Protection of Critical Orangutan Habitat, Borneo

The Borneo Nature Foundation supports and empowers community-led initiatives to protect the forest and its biodiversity. It has particular expertise in monitoring the distribution, population status, behaviour and ecology of Borneo’s flagship ape species, the Orang Utan.

Sebangau peat swamp forest was granted formal protected-area status in 1998 and is the largest non-fragmented area of lowland rainforest remaining in Borneo,  supporting its largest protected population of Bornean orangutans. Sebangau is therefore considered one of the top priority sites for orangutan conservation and its forest is of major conservation importance for its high biodiversity and as a globally-significant carbon store. Despite protected status, Sebangau is at serious risk; with forest fire identified as the primary threat. Illegal logging has resulted in peatland drainage (canals were dug to extract timber), putting the whole ecosystem at risk from peat degradation and from annual dry season fires, which cause toxic smoke haze and poisoning of fish stocks. In 2015 over 22,000km2 burned, causing premature death of thousands, the resulting carbon emissions exceeding that from fossil fuels in the entire EU. The project will restore the habitat by blocking 14 canals with 300 dams, planting 50,000 seedlings, and dispersing another 100,000, run community education sessions and workshops and provide ongoing support for 3 community patrols and fire-fighting teams.

The Update

The final report for this project, submitted in summer 2021 was positive reading, despite some delays and some changes to the project due to covid restrictions.

A key objective was to reduce forest fires in the project area. Whilst rainfall reduced fire incidence during the year, drained areas remained vulnerable across climatically comparable years. Wet peatlands due to high levels of rainfall, combined with daily patrols along the most fire prone areas, led to a year with no hotspots detected and so the project deduces that they are on track to achieving their long-term goal of reducing the number of fires in the target area by 25% by 2021.

When peatland is dried, cut or burnt, or if the overlying forest is cleared, the peat degrades by oxidation and carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere. Fires occur frequently in drained areas of peatland, which releases more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, further exacerbating climate change. It is estimated that 36 and 455 t of CO2 emissions can be reduced for each hectare that can be effectively rewetted and saved from burning, respectively.

For the second year in a row, there was no forest loss in our target area in the Sebangau Forest, achieving our objective of reducing the area of peatland burned. The fires in 2019 required a major effort from the established Fire-fighting Teams, involving up to 126 people responding to a total of 258 related activities during a 4-month period.

In 2020, Fire-fighting Teams patrolled on regular basis throughout the most fire prone areas, looking for evidence of fires and illegal activities, but no firefighting interventions were required, as our target area remained safe. This is obviously good news for the health of humans living in the region, and also for wildlife; monitoring of tree growth showed the forest to be relatively stable in the project area.

A significant part of this project was blocking 22 canals, to rewet the peatland and reduce the drainage of the area. Monitoring showed that the actions were successful. This action will reduce the likelihood of fires in the area.

Fires during 2015 and 2018 resulted in many hectares of forest being burnt. During this project, a total of 48,902 trees have been planted with local tree species, reforesting a 50ha area of burnt peat-swamp. In order to reforest burnt areas, the project have created a network of seedling nurseries, which are managed by families in the local villages. In total, BNF currently supports six community seedling nurseries, with a total of 42 families involved. The aerial dispersal of 100,000 seeds is still in trials owing to COVID-19 limiting the development and evaluation of the drone technology. This objective will be met as soon as pandemic restrictions allow.

Finally, a huge number of people in the local area were involved in activities such as workshops, festivals, environmental education classes and training, to promote peat friendly activities in the area, with children, youth, farmers and fishermen, all designed to reduce forest forest in the future.

Image: Orangutan. Image credit: Bernat Ripoli