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Where Hope Takes Root

A young orangutan, known to conservation researchers as Mamai, playfully spies on us. Photo by Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren/Woodland Park Zoo.

In the forest, you’re likely to hear an orangutan long before you see one. A rustling in the leaves. A tree limb snap. A crisp lip smack to warn you if you’re getting too close.

Tracking these sounds, Mislin and her team of wildlife researchers know they are in the right place when they spot mounds of broken branches and piled leaves in the canopy—fresh orangutan nests.

There’s a stirring in one of them. A treetop toddler pokes a red head through the leaves. The team’s data logger records the behavior. “We take note, every three minutes,” Mislin explains.

Peeling away from mom, the four-year-old orangutan climbs out on a limb for a closer view of us. It would seem she’s conducting her own primate study.

Mislin recognizes the young one, whom they’ve named Mamai and keep regular track of in their study. Composed entirely of local community members hired and trained by HUTAN, one of Woodland Park Zoo’s conservation partners, Mislin’s team is here to investigate: how are endangered orangutans managing in Borneo’s changing forests?

The Kinabatangan River carves through forest that yields to oil palm plantations in the distance. Photo by Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren/Woodland Park Zoo.

Changing Forests

To the orangutan, the forest is everything. It’s a home to nest in and a restaurant to feast in. It’s a school where little ones like Mamai will learn at mom’s side in the longest childhood out of any mammal on the planet besides humans.

The forest is a highway for the red apes, the treetops a tangle of off ramps to fruiting trees and termite nests, offering passage over rivers, mud and human menace.

But now, that 130-million-year-old forest—one of the oldest on the planet—is disappearing.

First, land was cleared for timber at alarming rates in the 20th century. Now the palm oil industry has taken over much of Borneo’s landscape. According to the Malaysian Palm Oil Board, more than 50% of all the oil palm planted in Malaysia is on the island of Borneo. The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil estimates 4.5 million people in Malaysia and Indonesia make a living from palm oil production. Used in food and toiletries found in our own homes, the product is in increasing global demand, as human populations grow and become more urbanized.

Scattered over a million acres of these oil palm plantations and human-made landscapes in Borneo’s Kinabatangan floodplain, only 250,000 acres of orangutan forest remain—isolated, disconnected.

Throwing borders around the remaining forest is not enough. Too many pockets of habitat—even when protected—remain detached, leaving the treetop highway at a dead end.

Unless, that is, you build a bridge.

A proboscis monkey, found only on the island of Borneo, makes her way across a rope bridge erected by HUTAN to help primates cross over tributaries and drains. Photo by Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren/Woodland Park Zoo.

Bridging the Gaps

“As soon as we realized that habitat fragmentation was really the main concern for wildlife here in Kinabatangan, we tried to find ways to mitigate this fragmentation,” explains Dr. Marc Ancrenaz, DVM, PhD, Scientific Director of HUTAN-Kinabatangan Orangutan Conservation Programme. “One of our projects is to build orangutan bridges. These are actually ropes erected above tributaries and drains, because orangutans cannot swim.”

While macaque monkeys quickly took to the bridges, orangutans in the area were cautious, waiting years before they made their first crossing. Now, the apes use the bridges regularly to move between forests. A simple solution made successful with time and ingenuity, the rope bridges would inspire HUTAN’s next bold idea.

“When we look at the bigger scale, what we want to do is to recreate the contiguous forest corridor between patches,” adds Marc. That’s why HUTAN developed a plan to bridge landscape-level gaps by replanting tens of thousands of trees between forest fragments.

Mariana, the head of HUTAN's reforestation team, tends to a growing tree sapling. Photo by Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren/Woodland Park Zoo.

Reforesting Borneo

“Planting a forest is completely possible,” encourages Marc, “but we need to realize it’s a very long process and it’s very tough.”

Very tough is a good way to describe HUTAN’s all-local, all-women team of reforesters who are transforming old logging sites and even oil palm plantations in the Kinabatangan.

Armed with machetes and weed whackers, the team of eight start every reforestation project by clearing out the overgrowth to make room for new trees. They painstakingly measure off where each sapling will go, leaving enough space for Borneo’s pygmy elephants to weave through growing trees.

