Twenty Years of Wildlife Conservation in Malaysia

Asian elephants walk through the forest. Credit: HUTAN-Marc Ancrenaz

Credit: HUTAN-Marc Ancrenaz

Malaysia is home to some of the world’s most iconic species including elephants, orangutans, and tigers. Since 1998, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) has been working with partners and advancing conservation efforts in Malaysia. To date, we’ve supported 76 grants totaling more than $3.5 million for on the ground conservation. Although the projects focus on a variety of species in both peninsular Malaysia and Malaysian Borneo, all blend science, outreach, and education. Check out some of the highlights from USFWS projects in Malaysia over the last 20 years!

Human-Elephant Conflict Mitigation (2000)

Rooted in the issues of habitat loss and landscape fragmentation, human-elephant conflict (HEC) can cause injury to elephants and humans and damage to property and agricultural crops. HEC commonly involves elephants raiding agricultural fields in search of an easy and nutritious food source, which causes significant economic losses to farmers and sometimes injuries to elephants resulting from farmers’ attempts at repelling elephants. Recognizing that HEC is a major threat to Malaysia’s Asian elephant populations, USFWS helped fund a project assessing existing elephant populations in Malaysian Borneo. Once a baseline of elephant population was established, the information was used to create flexible elephant population management recommendations that included the use of electric fences, maintaining and reforesting migration corridors, changing cropping strategies, and the establishment of a Managed Elephant Range. Although the project focused on the Kinabatangan River Region and Daramakoth Forest Reserve, the plan was structured to be applicable to other areas in the Sabah region of Borneo. There was a significant reductions in crop damage and as a result much less human-elephant conflict in the region.  

Orangutan baby and mom. Credit: Cory Brown / USFWS

Credit: Cory Brown / USFWS

Orangutan Awareness and Conservation (2009)

Orangutans, meaning “person of the forest,” are under threat from habitat destruction and fragmentation caused by logging, fires, and conversion of land to oil palm plantations. They also face dangers from poachers who kill orangutan mothers for their babies, which are then sold on the black market as exotic pets. In some cases, orangutans are poached for their meat. The severity of the threats facing orangutan populations is not well known in Malaysian Borneo. In order to protect orangutan populations in Malaysia, USFWS helped fund a program to initiate a dialogue between private industry and state agencies through workshops and exhibitions in Sabah. The Kinabatangan Orangutan Conservation Program (KOCP) Education/Awareness project also worked to increase local capabilities and awareness of conservation issues in the Kinabatangan ecosystem. Using outreach activities such as overnight Adventure Camps and teacher trainings, the project created education opportunities for local communities in small towns and larger cities. Due to this and other projects, about 75% of orangutans in Sabah now live in protected area, in comparison to only 25% of orangutans living in protected areas in 2000.

Tiger. Credit: Valerie / WWF / Creative Commons

Credit: Valerie / WWF / Creative Commons

Citizen Action for Tigers (CAT) (2013)

Poaching of tigers and their cubs is one of the greatest threats to tiger populations in peninsular Malaysia. Specifically, poachers targeted tiger populations along the Sungai Yu Tiger Corridor, the last link between two of the largest forests in Malaysia containing tiger populations, and encroached on the Taman Negara National Park. Without sufficient enforcement capacity in these areas, poachers pushed tiger populations into decline. However, with funding from USFWS since 2003, Malaysia’s citizens organized to protect tigers through the Citizen Action for Tigers (CAT) program. Once rangers identified poaching “hotspots” and illegal access routes, volunteers trek one of three trails in hotspot areas with increasing levels of intensity. Along each trail, CAT volunteers deterred poaching by dismantling tiger traps, conducting park boundary maintenance, and reporting suspicious activity to a 24/7 Wildlife Crime Hotline, all while experiencing the park’s lush tropical forest habitat. Due to CAT’s efforts, signs indicating the presence of Malayan tigers, such as pug marks, increased and the number of snares found per person per kilometer decreased. Other wildlife, such as Asian elephants, returned to the area as well. The program has continued to grow and expanded to a new site in 2016.

Asian elephants in the road. Credit: HUTAN - Marc Ancrenaz

Credit: HUTAN-Marc Ancrenaz

Elephant Habitat Connectivity (2017)

Malaysia’s forested landscape is being converted to oil palm and rubber plantations at an astonishing rate, decreasing the available habitat for Malaysia’s wild elephant population. Additionally, the practice by plantation owners of building fences and ditches surrounding their property can create continuous barriers for tens of kilometers, limiting the ability of elephants to move between forested areas. Without contiguous forest cover between parks, elephants break through plantation barriers in order to cross. Noting the potential of these tensions to escalate, USFWS helped fund a project addressing landscape change in Endau Rompin Landscape, one of the most important elephant habitats in peninsular Malaysia. A three-year ongoing program, the project is using Geographic Information Systems and Landsat-8 satellite imagery to map physical limits to elephant movement and hotspots in which elephants are at risk. Based on historical and recent elephant transit records, the maps are provided to government partners and other stakeholders responsible for managing elephant populations. The project’s goal is to assess the impacts of landscape changes on wild elephants’ ranging abilities as well as to decrease wildlife mortalities and injuries and by creating and sharing this resource support government partners’ abilities in managing the landscape to benefit elephant conservation.

Asian Elephants observed by people in a field. Credit: HUTAN- Marc Ancrenaz

Credit: HUTAN - Marc Ancrenaz

These projects are only a small subset of the diverse work USFWS is helping to support in both peninsular Malaysia and Malaysian Borneo. From assessments of the impacts of ecotourism on wild orangutans to establishing best practices for veterinarians to decrease vulture mortality, the scope of critical conservation needs in Malaysia is broad. USFWS continues to adaptively manage its existing conservation programs, tackles emerging conservation issues, and supports both innovative and time-tested projects. Twenty years is just a start, certainly there will be more successes in the years ahead and for decades to come!