Reforestation team © HUTAN - Shernytta Poloi
In the run up to Go Orange for Orangutans this October, Chester Zoo had the pleasure of a visit from conservation partner Dr Marc Ancrenaz who is Co-director of HUTAN - Kinabatangan Orangutan Conservation Project (KOCP).
During his visit, Dr Ancrenaz shared his experiences directly from Sabah in Malaysian Borneo. He talked about the many ways HUTAN-KOCP work to help conserve orangutan populations and what you can do to help even if you live miles from the Bornean rainforest.
Why was HUTAN set up?
We were driven by bringing together the community, wildlife and research. I am convinced that protected areas are needed for conservation, but protected areas alone are not enough. We need biodiversity outside of protected areas too. And if you want to secure wildlife outside of protected areas then you need to incorporate the human factor into the equation.
So we set up HUTAN to identify whether orangutans can survive in non-protected, degraded forest and to find out more about the existing relationship between people and orangutans in this landscape.
From the beginning we knew that if we did not involve the communities sharing the same habitat in conservation efforts, then we would fail. HUTAN is about involving local people in conservation and identifying ways for people and wildlife to cohabit together.
Orangutans are an iconic endangered species and they represent the many other species who share their forest homes. Animals like the hornbill and the pygmy elephant that unfortunately also face many of the same threats to their survival.
Dr Marc Ancrenaz was a guest speaker at Chester Zoo's 'Conserving the Big Four' symposium
What are your aims?
We must back up conservation with strong science if we want people to listen. We need to know what orangutans need to survive so that we can produce recommendations for better management practices of this non-protected land to help get the most out of the forest for everyone.
For example we work in commercial forest that is exploited for timbers and palm oil industry areas, but we are not trying to fight these industries we are trying to change their practices.
As the population of the world increases and the need for resources increases the habitats of orangutans will be under more and more pressure. And if we are left with only protected areas then we will have isolated populations that are fragmented.
Are there conflicts between the orangutans and people in the region?
Yes, unfortunately orangutans have been shot in palm oil plantations, mainly in newly opened plantations. Orangutans moving through new plantations may destroy young plants and new plantations may not know how to manage this conflict. Many people have never seen an orangutan before and, when they come across one, they kill it out of fear.
The area you are working in is very fragmented, is it difficult to study orangutans when they move between forest and plantations?
Yes it can be very difficult to keep track of the male orangutans in particular as they move around and often vanish for several years. We need to know how far they travel and how they are managing to travel to the areas of forest that are fragmented by plantations.
Direct sightings of orangutans in the plantations are very difficult to achieve, so genetic tracking or satellite tracking will be the future but it is very expensive. This is why we will be trying camera traps for the first time to see how orangutans are adapting to walking on the ground and crossing between this mosaic of forest landscape.
Image © KOCP
Of HUTAN’s achievements, what are the highlights?
I am very proud of the team of 50 people from the local village who work at HUTAN-KOCP. Many of them finished school aged 14 with little experience of conservation and now they are doing fantastic research and attending national and international conferences to present their findings. Some are actually training rangers from the government and this capacity building is very important for the impact to be long-lasting.
What do you think the situation in Sabah will be ten years from now?
In Sabah the divide between agricultural plantations and protected forest is likely to be the same split, unless there is a dramatic change in policy.
Some people say that orangutans will be extinct in ten years but this is not true and it is dangerous to say this just to attract attention. We are still going to lose animals, especially in nearby areas like Indonesia where there is a huge push for development.
We cannot stop development but we can work with the local communities, the government and private industries to ensure better management practices are in place. This can be complicated and it might not be the most glamorous message, but today this should be the fight of conservationists.
But I really think that everybody can make a difference, you don’t have to be in the forest. What I really like about Go Orange for Orangutans is that everyone can be part of the solution.
Consumer choice is going to drive conservation; people’s choices will decide whether or not industries embrace practices that are better for the survival of wildlife like orangutans. I understand that people are constrained by finances and need to look for cheaper products but if products are not labelled clearly they do not even have the chance to make a choice. Certification is definitely part of the solution.
When working on an in situ project like HUTAN you really need long-term commitment and Chester Zoo is a really great partner. You can be instrumental to change. Governments will pay attention. We are not there yet but with each campaign like Go Orange, people take notice.
I am Dr Marc Ancrenaz and I Act for Wildlife