Isabelle Lackman founded Hutan in Kinabatangan, Malaysian Borneo with her then husband Marc Ancrenaz in 1998 with the aim of conserving the Critically Endangered Bornean orang-utan (Pongo pygmaeus).
In the almost two decades since, Hutan has worked with the local community to restore areas of degraded forest and help people and orang-utans to live side by side without conflict. Their work shows that successful conservation depends on far more than rigorous science and protected areas.
I spoke to Isabelle about how she started out in primate conservation, the challenges she and Hutan face in trying to conserve this Critically Endangered species and its habitat and asked her about some of the successes and challenges of ‘community conservation’.
An early passion
What first drew you into conservation when you were growing up?
Actually, when I was growing up I was always interested in wild animals. I wanted to study them and become a wildlife researcher, specifically to research primates. When I was studying Biology at university in Paris, two orphan orang-utans were seized at the airport and taken to the zoo right next to my university. This gave me an opportunity to study them, although there was really nothing to study, they were just two terrified baby orang-utans. But I was able to take care of them, and began to learn and read more about orang-utans and wild orang-utans – so I guess that’s how it started originally.
This interest eventually led to me working with and studying orang-utans in zoos in various countries. I wanted to do a PhD but couldn’t find a project that would take me, or that had funding, so I ended up studying baboons in Saudi Arabia – which was extraordinary – but after a few years there I still had that desire to study orang-utans.
When did you first go to Borneo?
I first went to Borneo in 1994 to meet with local conservation NGOs and local government to find out what was needed most. At first I was looking for a job there, but I couldn’t find anything, so in the end I decided to start my own project. At that time, everybody told me that there were plenty of orang-utans in Borneo, but they didn’t know where and they didn’t know how many. Most importantly, all the orang-utan experts working in Indonesia at that time were saying that orang-utans cannot survive in degraded secondary forest, that if the forests were logged then you lost the orang-utans and all of the forest. Almost 100% of the forest in Sabah was already logged, there was hardly any primary forest, so the government there was very worried about the orang-utans and whether or not they would survive, but in fact up until then there hadn’t been any studies on how orang-utans adapt to secondary forest.
Even so, when I went to Kinabatangan that very first time, I could see quite a lot of orang-utan nests. The forest was really degraded and fragmented and the canopy was very low, but there still seemed to be a lot of orang-utans, so I realised this would be very interesting to study.
An aerial photo of Kinabatangan
What were the greatest personal challenges you faced when you first moved to Borneo?
Well, first I had to convince my husband to follow me! He was working in Saudi Arabia. He had a wonderful job managing the oryx rehabilitation centre, so it was a huge challenge for him to give up that great job and step into the unknown in Borneo, especially because we had a one and a half year old baby at the time. But fortunately it all turned out alright…
We settled in a small village and that was one of the hardest things because people back then had no idea what we were doing. They couldn’t believe that we had just gone there to study orang-utans. Some of them were a little suspicious – they thought we must have another agenda, maybe to take their land or something like that. Also, we couldn’t speak the language at all and nobody could speak English so communication was very difficult. We hired a few of our neighbours to do the first surveys and there was a lot of sign language involved!
A special place
What makes Kinabatangan unique and why should people care about this place?
Well it’s a unique place in the sense that it has a really remarkable abundance and diversity of wildlife. In terms of species, particularly for primates, birds and reptiles, it’s really special. There are ten primate species, 8 species of hornbill, elephants, proboscis monkeys, so it really is a unique place in that sense…
And that’s despite the fact that so much of the original primary forest has disappeared?
Yes, actually the forest has been so reduced, contracted and fragmented over the last 20 years that a lot of the wildlife has concentrated in those fragments of forest. Most of the species have been able to adapt to those changes, the loss of all the primary forest, and that’s what we’re still studying now. Some of the species have a harder time adapting, and populations have really declined very quickly. One very important factor is that the human population in the region is Muslim, and they generally don’t eat wild animals, so there’s hardly any hunting at all and the animals are not that shy. This means you can get closer, so of course it is good for tourists and anyone interested in seeing wildlife…
Birds such as this hornbill play a vital role as seed dispersers.
Protecting wildlife and restoring forests
As an organisation dedicated to protecting and restoring forests, what obstacles does Hutan face in trying to protect the forest in Kinabatangan?
