The Chief Minister of Sabah, Datuk Seri Panglima Haji Mohd. Shafie bin Haji Apdal proposed a new population survey on orangutans and pygmy elephants in March 2019. Participants of the survey include conservationists and scientists from the University of Nottingham-Malaysia campus, Cardiff University through its research centre, Danau Girang Field Centre, WWF Malaysia, HUTAN and the Sabah Wildlife Department.

The ambitious goal of the survey is to confirm habitat areas of critical importance to these iconic wildlife of Sabah state. Quoting from his speech at the launch:

“This is a historic moment for conservation in Sabah that has been made possible with the certification our palm oil industry through the Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil (MSPO) initiative. Never before has there been an opportunity for our major industries in palm oil and timber to collaborate with conservation groups and scientists to create a solid plan that reflects the needs of all Sabahans as well as the needs of our iconic orangutan and elephants.”

The CEO of the Malaysian Palm Oil Council (MPOC), Datuk Dr. Kalyana Sundram, called the survey a milestone for the industry's conservation programs in Sabah.

"This is an exciting moment in the history of conservation in Sabah. The Malaysian palm oil industry has supported numerous conservation initiatives in Sabah but never have we had a chance to support something on a scale like this. 

With this survey, we hope to disprove once and for all that orangutans are going extinct in Sabah but that is a minor goal compared to the shared vision of Sabah and ourselves that orangutans and elephants in Sabah can thrive. To be able to do that, we must first know exactly, where the threatened populations are so that we can work with the state and various other conservationists to remove those threats."

This initial effect of the MSPO on conservation in Sabah is a pygmy surprise that also brings a lot of pressure on the scheme to save the iconic orangutans and elephants in Sabah. The MSPO was expected to create change for conservation when its standards are implemented. However, it did not expect to see such a strong show of support from the state government and industries in Sabah. The Chief Minister is correct in stating that it is a historic moment when the two major industries in Sabah i.e. palm oil and timber get behind this ambitious plan to create habitats for wildlife to thrive in.

To understand the significance of this survey and its implications for wildlife in Sabah, one has to know a bit about the conservation challenges. The previous survey on orangutan and pygmy elephant populations in Sabah was done more than two decades.

The findings then, was that habitat fragmentation posed a serious threat to the survival of isolated populations of wildlife, especially in the case of orangutans. The Bornean pygmy elephant showed less concern with physical barriers like electric fences or landscape change from plantations to foraging areas which caused multiple human and elephant conflicts in recent years. Incidences of human/ elephant conflicts were especially high along riparian reserves in the Lower Kinabatangan area. This was a target habitat area for MSPO impact as riparian reserves are protected as High Biodiversity  Value (HBV) areas  are protected under MSPO standards.

As bold as the plans were for the MSPO to bring positive impacts on conservation in Malaysia, it was never imagined that the MSPO would inspire conservation on a landscape level. As Dr. Sen Nathan from the Sabah Wildlife Department said:

"The wildlife department saw the entry of the MSPO into Sabah as a golden opportunity to create natural habitats so that our iconic orangutans and pygmy elephants can thrive. Up to now, voluntary certification of palm oil in Sabah through other business to business schemes has been patchy but since the introduction of the MSPO, we noticed positive impacts as plantation owners started approaching us on what they should be doing to contribute to the bigger issue of conservation in Sabah. That is what inspired the push to have a new survey done, using the latest technology so that we have a clear picture of what needs to be done."

The two key objectives of the survey, according to Dr Nathan will be to update information on the size and status of the populations of the orangutans and pygmy elephants in Sabah. Mapping their distribution aside, the other outputs of the program will be updated Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) on dealing with wildlife in plantation landscapes as well as provide vital information for the state’s five year plans for wildlife conservation.

“This will be fantastic,” he told us. “I have discussed conservation with a handful of plantations and already we’re seeing the creation of thousands of hectares of wildlife corridors and habitat to ease the human-wildlife conflicts. Now with the state government’s support to ensure our wildlife has space to thrive, it is a great time to be a conservationist in Sabah.”

He explained his excitement by saying that while palm oil certification under the MSPO was great in creating in-situ conservation areas, the wildlife habitats may still remain fragmented as certified palm oil areas could be separated by timber concessions or state-owned lands that may be developed in the future.

The participation of the Malaysian Timber Council in this program gave it a big boost but the ultimate guarantee of success for the program was to come from the state government. The support of the state means that ex-situ areas, which are areas outside of licensed estates, that are under state control can now be included to create a truly viable grand plan to protect Sabah’s iconic wildlife.

The survey is expected to last eighteen months. Population counts of the orangutans and pygmy elephants will include aerial nest counts using drones and ground transects to provide direct counts. Data collected from the survey will then be used to create a multi-dimensional distribution map of the species using state-of-the-art GIS systems. Once the information is complete, the state government will use that to create the large habitats that it envisions for wildlife in Sabah.