Tourism Helps Safeguard Bornean Orangutan and Lift Local Livelihoods

September 23, 2014

Ramadan, a male orangutan living at the HUTAN– Kinabatangan Orang-utan Conservation Programme research site in Malaysian Borneo, is nowadays more likely to be captured in photographs than in hunters’ snares.

Named for the Muslim fasting period in which he was first observed, Ramadan is part of an ecotourism program that involves families in and around Sukau, HUTAN’s base, a village of about 1,200 people in the Lower Kinabatangan region of Sabah, a state in northeast Borneo.

“Before our homestay program began, the economy here came from the use of nature,” says Datu Md Ahbam Abulani, a native of Sukau and field project coordinator for HUTAN, an organization that conducts wildlife conservation research, raises awareness, and rehabilitates habitat for orangutan and other animals.

“Now that we have local families participating in tourism, they are not going into the forest to do illegal things but instead work as boatmen or drivers,” says Abulani, who is also chair of the homestay program and a wildlife warden.

Approximately 800 orangutans were estimated to be living in Lower Kinabatangan in 2010, a reduction from about 4,000 in the 1960s and from about 1,100 in 20011—four years before the Lower Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary, where HUTAN works, was protected by the state.

Palm oil cultivation by both large and small-scale industry since 1996 has deforested more than 210,000 acres—about three-quarters of the unprotected Kinabatangan valley land, according to HUTAN. Local villagers had used the forest as a food and fuel source for generations.

In 2013, HUTAN planted a new 20-acre site in the valley—its sixth reforestation plot—bringing the total to 69 acres of 15,884 new trees. It purchased 3,000 seedlings from tree nurseries established as a source of local income.

During the year, the group also built two orangutan bridges over tributaries of the Kinabatangan River, bringing the total to eight, providing transit points across landscapes that had been fragmented.

Through the organization’s homestay program, which began in 2002, visitors take guided wildlife hikes and boat rides, plant trees, and sample local community life. A village-run tour company, Red Ape Encounters, is the only group allowed into the Orangutan Research Site.

In 2013, 16 families hosted 444 tourists, together earning US$20,000 and generating $44,000 for others working in local tourism—significant sums in a region where most residents have limited monetary income.

The Sabah Wildlife Department has recruited 18 full-time local “honorary wildlife wardens,” who conduct research, manage sanctuary resources, and have the authority to make arrests for illegal activities.

Warnings issued to hunters and poachers in the forests of Kinabatangan fell from about one per month in 2012 to almost zero in 2013 during a total of 208 patrols. The presence of wardens, along with greater awareness of the law, has led to a drastic reduction in orangutan killings.

A strong indicator of the decrease in orangutan killings is the tremendous reduction—to almost zero— in the number of orphan orangutans taken from the forest and later seized from planters.

If found, orphans are brought to the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre in Sandakan, Sabah, run through the Tabin Orangutan Project of Orangutan Appeal UK.

1HUTAN’s statistical estimates were obtained by extrapolating nest counts along specific habitat transects and converting these numbers into average ranges over both protected and non-protected forests.