Well, since the 1950s the forests have been hugely exploited. First, there was a wave of commercial timber extraction, then in the 1980s conversion for agriculture. Initially this was tobacco and other crops but now it’s mostly oil palm. We estimate that about 80% of the natural vegetation of the whole region has been converted – a huge proportion – and the remaining forest is very fragmented and degraded. There are fragments of forest along the Kinabatangan river, but some of these are not connected to each other, and as I said there is still a significant amount of wildlife living there. These areas really need protecting, but it’s a huge challenge to keep whatever forest remains and to connect up the fragments.
In 2005 the Sabah government created the lower Kinabatangan wildlife sanctuary – it’s 26,000 hectares of protected area composed of ten ‘lots’, some of them not connected to each other. That was a great first step, but it’s still not enough to maintain viable wildlife populations in the area. So now the work is to secure connections between these ‘lots’. The land inbetween the protected areas mostly belongs to native communities or to oil palm companies and there are different ways to go about securing the connections that are needed. Land prices are really high so we can’t just buy land because it’s far too expensive. For some really critical corridors, very strategic areas, we do have a land purchase programme with the World Land Trust but this alone is not enough.
The work now is to engage with landowners and convince them to actually commit some of the land to conservation and reach agreement to change some of their land management practices to allow wildlife passage through plantations for example, or through villages. Some of the areas have been given back by oil palm companies, so in places where companies had encroached into the protected area but subsequently moved back, there are some bare areas or areas already planted with oil palms, and we’re now focusing on replanting and reforesting those areas.
Members of the Hutan team.
To the layperson, it may seem that reforestation is simply a matter of planting lots of seedlings and leaving them to grow, but it’s more complicated than that isn’t it?
Reforestation is really challenging – it depends on the conditions, the soil and so on, so when we started we really didn’t know whether it would work or how it would work. We carried out a lot of experiments planting, especially because when we started planting, we chose to plant those tree species that were on the list of the top 10 food sources for orang-utans. As we had done such long-term orang-utan research, we knew which food they depended on. So all of those tree species are very useful for wildlife…it was a kind of larder for the animals in these areas. These were not timber species. For those species there is a lot of knowledge on how to grow them, how to germinate them, how to plant them, but for all these species we were planting we had to experiment and learn about them from scratch. So we’ve been doing this for many years and actually really looking species by species and at their requirements. It took a lot of time, but we now have between 80 – 90% survival rate for these tree species.
Hutan currently has 6 reforestation plots in the Lower Kinabatangan covering 69 hectares. In 2016, over 30,000 new seedlings were planted, which was the highest number we’ve ever planted in one year and included 38 native tree species which have been identified by our research team as favourite food for orang-utans. Our reforestation team maintain each reforestation plot, cleaning and weeding and generally taking care of the seedlings for three to five years after the planting, which really boosts their survival rate. By the end of 2016, the survival rate for monitored seedlings was 81 per cent.
In 2016, over 30,000 new seedlings were planted, including 38 native tree species which have been identified by the research team as favourite food for orang-utans.
To what extent is it true that the work you do with orang-utans has a knock-on effect for other species?
All of the species in Kinabatangan suffer from the same issues, particularly habitat loss and fragmentation, so they directly benefit from our forest restoration work. Orang-utans are such a charismatic species that it is easier to find funding, or even political will for conservation, whereas if you talk about a small mammal or reptile, the majority of people are not so interested.
Restoring habitat for orang-utans really is beneficial to all wildlife in the area, and for people as well, because one of the main reasons for human-animal conflict, especially in villages, is that wildlife – everything from pigs, elephants, porcupines and of course orang-utans – cannot move around freely.
What is it that orang-utans – and indeed many other species in Kinabatangan – really need to help conserve them? You’ve talked about connecting areas of forest, and the need to plant certain species. The term ‘wildlife corridor’ is probably a term that some people have heard of, but can you explain what that means?
Well, a traditional wildlife corridor would be an area of forest that is probably too small for a population to grow in, but just allows passage between two larger fragments of forest. We’ve been looking at different ways of creating these corridors. The most common way is that when land is acquired for an oil palm plantation, the company gives back a small strip of that land. But we’re starting to realise that orang-utans increasingly go by themselves into the plantations, and we’re looking at what they’re doing there. They’re eating on the way, but oil palm is certainly not the core of their diet. They eat the fruit or the shoots while the trees are still young. If they eat the shoots while they are still young, then this will kill the tree, so they are considered a pest. But once the tree is mature then they have no negative impact on those trees. We’ve looked at the effect on those mature trees where orang-utans have fed on the production and there’s no impact whatsoever.