For team leader Mariana, a life-long gift for growing and nurturing flowers at home has been the secret to turning HUTAN’s vision for reforestation into a fruitful reality.

“The species we plant here, we have 10 species,” says Mariana, including the fruiting kerodong, which she samples with a tart pucker and a squint of one eye. The lemon-like treat is a favorite of the orangutans.

Over time, the team has discovered which tree species grow best in different soil and light conditions. They look for balance: selecting trees that will grow fast for immediate results and fruiting trees that may take longer to root but yield richer benefits. Saplings are sourced sustainably from community nurseries to provide additional economic opportunity for local families.

The team has planted more than 150,000 trees across eight reforestation sites. But the work isn’t over when the seedlings go in the ground. “What is really important to do is to maintain the tree,” explains Marc. “The team is coming back maybe once a month at the beginning to tend to the tree, to remove the grass, to make sure no creeper is going to entangle and suffocate our seedlings.” It will take at least three or four years of regular maintenance before the trees are tall enough to grow and survive on their own.

“I’m very happy,” Mariana beams. “[Of] the eight sites, five are already successful.”

Some of the team’s plots have been growing for nearly 10 years, now able to provide fruit, shade and safe passage to local wildlife. And the animals are starting to take notice.

HUTAN researcher, Amanda, checks on a rat found in a non-lethal trap as part of a study to determine biodiversity in different Borneo habitats. Photo by Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren, Woodland Park Zoo.

Nature’s Resilience

“We got a catch!”

Amanda leads another research team at HUTAN, studying the diversity and composition of species in the Kinabatangan. They look for small mammals, birds and frogs, and compare their findings across three different types of habitats: protected forest, reforested areas, and oil palm plantations.

To track small mammals, such as tree shrews, rats and squirrels, the team baits 12 non-lethal traps in a study plot area, using salted fish, banana and oil palm fruit. Amanda approaches a full trap, carrying a wildlife guidebook to help identify the finest nuances of color and shape. But this one needs no closer inspection—the bright white fur belongs tellingly to the nocturnal moonrat, a rare catch for the team, which they record and quickly let go.

“There is definitely more diversity in the forest compared to the plantation area,” Amanda notes.

But the reforested areas are starting to show promise too.

“The good news is we just extracted photos from the camera traps and we saw orangutans that are utilizing the [reforested] area,” says Amanda. “Orangutans are actually using this place by walking on the ground.”

There have even been sightings of orangutan nests in the trees that the reforesting team planted 10 years ago, an encouraging sign of the apes’ approval.

As research teams like Mislin’s and Amanda’s piece together the evidence, it’s clear that nature is remarkably resilient.

“I was not imagining 20 years ago that the orangutan could survive in a place like here, which is highly fragmented, highly degraded, with a lot of human activities,” says Marc. “So this means that degraded forests are very important to also protect for wildlife conservation. We cannot afford to let them go and focus our efforts on primary or pristine forests only.”

As orangutans and other wildlife make more use of the reforested areas, they’ll disperse new seeds, adding even more tree diversity that will attract even more animal diversity.

Over time, these restored forest corridors will grow rich with life once more, here, where hope takes root.

A growing tree seedling will soon add to the canopy around it. Photo by Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren/Woodland Park Zoo.

Orangutan babies have the longest childhood of any mammal besides human. It will take years before this young one masters forest living from her mother. Let's assure we give her the time she needs. Photo: Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren/Woodland Park Zoo.

Watch: Where Hope Takes Root,

What You Can Do

Many of the foods we eat and the toiletries we use contain palm oil, the product derived from the plantations that now dominate Malaysia Borneo’s landscape. Woodland Park Zoo has joined the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil to help strengthen the highest standards of certification to assure that palm oil is produced more responsibly. We can all consume more responsibly as well.

Choose to shop from companies committed to using certified sustainable palm oil. Here are two easy ways to get started on changing your consumer habits:
  1. Got a sweet tooth? Get our sustainable palm oil candy list and see how many of your fa-vorites are already on there! 
  2. Search “palm oil” in your app store to download a handy barcode scanner made by Chey-enne Mountain Zoo. Use it next time you go grocery shopping to see if a product’s company is certified in good standing.

Written by: Rebecca Whitham, Director of Content and Creative


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