The orangutan and Borneo pygmy elephant, both endangered species, are struggling to survive as their age-old jungle habitats are cut down for timber, and to make way for agriculture. The Lower Kinabatangan in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo, is on the frontline of the destruction. The land surrounding the 560 kilometre river - the second longest in Malaysia - is home to more than 250 birds, 50 mammals, 20 types of reptile and 1,056 plant species. It is arguably the last forested alluvial floodplain in Asia. But this ecologically diverse area is also the perfect location for oil palm cultivation, which is widely used in products ranging from chocolate to face cream. Eighty-five per cent of the flood plain has been converted to plantations, forcing the animals into a patchwork of unconnected secondary forest.

The effect on orangutans, found only in Borneo and Sumatra, has been devastating. The Bornean orangutans' population has declined by more than 50 per cent since 1950, and habitat loss poses by far the greatest risk to the primates. They are forced to live in isolated and degraded remnants of forest, scavenging on the forest floor and even in plantations for food. But it is not only orangutans that are suffering. Borneo pygmy elephants, which live only in Sabah and Kalimantan, are unable to roam widely and are forced increasingly into conflict with villagers.

For generations the Orang Sungai, like many indigenous people, lived off the forest that was their home. It provided their food, livelihood and medicines. But the commercialisation of the forest has made such a traditional lifestyle almost impossible. In 1999, the people of Batu Puteh in the heart of the Kinabatangan decided enough was enough. Unable to eke out a living from the forest that had once sustained them, they decided to stake their future on peaceful coexistence with the forest and their environment. Reforestation rather than exploitation was, they felt, the best way to help not only the Kinabatangan but also their own people.

Together they set up a village co-operative with the aim of creating a new forest canopy along their stretch of the Kinabatangan, and starting homestay programmes for foreign and domestic tourists. The reforestation project aims to recreate a diverse jungle by cultivating a variety of tree species in their own nurseries. Using indigenous knowledge, the team gathers and nurtures seeds from 23 native species that are not only fast-growing but provide the leaves, flowers and fruit preferred by local wildlife. Monthly maintenance for the first year gives the saplings a higher chance of survival.

The project was the first step towards developing a 'corridor' for wildlife struggling to survive among the fragmented forest. Villages further down river, encouraged by Batu Puteh's success, started their own reforestation efforts and, gradually NGOs, multinationals and officials started to pay attention.

Despite this being a long-term commitment, researchers say they are already reporting sightings of wild orangutans using the corridors. The forests of the Lower Kinabatangan also support some 200 pygmy elephants and also proboscis monkeys - another primate that is unique to the island.

Steve Chao takes a boat to Batu Puteh, witnessing the incredible diversity of wildlife along the floodplain and meeting the local communities who are helping to protect the Kinabatangan.

 
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Source: Al Jazeera