So, they’re moving and we’re pretty sure that it’s to look for the next patch of forest and for males to disperse away from their kids and find new territories. They seem to be moving from one patch of forest to another so we’re looking at how far they can cover… You can really see them going up the highest tree and looking around to find the best direction to take. Some of the older individuals probably knew these areas when they were all forest so they have to remake their internal map of the area.
What has been an obstacle for them to move through the plantations so far has been the behaviour of the oil palm workers and managers, who view them as pests and often harass, chase or shoot at the orang-utans, or set dogs on them. People are scared of them. We’ve done extensive interview surveys with oil palm workers and there are all these stories and old superstitions that tell of women being kidnapped by orang-utans, so it’s essential to engage with the oil palm plantation and the people working there. Some of the workers are not from the region, so they may not even know that they’re in a protected area and may hunt some of the wild animals that live there. We’re doing a lot of education and awareness programmes and these generally work very well, people are really keen and interested.
If remaining fragments of forest are not connected, the impact on wildlife diversity is devastating.
Changes in the oil palm industry?
What are the conditions like for oil palm workers?
It really depends. In some cases, it’s pretty bad, but now with the RSPO (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil) there are some criteria aimed at environmental aspects, but others that are about the social side, so some of the bigger companies have much better conditions for the workers. Oil palm workers are an important population that we can work with on education and awareness. Also, most of the managers come from peninsular Malaysia, where there are no orangutans and different types of issues with wildlife, so there is certainly a need for education there.
Many of the oil palm plantations in Kinabatangan are pursuing RSPO certification, so they are very wary of their image and reputation and are much keener to actually collaborate. In fact, some of them are still ‘traumatised’ by all the anti-palm oil campaigns done by various NGOs, so if you go there and say that you’re from a conservation NGO they are suspicious, and it takes a while to get through and explain that we’re not there to try to destroy them.
From the consumer point of view, for somebody who is concerned about the impact of palm oil cultivation, is RSPO certification a reliable indicator of sustainability and good practice in the sector?
I think RSPO is the best mechanism we currently have to improve oil palm plantations’ practices. As I mentioned, palm oil boycott campaigns by western NGOs, although very useful at one point to raise awareness, have sometimes become an obstacle when we need to engage plantations owning land in between fragments of the Lower Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary. We also found that the motivation of some companies to obtain RSPO certification has greatly helped when it comes to agreeing to our demands. For example, Genting Plantation has agreed to give up 110 acres of one of their prime estates to contribute to our Keruak Wildlife Corridor.
A palm oil processing plant.
Questioning Community Conservation
In almost 20 years of working in that area of Borneo, what are the key lessons you have learnt about what it takes to develop successful conservation programmes?
I have definitely become much more humble in those 20 years! It’s really difficult to say. Up until last year, for example, I could have given a lecture on community conservation and how successful it is. But last year we had a huge issue with a highway and a bridge that was going to be built through the sanctuary (Sukau bridge project), which would have fragmented the whole region completely. The communities were completely in support of that bridge, because they believed that it would bring prosperity and factories and it really showed that most of them didn’t necessarily care that much about conservation. If you asked them, they really enjoy seeing the wildlife, but they would rather have a big factory where their children can work, and the environmental issues that would result from that didn’t necessarily come into their thinking.
But of course this is a universal problem. The communities in this area aren’t allowed to lead the traditional life they used to have, relying on natural resources. Whatever forest remains is protected so they’re not allowed to take trees to build houses or to hunt – with the exception of deer – so they’ve been deprived of their traditional life and there’s no other source of income at the moment. On top of that, these were traditionally also fishing communities, but conversion of the forests to large-scale agriculture has resulted in unhealthy levels of river pollution leading to the rapid decline of fisheries and another blow to their livelihoods.
Does that sometimes make you, as a conservationist, question the purpose of what you are doing and how successful you can be?
Of course! For all this time we’ve worked a lot with communities – we’ve developed model tourism iniatives, we have an amazing homestay programme in one village and another village nearby has a really successful homestay programme as well. We’ve worked with fishermen and these projects were really successful and to a certain extent, perhaps, we thought we had done our part for the ‘alternative economy’. We have created models, they just need to be replicated, so if you’d interviewed me two years ago, I would have bragged about it and told you very honestly that it was working, but in fact the majority of people in the communities do not benefit directly from conservation.
Was it just the issue of the bridge that brought that out, or did you have an idea of that before?
