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Signs of Wildlife — Signs of Hope

Posted by Rebecca Whitham, Vice President of Engagement with Photos by Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren, WPZ 

A female proboscis monkey and her baby in Borneo’s Kinabatangan region.

The boat driver cuts the engine. We slowly bob and drift along the river toward the direction of what has caught the observation team’s eyes—a sight found nowhere else in the world: the improbably proportioned proboscis monkey.

Researchers with HUTAN’s primate observation unit have spotted a small family group. With the aid of binoculars and a clipboard, they take note of juveniles playing, female adults nearby at rest. A dominant male on a branch all his own watches over us, potbelly flopped over almost as characteristically as his nose. 

Our team recognizes a male proboscis monkey by his signature nose.

That signature nose is meant to signal his attractiveness, and possibly act as a sound enhancer for better group management. It also has given the proboscis monkey its name and its prominence in the eco-story of Borneo. Here, charismatic endangered species found nowhere else in the world make a compelling case for urgent conservation of the island’s rain forests.

Perhaps no face is better associated with that cause than the orangutan. Our red-haired, great ape relatives are threatened with extinction in Borneo’s dwindling forests. Their plight is what inspired a team of conservationists to form the HUTAN-Kinabatangan Orangutan Conservation Programme, a long-time Woodland Park Zoo partner. 

Orangutans, our great ape relatives, are threatened with extinction in Borneo’s dwindling forests. Here, a baby getting a piggy-back ride from its mother peeks down from the forest canopy.

In pre-COVID days, I visited HUTAN staff and their community partners in the Sukau village of Borneo’s Kinabatangan region. I was there to scout for wildlife and stories of hope for their survival. Throughout our journeys along the Kinabatangan River, the program’s co-founder and scientific director, Dr. Marc Ancrenaz, and the HUTAN team gave me helpful spotting tips: scan an area and look for a sign of something out of the ordinary—a shift, a contrast, a movement. 

That’s how I learned that before you see an orangutan, you'll more likely spot its nest, a cradle of broken branches and tufts of leaves. Orangutans occasionally dot the riverfront canopy, making their way through ripe, fruiting trees to nest in the treetops. More plentiful are the macaques, the long tailed and pig-tailed monkeys whose swimming skills make it possible to spot them low along the waterfront. The rarer silvery langurs require eagle eyes to find in the canopy, given away by the gray tips of hair that stand in contrast to green leaves.

“Kinabatangan is really rich with an amazing number of species. It’s a biodiversity hotspot,” Dr. Ancrenaz shares. In the course of my time there, I’ll apply my spotting skills to find primates, elephants, hornbills, crocodiles, eagles, civets, and other extraordinary wildlife—and at the same time, begin to see a wider view of what’s happening in the Kinabatangan. 

An aerial view over Borneo's Kinabatangan river. 

In the distance from the river’s shores, the staggering array of dipterocarp diversity gives way to uniformity—seemingly endless rows of neatly planted oil palm trees. “Development is happening fast in Southeast Asia, and of course it’s also happening in Borneo. The forest habitat is being converted to other types of land uses,” explains Dr. Ancrenaz. “The size of the forest is reducing, but also the shape of the forest is changing.” 

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Only 250,000 acres of primate forest remain in the Kinabatangan floodplains, fragmented across more than a million acres of human-made landscapes and palm oil plantations. Palm oil is likely in your home right now, a little known but ubiquitous ingredient in everything from sweets and treats to dog food and detergent. Woodland Park Zoo is a member of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) and advocates for consumers to shop with companies committed to certified, sustainable palm oil. The Roundtable’s certification program seeks to improve the palm oil industry’s environmental and humanitarian impact as global demand for the vegetable oil continues to rise. 

Wild habitat in Borneo is disappearing —fragmented by human-made palm oil plantations.

Sustainable agriculture is key to Borneo’s future. Yet with so much forest lost and degraded already, more needs to be done now for the wildlife that are displaced and lacking resources.

From the river, with the help of some binoculars and amazing timing, I can spot a beak poking out of a human-made wooden box attached impossibly high up a tree. It’s a hornbill, an icon of the Kinabatangan that is threatened by the loss of suitable nesting cavities in degraded forests. To help, HUTAN staff builds and installs artificial hornbill nest boxes—a solution that requires agile (and brave!) staff to scale up trees for the equivalent height of about six building stories. I recall the bird feeder in my own urban yard that I sometimes “forget” to refill because the branch it hangs from is inconveniently tall for my 5’3” frame, and I commit myself to do better.

The artificial nests are few and scattered. Easier for my eye to catch during journeys along the river are plots of forest that look different than the rest. They are slighter, younger, and another sign of HUTAN’s work. Here, reforesters have hand planted native trees in once-logged lands. 

Community members are reforesting the land—planting native trees in areas that were previously logged.

“One of our projects is to create corridors for wildlife, meaning we want to reconnect fragments of isolated forest to one another in order for wildlife to keep on moving and disperse,” explains Dr. Ancrenaz.

A literal sign marks the reforesters’ latest project along the Kinabatangan shores. The Keruak Wildlife Corridor billboard is crowded with logos of a once unlikely group of partners: conservation organization HUTAN, the state of Sabah, Malaysia, and a commercial palm oil producer. Here is a plot of land once converted to oil palm plantation where HUTAN is now working to reforest and restore a corridor for elephants and other Bornean wildlife. 

Reforesting the land creates needed habitat corridors for all Bornean wildlife, including elephants.

“We have these seedlings that are going to outgrow the palms, and over the years the palms will die and disappear, and then we’ll have a natural forest,” says Dr. Ancrenaz.

A collaboration like this might have once been impossible, but conservationists are adapting their solutions to a changing world. It’s not enough to designate protected lands. We need to have a hand in reshaping policies, rebuilding corridors, restoring hope.

For Dr. Ancrenaz, “To study what is happening here in Kinabatangan to me gives me hope because this place shows that if things are managed properly, we can have people and their activities as well as wildlife sharing the same environment.”

After dozens of boat rides, forest treks, research outings, and community conversations in the Kinabatangan, I see signs of hope everywhere. You just need to scan and look for something out of the ordinary— a shift, a contrast, a movement.

You can look out for the wildlife of Borneo right from your own home.

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Godek is one of the orangutans at Woodland Park Zoo.

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