Tuesday, November 03, 2015

Searching for Orangutans but Finding Hope for Borneo’s Endangered Wildlife

“Hold it.” Hasri’s upheld hand tells us. He takes two soundless steps on the dried leaves of the lowland Borneo rainforest and listens. We pause for the strange sound to repeat itself among the jungle cicadas and morning calls of birds. From the dense undergrowth comes a cross between a moan and a hoot.

The Orangutan‘s call repeats itself from the bush nearby. We wait, hoping to catch a glimpse of the great ape or hear a return call from another, but the rustling of the brush indicates the shy ape’s withdrawal. Endemic to Borneo and Sumatra, the Malay word Orangutan means “forest person.”

“That is the female and her baby I saw yesterday “ Hasri says quietly and continues on, pointing out a troop of Macaque monkeys moving through the tree tops.  A Garnet Pitta calls from the dense undergrowth, followed by a glimpse of the bright blue and brilliant red bird that shines like a jewel in the dark green surrounds.

We exit the shade of the tall Fig trees into the sunshine on the bank of the Kinabatangan River of Malaysian Borneo. Proboscis monkeys forage in the trees lining the river’s bank, as the forest birds sing the songs they have been singing for eons. It feels eerily primeval until one’s eye strays across the river.  Beyond the bank stretches seemingly endless rows of an oil palm plantation.

Our guide, Hasri Raman, is a rangy local nature guide, who has worked with the community initiative for more than 16 years. Hasri is the head of the Batu Puteh Community Ecotourism Co-operative (KOPEL) wildlife monitoring unit, and enjoys wildlife photography alongside his job of helping visitors encounter wildlife in the unusual and tangled forests of the Kinabatangan floodplain.

Now in his 40s, Hasri is Orang Sungai – or people of the river- and he grew up in the forest, experienced the change created by massive clear cutting, burning for land-clearance and planting of the jungle into Oil Palm plantations.  This remnant forest, recovering from past cutting and hosts many vanishing species and is as close to his heart as his culture. It is no coincidence that forest person and people of the forest are so closely connected, yet this connection has been ignored by countries and by companies, but not by the people of the forest.

We are visiting the Tungog Rainforest eco camp to view wildlife and learn about efforts like this that are employing local people as stewards of their natural and cultural heritage.  The camp is part of a great community collective called KOPEL, the Batu Puteh Community Ecotourism Co-operative.

The Community of Batu Puteh, is typical of many isolated, indigenous rural communities in Sabah, Borneo Malaysia,  where a millennia of traditional reliance on the rainforest for food, medicines, everyday commodities, as well trade with the outside world. This economy has been displaced by a rapidly developing world, the loss of forests and cultural heritage, and a cash driven lifestyle.

Established now for almost ten years, KOPEL was established to reverse the losses, to capitalize on ancient indigenous and traditional knowledge and culture, to save and create economic value and appreciation of the mega-diverse rich  rainforests of the area, and in the process create a sense of hope for a sustainable future for the people of the Lower Kinabatangan.