Volunteering in Borneo

This August Chris Hutchings, Managing Director of Apex, travelled to Borneo, Malaysia to take part in an International Conservation Volunteer Programme, for the Corridor of Life Project.  Now back from his two-week adventure we find out more about what he was doing and why.

Why did you choose to volunteer in Borneo?

I am passionate about caring for our planet! This trip has allowed me to experience first-hand the impact of deforestation caused by logging and agriculture.  I was also supporting the great work of the Corridor of Life project by planting trees and helping to gather important wildlife monitoring data.

What was the most surprising thing you saw or did?
To witness the sheer scale of the deforestation and palm oil plantations, which go on for mile upon mile.

What was the scariest moment?
Being in the Gomantong Caves on a platform walkway.  There was thousands of bats and swiftlets above, and below guano, cockroaches and rats.  The smell of ammonia was pungent!

What was the hardest or most frustrating part of the trip?

The heat!  There was six of us to clear the jungle with machetes, and plant more than 100 trees over five days.  It was so hot and humid, sweat literally poured down your face.  We could only work from 7 till 11am each day, before the heat became unbearable.

What is the significance of the trees you planted?
Planting trees is one of the very best things you can do to help with global conservation.  Forests;

  • help prevent erosion and secure soil
  • influence their own climate, bringing rainfall across vast areas
  • support many wonderful species and increase habitat complexity

Plus, they provide a huge variety of resources that we make use of now, and will want to make use of in the future.

When you weren’t planting trees, what else did you do?
On Day 4 of the trip we headed into the jungle to observe and monitor wildlife.  We saw Macaque monkeys, snakes, and the most enormous footprints – of course belonging to the Pygmy elephants.  It was like being in Jurassic Park!  All the data we collected has been passed back to Sabah Wildlife department, and will form part of their statistical data analysis.

Tell us more about the Corridor of Life project?
Known as “Kinabatangan – Corridor of Life (CoL)”, the project was initiated by WWF-Malaysia.  It aims to establish a balance between the growing demands of private land development, such as forest conversion, the local community, and the need to protect its unique wildlife.

By way of sustainable development, CoL is creating a forest corridor along the Kinabatangan connecting coastal mangrove swamps with forests, where people, wildlife, tourism and local forest industries thrive and support each other.  CoL works by engaging with stakeholders and partners such as government agencies, oil palm companies, tour operators and local communities.

The Kinabatangan Floodplain located on the east coast of Sabah in Borneo, is arguably the last forested alluvial floodplain in Asia.  Since the 1950’s forested land around the Kinabatangan has been used for economic activities including logging and the development of agriculture.  Consequently, it is estimated 80% of habitat has been lost to logging and mono agriculture, namely palm oil, which remains a dominant commercial crop in the area today.

As the rainforest reduces, the wild animals, such as Orangutan and Pygmy elephants, are pushed into smaller and smaller pockets of rainforest.  This then causes conflict within the respective species, plus subsequent increased human and animal conflict often end in wildlife being killed.  Smaller forests also mean a species is no longer diverse, which can lead to genetic collapse.


What was the best moment of the entire trip?
Seeing a wild mother and baby Orangutan in their natural habitat.  Suddenly it all made sense.

What is the one thing about your home comforts that you missed?
A hot bath!

Did you have any free time on the trip?
Yes, on the last day of the trip we visited Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre.  The Centre cares for young orangutans orphaned as a result of illegal logging and deforestation and those who have been illegally caught and kept as pets.  It was an amazing opportunity to be just metres away from Orangutans, watching them feed and play.  More about their work can be found at www.orangutan-appeal.org.uk/about-us/sepilok-orangutan-rehabilitation-centre.

What are two interesting facts that you learned about the wildlife in Borneo?
The name Orangutan means a) Orang = person b) Hutan = forest.  Hence Orangutan means “Person/Man of the Forest” and they can’t swim!

What shared qualities have you noticed in the people and place you’ve visited?

There is a real energy and drive within the local community to protect the remaining ecology.  In fact, one of the locals who joined the planting scheme used to be an illegal logger.

What is the biggest lesson you have learnt from this trip?
One of the most poignant things said to me was by our project leader, “The choices you make in the West directly affect life and the Eco systems here in the East”.

Now that you’ve volunteered in Borneo, is there somewhere else you would like to go?
Yes, to visit a tiger conservation in India!

If you fancy doing a similar adventure visit www.thegreatprojects.com