Saturday, November 03, 2012

Orangutan call: Break the impotence

WHAT was the mood at the Sabah Orangutan Dialogue 2012, held at Shangri-la Rasa Ria Resort, Oct 24-25?

I attended one of the workshop sessions on Oct 24.

Everybody was impatient at the lack of progress on the reconnection of fragmented forests, especially in Lower Kinabatangan - Sabah's premier river nature and ecotourism destination.

One primatologist and conservationist after another had pleaded for the need to glue back the fractures which kept the 1,100 orangutans (2002 figures) physically and genetically isolated.

In fact, Dr John Payne, former Director of WWF-Malaysia Office Sabah advocated wildlife sanctuary status for Lower Kinabatangan way back in the 1980s when it was a robust 68,000-hectre connected primeval wetland forest.

But the State Government Sabah waited and waited until it had gone down to just 28,000 hectares in and around 2002, after the media pressed for public commitment.

Again, French primatologist Marc Ancrenaz had pressed for reconnection of fragmented forests for as long as I had known him since the late 1990s.

A complex web of problems needing big money, plantations but also villagers held back the obvious need for solutions.

So, little or no reconnection had taken place, for a prime riverine tourism destination which draws hordes of ecotourists who are attracted to the awe and charisma of the wild Orangutan, especially an incredible hulk like the mighty flanged male represents.

So, will this be another wait for nothing.

Years of inaction But what happened during those years of inaction?

An apparent observed decline by about 25pc, the victims being the Orangutan and Marc actually said Proboscis monkey had gone down, too.

About 300 Orangutans had gone missing from the pockets of fragmented forests, leaving the standing current head counts in Lower Kinabatangan at around 800 or so.

No one is precisely definite about their fate or whereabouts.

UK based Nature Alert took the chance to accuse the oil palm industry in Sabah for 'slaughtering' them and went as far as accusing Orangutan NGOs in the UK for 'sleeping' with their killers.

However, Lower Kinabatangan-based French geneticist, Dr Benoit Goossen, said: "It's impossible.

We would know it, the Department of Wildlife will know it, if people in the oil palm plantations have slaughtered 300 orangutans."

Goossen cited forest fragmentation of Orangutan habitats as the most plausible culprit.

"I think it's a natural process due to fragmentation, due to the fact that the Orangutans have to disperse to breed. So they venture into the plantations and go somewhere else," he said.

300 missing Orangutan found in plantations? "We believe the 300 Orangutans which are not found in the Lower Kinabatangan forest fragments any more may have ventured into the plantations," Dr Goossen said.

"When Marc (Ancrenaz) did his first population survey in 2002, he didn't look at the plantation but when he did the survey again in 2007, the survey showed some Orangutans in the plantations.

Those could be (missing) orangutans found in the fragments in 2002 and they are moving, living transients passing the plantations, sometimes because they have no choice," Dr Goossen said.

"The reality is this is something we have predicted," he asserted.

"Following our 2002 population and habitat viability analysis, we predicted that the Orangutans in small fragments in Lower Kinabatangan would go extinct if we do not reconnect the forests in between.

This is kind of a natural process. Some of the fragments are overcrowded with Orangutans , so they try to move out and they are moving out to plantations, using the plantations to disperse," Goossen added, citing Hutan (Marc's research centre) interviews with a lot of plantation workers who affirmed seeing Orangutans in plantations.

"This means the Orangutans are using plantations for dispersal, it doesn't mean they can survive in plantations."

Stable and unstable populations Marc reiterated the reconnection imperative. "Some places are so isolated that if we don't work hard to reconnect them, the 1,100 (including the 300 supposed transients in plantations?) will not be there forever, they will lose out over time because of food competition and breeding (inbreeding?).

So, what are the major reconnections to be done?

"To me, secure and capture the following populations: Tabin Wildlife Reserve; Kulamba and the ones in Lower Kinabatangan," he said.

These are what he called "unstable" populations.

"We know they are not viable (in the long run)," he said.

In contrast, there are populations assumed to be "stable" and Marc cited Deramakot.

Continue reading at: Orangutan call: Break the impotence