Well managed and sustainable timber concessions in natural forests of Borneo could become an important sanctuary in the future. The forest concessions already hold the largest proportion of the wild orangutan population – the concessions are home to more orangutans than even protected parks and reserves.
A new study published in PlosOne from an international team of researchers took a close look at the distribution of the orangutan across the island of Borneo and discovered that 29% of the population lived in natural forest timber concessions, 22% of the primates lived in protected parks, 19% lived in undeveloped or under-developed palm oil plantations, 6% lived in undeveloped tree plantation concessions and the remaining 24% lived outside of protected areas and designated concessions.
Overall the orangutan population is spread across 21% of the land mass of Borneo. The island is governed by three different counties:
Operating logging concessions within natural forests is different to forestry plantations as loggers will selectively choose and fell trees to try to ensure that the forests continue to grow and replace the trees that are harvested.
One of the discoveries of the survey was that logging concessions in natural forests was as effective in reducing human encroachment on concession than fully protected areas. Logging operations seemed to reduce small-scale encroachment into the forest may occur due to agriculture.
One of the reasons why logging concessions are home to more orangutans than protected areas according to the researchers is that protected lands tend to be concentrated in the mountains and at higher altitudes which are not ideal for orangutans.
The researchers went on to forecast what could happen to the orangutans in the future if development of the island remained the same. The forecast was not promising;
“Under this scenario at best only 51% of the current orang-utan distribution (in protected areas and logging concessions) would remain and 49% of the current distribution would largely be lost. This scenario is conservative, as it assumes that protected areas will maintain the current level of forest cover, and that all logging concessions will be maintained, both of which are unlikely. In addition, this analysis does not factor in the impacts on orang-utan populations from hunting, which has been shown to be a substantial threat in Kalimantan in particular.”
The forecast only took at look at changes to forestry and palm oil concession and did not take into account the growing large-scale mineral extractions now being undertaken on the island – with a lot of the extractions being large open cast mines.
In order to ensure a stable population of orangutans on the island the researchers call for a number of different strategies at the landscape level.
They call for forest concessions in natural forests to be tightly managed to prevent clear cutting and eventual deforestation of the concession that could lead to it being reclassified. As part of that strategy the use of certification authorities should be promoted.
Forest areas that are not part of a concession or protected is increasingly coming under threat as the population expands and agriculture moves from being small-scale smallholder type to large monoculture agriculture. Good land planning could ensure that green corridors are established to connect up valuable orangutan habitats and prevent populations becoming isolated.
Good landscape planning has shown to be beneficial to orangutans even in palm oil plantations which are deemed to be the worse type of development for orangutans:
Despite being a most detrimental land use type in the light of orang-utan conservation, oil palm plantations can nevertheless play a limited (but important) role in connecting natural forest areas, if plantation design incorporates ecological principles of connectivity. For example, in Sabah many orang-utan nests have been found in oil palm plantations that have retained forest corridors along rivers or stepping stones of natural forests within the oil palm matrix (M. Ancrenaz, unpubl. data).
The researchers also called for “enhanced communication and collaboration between scientists, conservation practitioners, policy makers, industry and other key stakeholders. “
They highlighted the case of the Aceh government granting a palm oil concession on a peat swamp forest which they had deemed to be empty of orangutans. In fact the concession was a valuable habitat for the primates and after a major campaign by conservationists and activists the concession was withdrawn by the regional government.
The value of the logging concessions in natural forest to orangutans shows that economic development of a forest and conservation of wildlife can co-exist if the will is there.