.5 million euros ($5 million) to buy the land outright.
“The owner wants to retire and is willing to give us a chance by buying part of the land first, then we can rent it and continue to buy step by step,” Risch says.
“We are under high pressure now. If it’s sold to another oil palm company, we will lose the land for a long time and buying it later would be even more expensive,” he adds.
But the fundraising campaign has so far proved fruitless. Risch says he’s approached multiple large conservation organizations, who he says told him they don’t fund land purchases, or they prioritize saving intact forest. “I am very disappointed,” he says.
Risch says the current conservation mind-set is too narrowly focused on protecting remaining pockets of forests, neglecting the broader problem of connectivity.
“Even if you freeze deforestation, it would not stop species loss because these isolated subpopulations are too small to survive long term. And to improve connectivity in Southeast Asia you have to restore oil palm areas back to forest,” he says.
The palm oil industry’s bad public image can also create stigma around oil palm restoration. “For environmentalists, an oil palm estate is the opposite of an intact rainforest,” Risch says. “But you need some imagination to anticipate what could be done with this land. This land could be turned into a wildlife oasis with a much higher carrying capacity for wildlife than even an untouched primary forest of the same size.”
At the beginning of June, RFF made an agreement with the landowner to buy the first part of the estate, which will secure 32 hectares (79 acres). “With this small piece it will buy us credibility and some time, but he is expecting us to rent the rest until we can buy the whole plot,” Risch says.
Relying on piecemeal donations has proven to be unsustainable for RFF, so the charity is now diversifying by setting up a separate business entity to run alongside the NGO, which will begin operations in August. Ecotourism may be a future source of revenue, but, in a potentially controversial twist, the quickest and most viable way to generate income to pay for the remaining land appears to be harvesting and selling the oil palm fruit while restoration gets underway. RFF says it hopes to fund part of its work by 2024 with profits generated by the new company.
It plans to phase out the oil palms in three to five years, then hand over the purchased land to the forestry department for total protection, while continuing restoration work for roughly a decade. “To minimize the time when we depend on selling oil palm fruits, we need more donations,” Risch says.
This strategy speaks to the complexities of restoring connectivity in oil palm landscapes.
“Most people don’t dare to start doing anything. It’s a lot of money, it’s difficult to get funding for it, there’s not so much experience restoring oil palm back to forest,” Risch says. “And I think it’s why we are quite alone in the field in this case.”
Commentators Mongabay spoke to note that other oil palm restoration projects are operating in Sabah and the wider region, though they generally focus on encroached protected areas and riverbanks rather than areas that were legally planted. Global demand for sustainable palm oil may also increase the opportunities for wider oil palm restoration; WWF Malaysia, for example, is collaborating with two large palm oil companies in Tabin to restore wildlife corridors in parts of their estates.
Experts also agree that RFF’s Tabin-Kulamba corridor project, and other NGOs taking a similar approach, can have an important impact where there aren’t alternative systems for ensuring connectivity.
“I completely agree with RFF’s approach,” says Rob Ewers, director of the Stability of Altered Forest Ecosystems (SAFE) project, a 10-year research initiative based in Sabah. “There’s so much evidence that corridors make a big difference and animals do use them and if you get them right, it becomes extra habitat in itself.”
He says alternative models exist in places like Brazil, where landowners are required to keep a percentage of their land forested, and notes that care must be taken to ensure reforestation in one place doesn’t result in forests elsewhere being cleared for oil palm. “But if you’re in a situation like Sabah, where there are no requirements for keeping part of land forested and you need the space, there’s not much option except buying it,” Ewers says.
Banner image: Executive director of the Rhino and Forest Fund (RFF) Robert Risch showing one of the saplings planted in RFF’s Bukit Piton restoration site, part of a stretch of degraded forest along the Segama River. Image by Louise Hunt.
Banin, L. F., Raine, E. H., Rowland, L. M., Chazdon, R. L., Smith, S. W., Rahman, N. E. B., … Burslem, D. F. R. P. (2022). The road to recovery: A synthesis of outcomes from ecosystem restoration in tropical and sub-tropical Asian forests. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, 378(1867), 20210090. doi:10.1098/rstb.2021.0090
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