Stretching across approximately 593,000 acres of northern Borneo, the Ulu Segama-Malua landscape is home to around 3,400 orangutans – the largest population in the state of Sabah, in the Malaysian segment of the island. In the north of the landscape lies the area now known as the Bukit Piton Forest Reserve. Its nearly 30,000 acres – about twice the size of the island of Manhattan – had been heavily logged since the 1980s, and the already degraded forest was even further gutted by fires. By 2006, what had once been rich lowland rainforest was reduced to shrubs and bushes, with only a few scattered fragments of old forest remaining.
Despite this devastating reduction in habitat, when WWF-Malaysia and the Sabah Wildlife Department carried out an aerial survey of orangutan nests in the region, they found the great apes were still holding out in this area. But with palm oil plantations now covering most of the land on one side of them, and the Segama River on the other, they were cut off from other orangutan populations.
“Even though the area was heavily degraded, Bukit Piton Forest Reserve was reported to have between 170 and 300 orangutan individuals,” says WWF-Malaysia’s Fredinand “Fordy” Lobinsiu, an expert in habitat connectivity and restoration. “However, the population was isolated and its badly degraded habitat was not viable to support orangutans in the long term. With limited trees, there was more competition for food and space for nesting. The risk of fire was also much higher due to the dry conditions and open canopy. Extreme growth of lianas was strangling and killing many of the remaining trees.”