“Hold it.” Hasri’s upheld hand tells us. He takes two soundless steps on the dried leaves of the lowland Borneo rainforest and listens. We pause for the strange sound to repeat itself among the jungle cicadas and morning calls of birds. From the dense undergrowth comes a cross between a moan and a hoot. The Orangutan ‘s call repeats itself from the bush nearby. We wait, hoping to catch a glimpse of the great ape or hear a return call from another, but the rustling of the brush indicates the shy ape’s withdrawal. Endemic to Borneo and Sumatra, the Malay word Orangutan means “forest person.”
“That is the female and her baby I saw yesterday “ Hasri says quietly and continues on, pointing out a troop of Macaque monkeys moving through the tree tops. A Garnet Pitta calls from the dense undergrowth, followed by a glimpse of the bright blue and brilliant red bird that shines like a jewel in the dark green surrounds. We exit the shade of the tall Fig trees into the sunshine on the bank of the Kinabatangan River of Malaysian Borneo. Proboscis monkeys forage in the trees lining the river’s bank, as the forest birds sing the songs they have been singing for eons. It feels eerily primeval until one’s eye strays across the river. Beyond the bank stretches seemingly endless rows of an oil palm plantation.
Our guide, Hasri Raman, is a rangy local nature guide, who has worked with the community initiative for more than 16 years. Hasri is the head of the Batu Puteh Community Ecotourism Co-operative (KOPEL) wildlife monitoring unit, and enjoys wildlife photography alongside his job of helping visitors encounter wildlife in the unusual and tangled forests of the Kinabatangan floodplain.
Now in his 40s, Hasri is Orang Sungai – or people of the river- and he grew up in the forest, experienced the change created by massive clear cutting, burning for land-clearance and planting of the jungle into Oil Palm plantations. This remnant forest, recovering from past cutting and hosts many vanishing species and is as close to his heart as his culture. It is no coincidence that forest person and people of the forest are so closely connected, yet this connection has been ignored by countries and by companies, but not by the people of the forest.
We are visiting the Tungog Rainforest eco camp to view wildlife and learn about efforts like this that are employing local people as stewards of their natural and cultural heritage. The camp is part of a great community collective called KOPEL, the Batu Puteh Community Ecotourism Co-operative.
The Community of Batu Puteh, is typical of many isolated, indigenous rural communities in Sabah, Borneo Malaysia, where a millennia of traditional reliance on the rainforest for food, medicines, everyday commodities, as well trade with the outside world. This economy has been displaced by a rapidly developing world, the loss of forests and cultural heritage, and a cash driven lifestyle.
Established now for almost ten years, KOPEL was established to reverse the losses, to capitalize on ancient indigenous and traditional knowledge and culture, to save and create economic value and appreciation of the mega-diverse rich rainforests of the area, and in the process create a sense of hope for a sustainable future for the people of the Lower Kinabatangan.
KOPEL is a village co-op and a social enterprise with the immediate aim of addressing rural poverty and generating sustainable income that supports the preservation of remaining local rainforests. The initiative achieves this by empowering local communities to protect their cultural and natural heritage, and to take responsibility for conservation of the forest through reforestation projects and research projects. KOPEL operates a number of tourism products, which generate local employment and channels funds back into real conservation outcomes. Tourists come to assist with planting or support the project through modest daily fees to stay at village homestays or at the Tungog Rainforest Eco Camp.
The Tungog Rainforest Eco Camp sits on the edge of an oxbow lake, a lake created by the sealing off of the meandering Kinabatangan. Around the lake fringe tall Dipterocarps and fig trees reach for the sun attracting a cacophony of birds and wildlife day and night. Crocodiles, otters and snake birds live along the lake’s margins. Proboscis monkeys, Leaf monkeys and Macaques feed along the beach and hornbills stretch their wings in the equatorial sun.
Tourism sustains the camp, and helps a number of forest and wetland conservation projects in the process. The camp operates on a low impact, ecologically sustainable model. The camp is constructed of locally milled timber and has ten tent cabins placed on platforms several meters above the forest floor, literally in the trees. Power use in minimised. Lighting is by propane lanterns. Water is caught by rainfall and gravity fed. The food is locallygrown and cooked in the village, and brought upstream before each meal. The camp sites are simple, yet private and comfortable.
Remnants of wildness remain in these vestigial rainforests. Civet cats prowl, giant squirrels bark and gibbons hoot from the treetops. A clouded leopard lurked in the camp for several days, and kingfishers with colors borrowed from an impressionist’s palate streak across the lake.
Volunteers visit to help with several of the restoration projects, or simply as tourists to view the birds, apes and other wildlife, while the revenue helps support the conservation effort. At the camp are a young couple from the UK who have been weeding and planting a reclaimed area near the river’s edge, and helping remove an invasive weed overgrowing the lake. A couple from the Netherlands are bird and wildlife aficionados and climb aboard the open boat on every morning and evening river cruise for the best wildlife watching. A British bird watcher teaching English in the Philippines loves the camp so much he has returned five times. He is an excellent birder and interacts with the native staff like a family member.
It is a special place, wild, yet oddly accessible. We took an overland bus and walked to the landing where the boat took us upriver a few miles past monkeys and hornbills to the camp. Slipping past sleeping Siamese crocodiles and feeling incredibly remote, the camp is quite close to the highway bridge crossing and one can occasionally hear the rumble of traffic over the calls of gibbons down river.
This region and its lowland rainforests are critical for the conservation of biodiversity in Sabah. Large scale logging, mass cultivation of oil palm, deforestation and forest fires have severely degraded and fragmented the forest, putting the long term survival of wildlife at risk. Although a large percent is lost to logging activities, at present 20% of forests have been converted in Sabah to agriculture crops such as oil palm cultivation, yet more remains to save than is lost in Sabah. Not far away across the border, Borneo is burning in the Indonesian state of the Kalimantan region of Borneo to the south, where habitat and lands dessicated by drought and exposed by deforestation are vulnerable. Vast fires from drained peat bogs and palm-oil cleared lands of are threatening 20,000 Orangutans and other endemic wildlife in the region.
We did not see any Orungutans this trip, but we did find hope in the restoration and habitat protection efforts like Kopel’s where the apes can forage and find refuge. Tourism brings income to a local native population who would otherwise be growing oil palm, or even poaching trees and wildlife from the national reserves to survive. One worker tells me he used to be a poacher before coming to KOPEL. Efforts like this one are critical for the long term survival of endemic wildlife like orangutans and pygmy elephants. Sustained by tourism, and sustaining the local economy, conservation efforts like this are a model for expanding existing conservation areas, and protecting the vanishing wildness of Borneo.