Tabin-Kulamba in Sabah ©Robert Risch, Rhino and Forest Fund e.V. (RFF)
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Cheap palm oil is in demand: it is in frozen pizza as well as in lipstick and detergent. However, to grow, the oil palm tree prefers a tropical climate, which is exactly the climate that rainforests need. Thus, it is no wonder, that countries located in these latitudes cut down rainforests, in order to cover the worldwide demand for this neutral vegetable oil by cultivating oil palm plantations. For example, Indonesia and Malaysia are with nearly 90 percent of the traded oil (as of 2018), among the largest palm oil producers in the world  – with disastrous consequences for nature.

But after all: Already in 2015, the Malaysian state Sabah signed an agreement with the Rhino and Forest Fund e.V. (RFF) for the reforestation of the rainforest. This is now supposed to be put into action. Under the lead of the RFF and together with the researchers from the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research (Leibniz-IZW), the Borneo’s forestry authority is planning to convert an area of about 15.5 hectares of oil palm plantation back into rainforest. This way, the much-needed wildlife corridor for Borneo’s endangered wildlife is to be recreated. A research team from the Leibniz Institute and environmental experts from Zurich will scientifically accompany this process. Because so far, there is a lack of scientific research in practice, concerning reforestation. With this model project, the RFF wants to close this knowledge gap. At the same time, the newly won insights will be used as a blueprint for future reforestation projects.

Purchase of Land-links Between Wildlife Reserves

The first step towards realizing the goals was the purchase of the oil palm plantations between the isolated wildlife reserves Tabin and Kulamba in the east of the Malaysian state Sabah. Both protected areas are central to the conservation of highly endangered species such as the hairy-nosed otter, Borneo orangutan, Sunda clouded leopard, Borneo elephant and Borneo-Banteng. Robert Risch, board member of the RFF and employee at the Leibniz-IZW: “With the signing of the purchase agreement at the current Heart-of-Borneo-Conferencein Kota Kinabalu in Malaysia, a breakthrough in the creation of a significant wildlife corridor is sealed”. Risch adds: “In order to prevent a massive species extinction, isolated forest areas must be re-connected promptly. For this, costly acquisition of specific oil palm plantations areas and their conversion into protected areas is essential. It is very surprising that nobody has done this before.”

Research on Soil Quality and Repopulation

To begin with, the land acquired by the RFF through donations will be converted into protected areas by the Government of Sabah. Subsequently, it will be reforested with natural rainforest by the RFF, so that the fragmented areas of rainforest are combined again. “The challenge consists of the investigation of the optimal transformation of oil palm plantations and their degraded soils into near-natural rainforests,” explains Dr. Philippe Saner, an expert in environmental studies from Switzerland and founding member of the RFF, “the insights gained from this, enable us to form statements about an optimal reverse engineering for the future”.

However further research topics will also be looked into, such as the repopulation of the species-poor areas by wild animals. “So far, the loss of biodiversity is primarily being investigated”, explains Dr. Petra Kretschmar, ecologist at the Leibniz-IZW and member of the RFF board, “we however want to find out, how much time it takes, until the species-poor oil palm plantation areas can regain their original biodiversity after renaturation”. Thus, the scientific monitoring of the entire transformation process will be used to make recommendations for a future sustainable transformation of agricultural land to semi-natural rainforests.

Funding and Sponsors Wanted

Through additional purchases – which are also funded by donations – the wildlife corridor is to be expanded continuously over the next few years. Currently, scientists are looking for funding from governmental sources. Steven Seet, head of Science Communication at Leibniz-IZW and board member of the RFF emphasizes: “Also for business enterprises this provides a great opportunity to make a sustainable contribution to nature and to set the course for future generations.”

With its activity, the pilot project also contributes towards implementing the Aichi Biodiversity Goals of the international environmental agreement “Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD)”. At the same time, it also fulfills the climate goals adopted at the UN Climate Summit in 2014, where it was agreed to reforest 350 million hectares of forest by 2030 and restore degraded land.

Background on RFF

The German-based RFF is active in Borneo since 2010. Together with the Sabah Forestry Department and with the support of the Sabah Wildlife Department, it has already managed to transfer over 2.000 hectares of endangered forest area into strictly protected habitat. Furthermore, it reforested 24 hectares of destroyed rainforest areas. For its achievement in the protection of habitats, the association received an award from the Malaysian government of Sabah, today at the Heart-of-Borneo-Conference. “We are (also) very proud, that the government of Sabah has officially honored the RFF today, for its hitherto achievements in habitat protection and would like to thank the local authorities for the great and longtime support”, said Risch. The RFF is a start-up company of the Leibniz-IZW and is funded by the Leipzig zoo since its establishment in 2009.


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