The community still has a very strong attachment to their natural heritage, they love animals and it would really hurt them to lose them, but if they are given the choice, like the bridge, and believe that something will bring them prosperity… I think that was the moment it really hit home. But I think there needs to be more awareness about the benefits they already have from conservation, the water, the limitation of floods – this area is a flood plain – and all the ecological services they might lose if the remaining forest goes. And I am hopeful that now the Sabah government, who had a very difficult political choice, will bring in new initiatives to develop more tourism, address the problem of river pollution and work to restore water quality.
Was the community very disappointed generally about the decision not to go ahead with the bridge?
There are a few very vocal people, politicians in the area, they make a lot of noise, so it’s difficult to know how much those ideas are representative. But it’s a fact, there aren’t enough benefits to the community – of course, people don’t always take the initiative themselves, but you cannot have thousands of B & Bs and homestays! In these areas you need people getting organised to make boat services or bus charters if they want to promote tourism and there’s a lot of organisation and leadership needed which is just not there. It’s not only the role of conservation NGOs to do these things, but it is really important to do what we can. For me it really opened my eyes…
The Bornean orangutan recently slipped to Critically Endangered on The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. How do you maintain optimism and hope in the face of this? Would you describe yourself as a conservation optimist?
Well, for us it didn’t really change anything. Marc (Marc Ancrenaz, co-founder and Scientific Director of Hutan) was the one working with IUCN to push that. On the ground it doesn’t change the situation because it’s been like that for a long time, so actually it’s good that it has been officially recognised and becomes more of a political emergency for the decision-makers. I must be an optimist if I’ve stuck around for 20 years!
I believe that Kinabatangan – and Borneo in general – is probably one of the last places that orang-utans will survive.
With all the setbacks, there have been a few decisions by the government that are actually very beneficial for orang-utans, like this cancellation of the bridge. There are many more things that we’d like to see achieved, and we still hope it can happen.
Thinking of the future
What’s the ambition for Hutan over the next 10 years? What would you be really happy to achieve?
Well, I think from the very beginning the project had this vital goal of finding ways for people and wildlife to live together better in Kinabatangan. As I told you, I first went to Borneo as a researcher with the dream of doing scientific research on orang-utans, but actually I’m not doing this at all – we have a team of 10 lucky people who do that every day of the year and they do amazing work. But because our project is composed of people from the community – there are 50 of them working full-time at the moment plus about 20 or 30 working part-time, the whole structure of the project is designed so that all the decisions are made by the whole group. General management, the activities that we focus on, everything is decided by the group, so the concerns, objectives and goals have always been set with the community in mind, with that key goal in mind of finding ways to help people and animals live together in Kinabatangan and in Sabah more widely.
So for me this team is probably the biggest achievement of all the years we’ve been here. To see this group of people who’ve learnt so much, without having received very much education to start with, but now some of them have become internationally-renowned researchers, they go to conferences, they do amazing work on the ground and they have this amazing optimism – much more than me maybe – they don’t give up! During this whole bridge story, they’ve borne the brunt of the conflict with the communities, sometimes within their own families..
So, when people think of a ‘conservationist’, perhaps traditionally they would think of someone out in the field, doing the research – but you’ve clearly had to take on lots of different roles – organiser, diplomat, facilitator, mentor – things that I guess maybe you didn’t imagine doing back when you started?
Absolutely not! When I started, I was doing the classic science thing, which of course is useful and necessary, but that’s maybe 1% of what I do now. It’s really about dealing with people at all sorts of different levels. In fact, recently I started training as a professional mediator, and that’s extremely useful! I’m learning a lot. There’s a very good mediation centre in Singapore and I just received my accreditation last month. It’s really about getting groups of people with different interests that conflict with each other together to find solutions that are agreeable to both and not just having one winning over the other. So when you hear some people saying ‘win-win’ solutions, it sounds good but it doesn’t really tell the whole story. It’s really about finding ways to get people to make compromises in a way that can be accepted and appreciated by all sides.
Finally, you’ve lived in Borneo for two decades – what is something you miss about France?
Bread and wine! I still wake up in the middle of the night thinking about bread! I go back to France once a year and every year I have a bigger culture shock, when I see people so gloomy and depressed and they say life is so difficult, it’s so hard, and they seem really unhappy. Coming from a village in Kinabatangan where people are poor, but they’re happy and enthusiastic and they are much more ready to find solutions…I’m always happy to return to Borneo!
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. All images courtesy of HUTAN – Kinabatangan Orang-utan Conservation Programme.