The Kinabatangan floodplain of Sabah, Malaysian Borneo is a biodiversity hotspot, harbouring a remarkable diversity and abundance of wildlife, such as the Bornean orang-utan, Bornean elephant, clouded leopard, as well as a wide array of birdlife.
Following intense exploitation, the forest ecosystem is highly degraded and fragmented, with the lower Kinabatangan floodplain area encompassing around 100,000 hectares of forests, half being protected, and more than half a million hectares of extensive oil palm plantations and man-made landscapes. The future of many of Borneo’s threatened and wide-ranging animals largely depends on how non-protected agricultural lands are managed in conjunction with existing and recovering forest fragments.
Chester Zoo partners HUTAN have been working in this area since 1998 but this particular project started in 2018 via an agreement with Sabah Wildlife Department. An area of 110 acres (44.5ha) was contributed by Genting Plantations Bhd (GENP) to establish critical wildlife corridors to provide larger, better-connected, habitat that can sustain viable, healthy, wildlife populations. Funded by Co-op, a Chester Zoo corporate partner, the project combines scientifically designed monitoring and evaluation to provide credible evidence-based recommendations for future planning and management of mixed forest-agricultural landscapes where palm oil production can co-exist with the promotion and protection of biodiversity.
Since 2019, 80% of the wildlife corridor has now been planted with 35 native tree species, and is expected to be finalised in 2023. Through fixed monitoring surveys and acoustic monitoring, we have identified a total of 185 vertebrate species so far in our 30 sampling plots. The relative importance of these species has also been assessed, with 15% (29) of the total species found being endangered and listed in the IUCN Red list as Critically Endangered (2), Endangered (11), and Vulnerable (16). The two Critically Endangered species detected at the reforestation site were the Bornean orangutan and the Sunda pangolin. Of significance was the presence of one the World’s smallest and little known land mammals; we obtained the very first record of the Bornean pygmy shrew (genus Suncus) in Kinabatangan. Results show that forest-dependant species are starting to be found in the corridor, with monitoring work continuing to assess species composition.
The project has successfully secured the replanting of the wildlife corridor and has significantly contributed to the scientific knowledge based guiding successful forest corridor restoration in plantations. Robust biodiversity survey techniques have evidenced successful species recolonisation, and training including best practise guidelines are being prepared.
This project has brought together stakeholders from various sectors but all within the conservation and oil palm niche. Through these partnerships, both the three on the ground partners and the two in the UK, we have been able to create and fund a project which is not only investing in biodiversity and reforestation, but also investing in people and their socio-economic development. Whilst this project focuses on one wildlife corridor within a fragmented landscape, the long term goal is for this project to be replicated, and the lessons learnt from monitoring projects will help to guide future reforestation initiatives to ensure the best result for biodiversity, both in Kinabatangan and also in the wider conservation landscape.
This project won a Gold in the 2023 BIAZA Awards Field Conservation Category