New rainforest conservation initiative converts oil palm plantations into rainforest

An alliance of conservationists and researchers is converting oil palm plantations into near-natural rainforests on Borneo.

Oil palm platations: Project area on Borneo, Malaysia. | Photo: Robert Risch

The conversion will restore the high biodiversity of the tropical rainforests on Borneo in Malaysia by establishing a wildlife corridor between the Tabin and Kulamba protected areas in the east of the Malaysian state of Sabah. Currently, the protected areas are separated by oil palm plantations. These plantations pose a particular threat to orangutans and dwarf elephants. The animals go to the plantations in search of food and are often killed there because of the damage they cause.

The nature and species conservation organisations involved are the Borneo Orangutan Survival (BOS) Germany, the Rhino and Forest Fund (RFF) and the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research (Leibniz-IZW).

The first step in establishing the wildlife corridor is to secure the central palm oil cultivation areas and the adjacent areas. Thanks to BOS Germany, further important areas can now be purchased. In the next step, the areas will be transferred to the Government of Malaysia, which will then transfer these areas to the highest protection status (“Protected Forest Reserve Class 7”).

Afterwards, with the support of the Leibniz-IZW, research will be conducted into the best way to convert oil palm plantations into near-natural rainforests and how the newly acquired habitat is used by wild animals.

Preventing animal species extinction

Iman, the last Sumatran rhino in Malaysia, died on 23.11.2019. This tragedy was caused by various factors such as illegal hunting, fragmentation and destruction of habitat. The goal is to prevent such catastrophes for other animal species such as the orang-utan or the Borneo elephant.

“This is our first project in Malaysia. Here we can make an enormous contribution to the conservation of endangered wildlife. Tabin and Kulamba are indispensable retreats not only for the Borneo orangutan, but also for the hair-nosed otter, the Sunda-clouded leopard, the Borneo elephant and the Borneo banteng and numerous other endangered species,” explains Daniel Merdes, Managing Director of BOS Germany.

More support needed

“BOS Germany’s contribution will enable us to establish a wildlife corridor at least 800 metres wide. In order to expand the corridor further, we are dependent on further support. The acquisition of private plantation areas is an indispensable measure to reconnect already fragmented forest areas and to give endangered species a longer-term survival perspective,” says Robert Risch, RFF board member.

The aim is to convert the acquired oil palm plantations into natural-near rainforest and to document this process scientifically. “I am particularly interested in the reintroduction of wildlife into areas with few species,” explains Dr Petra Kretzschmar, ecologist at Leibniz-IZW and board member at the RFF. “We would like to find out how long it takes for palm oil plantations with few wildlife species to regain their original biodiversity after renaturation.”

Soil degradation also a result

In Southeast Asia, deforestation mainly affects the ecologically valuable lowland rainforests, which are predominantly replaced by oil palm plantations and other monocultures. However, this intensive agricultural use not only destroys the habitats of many animal and plant species, but also causes lasting damage to the soil and climate. These degraded areas can then be used less and less for agricultural purposes.

“The alliance of RFF, BOS, Leibniz-IZW and Sabah Forestry Department makes an important contribution to the UN Sustainability Development Goal 13: Climate Action: Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts, and Goal 15: Life on Land: Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss,” explains Steven Seet, Head of Public Relations at Leibniz-IZW and board member of the RFF.

“Now that the areas have been secured, it is important to deliver evidence-based results. How does the optimal conversion process from oil palm plantations to rainforest and the use of the newly gained areas by wild animals look like? In order to answer these central questions, we are currently looking for financial support and additional cooperation partners.”

The researchers aim to develop a blue print for converting overused agricultural areas – such as oil palm plantations – to near-natural rainforests. The research findings from this pilot project can then be transferred to other areas in Malaysia, but also in Indonesia.

Photo credit: Robert Risch

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