1 June 2022


Ancient, important yet incredible fragile

Sabah is a Malaysian state that occupies the northern part of the island of Borneo. Its remaining rainforests are brimming with incredible wildlife, store huge amounts of carbon and provide vital resources for millions of people. They are among the world’s most richly-biodiverse ecosystems, and we can’t afford to lose them.

Rampant logging, fires and unsustainable palm oil production have led to Borneo losing a third of its forests since the 1970s - releasing millions of tonnes of stored carbon into the atmosphere and putting already vulnerable wildlife at risk.

One-fifth of Sabah is now covered in oil palm plantations where wildlife-rich forests stood just 40 years ago. And as these forests have been cleared, orangutans and other species have lost their habitat. In addition, the palm oil sector needs to address issues of poor wages, labour standards and other human rights.

A digger ploughs deforested land on an oil palm plantation in Sabah, Borneo on 26 March, 2019.
A digger ploughs deforested land on an oil palm plantation in Sabah, Borneo on 26 March, 2019. © Chris J Ratcliffe / WWF-UK

Yet there is another side to the story.

Since 2007, WWF-Malaysia has worked with our partners to restore and protect vital orangutan habitats in Sabah’s Bukit Piton Forest Reserve.

15 years ago, vast areas of the reserve were severely degraded following decades of unsustainable logging and forest fires. What remained was surrounded by oil palm plantations, leaving orangutans isolated and struggling to survive.

We urgently needed to save and restore this unique ecosystem for the apes and other wildlife - and so our work to help replant Bukit Piton began.

Almost a million trees and lots of hard work later, the forest is flourishing again, with 2,400 hectares now restored and thriving. Orangutans are making the most of their healthy home, and our monitoring team reports seeing lots of females and their infants - which bodes well for the population’s future. What’s more, Bukit Piton has been reclassified as a Class 1 forest reserve, giving it the highest levels of protection.

Bukit Piton Forest Reserve - Forest Restoration & Orangutan Conservation Project

Orangutan nest spotted at the planted tree
Bukit Piton Forest Reserve © WWF-Malaysia / Mazidi Abd Ghani

Protect, Produce, Restore - With those three pillars in mind we designed the Sabah Landscapes Programme (SLP), a program designated for the rehabilitation of Sabah’s forests. Restoring its degraded ecosystems by planting trees and establishing ecological corridors to reconnect orangutan and other fragmented wildlife populations is only one part of the overall mission.

We preserve remaining forests and wildlife by protecting and effectively managing wildlife habitats, with strong measures to halt deforestation and conversion. The Produce pillar builds on the Sabah state government’s commitment to produce 100% RSPO certified palm oil by 2025. The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) is a global not-for-profit association formed in 2004 with the principal objective of “promoting the growth and use of sustainable palm oil products through credible global standards and engagement of stakeholders.” It includes strong actions to manage ecosystems and agricultural land to sustainably produce palm oil, timber and other products.

This has been a huge success story and proof that protecting and restoring Sabah’s forests can help orangutans thrive.