8 June 2022


Nest expeditions and tree planting projects

The orangutan, the highly intelligent creature that shares up to 97% of the human DNA, is at risk of losing its habitat in the Malaysian forest.

Despite having a close biological connection with humans, its biggest threat today remains human activity. For many years, the magnificent ‘man of the jungle’ – the orangutan – has been forced to retreat further into the forest as its home suffers from deforestation. Our efforts on-the-ground have proven that through well-established forest management and sustainable land use, the future survival of the orangutan can be secured.

Community efforts create a greener future

Forest restoration has been one of the most important efforts that WWF-Malaysia has taken to solve the orangutan crisis, and it is a solution that has been proven to work. Evidence of a successful forest restoration can be seen in Bukit Piton, located in Eastern Sabah, where around 300 orangutan individuals live today. But up until 2007, Bukit Piton Forest Reserve was a prime example of a severely degraded forest caused by extensive logging, unsustainable harvesting practices and forest fires. But thanks to established conservation efforts to protect orangutans, their populations are now fairly stable.

Aerial view of forest restoration site for orangutan conservation at Bukit Piton Forest Reserve, Lahad Datu, Sabah
Aerial view of forest restoration site for orangutan conservation at Bukit Piton Forest Reserve, Lahad Datu, Sabah © WWF-Malaysia / Mazidi Abd Ghani

A community in Sarawak, Malaysia, has shown that restoring forests can benefit our natural world and contribute to the welfare of the local people. The community of Rumah Manggat, situated in Sarawak, planted 8,000 gaharu trees (Aquilaria microcarpa) as part of an agroforestry project to cultivate a native plant in the area and eventually reached 11,000 planted trees with the help of volunteers.

The gaharu tree (also known as agarwood) is native to Borneo and highly desired for its high economic value to produce medicine, perfume and incense. It has been facing a threat of extinction and is currently listed as Endangered under the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

Traditionally the main component used is the tree’s resin which is produced when the tree is damaged and infected by a parasitic fungus (Phaeoacremonium parasitica). To harvest the profitable resin, the tree would need to be cut down which ultimately leads to deforestation and habitat loss for the orangutan and other species.

But the community of Rumah Manggat took a different approach. Instead of cutting down precious rainforest, idle degraded land was being used to plant the highly desired gaharu trees. This project empowered the local communities to move towards a sustainable form of income that benefits orangutan habitats and themselves. The beauty of this project is that it does not destroy more rainforests but nourishes and conserves them.

Today, the area boasts a productive and robust orangutan habitat enabling orangutan populations to grow and move more freely.

A prime example of people and nature thriving together.

Tree canopy in Tawau Hills Park in Sabah, Borneo, Malaysia
Tree canopy in Tawau Hills Park in Sabah, Borneo, Malaysia © Aaron Gekoski / WWF-US

Nest spotting

Lanjak-Entimau Wildlife Sanctuary is a significant orangutan conservation area in Sarawak. Together with Batang Ai National Park, these protected areas are estimated to shelter approximately 2,500 orangutans and numerous other animal species. Unlike humans, great apes such as orangutans do not recognise man-made boundaries, and there are possibilities that these gentle creatures will venture out of the allocated parks and into danger.

Therefore, WWF-Malaysia collaborated with the communities in Ulu Katibas, Sarawak, to conduct a series of orangutan expedition surveys in the upper reaches of Katibas River, where orangutans were historically found or recently sighted by villagers. These surveys involved counting orangutan nests to determine their population size in these areas.

Counting orangutan nests, whether aerial or on-the-ground, presents many challenges. Ground surveys involve long trekking hours over challenging terrain while covering a much smaller span of area for the same duration as an aerial survey. The largest orangutan habitat in Sabah is within the Ulu Segama Forest Complex, which is four times the size of Singapore. Surveying this area using manpower on-the-ground takes years to complete. Aerial surveys on the contrary can cover a larger area in a shorter period of time but are more expensive.

Each approach has its pros and cons. Therefore, with the help of new technologies, WWF-Malaysia has adopted an advanced method to optimise results using drones to survey. The drone records footage of the treetops which will be used by our orangutan team to spot and record the nests.

After months of exploration, several old nests have been found in one of the areas called Pasin FMU (Forest Management Unit), located in the central region of Sarawak. This was an indication that orangutans were present in the area and it allowed the team to measure the population size in Pasin by counting approximately 20 orangutans. Not only is this quite a low number but it is also a sign that orangutans had ventured out to human-populated areas.

Identifying orangutan habitats in the wild and estimating their population size help us in making informed recommendations on land use and implementing measures to prevent human-wildlife conflict.

The Bornean orangutan is classified as Critically Endangered and urgently needs our communal and ongoing support. Adopting an orangutan helps change the fate of these mighty apes by protecting and restoring the trees they need for food and shelter to survive in the wild.

Only joint efforts can ensure a promising future for the orangutan and reverse deforestation and habitat loss.

A female orangutan eats fruit and sugar cane (1000px)
A female orangutan eats fruit and sugar cane (1000px) © Chris J Ratcliffe / WWF-UK