Extreme Travel | Adventure Sports

Building orang-utan bridges

Palm oil plantations and logging are isolating apes. A British organisation is here to help
Building orang-utan bridges

Conservationists estimate about 11,000 orang-utans live in Malaysia’s Sabah state in Borneo, but many are isolated from each other because swathes of forest have been cut for development, logging and oil palm plantations.

The Kinabatangan reserve is bordered by plantations, which means the apes (and many other species) cannot cross the many tributaries to move along the river. Genetic mix is extremely important for the continuance of a robust population of orang-utans, and when small populations become isolated, this is not possible.

Step forward Fieldskills, an expedition travel and training business with offices in the UK and in Borneo. Research has shown that by providing special bridges made from fire hoses, the orang-utans can migrate along the river to find mates and dietary variety with relative ease. Camera traps placed on these bridges have shown them to be successful and a full-scale operation is under way to install the bridges the whole length of the reserve.

Over the last two years Fieldskills has considerably developed its business in Borneo through Ropeskills Rigging, a specialist rope access provider for film and TV projects, which also supports canopy science in the tropical forests. At the end of 2010 they got involved in a highly unusual but rewarding rigging job, building bridges for orang-utans in the fragile Kinabatangan wildlife reserve.

“One of our slogans has always been bringing safety and adventure, conservation and education together” explains UK director Dom Hall. “It’s not always easy, but we are constantly looking at innovative ways to make it happen”.

“It takes a while for the animals to get used to it,” says Marc Ancrenaz, co-founder of French-based conservation group Hutan, which is working with Malaysian state wildlife department officials on orang-utan protection. “But If we are not able to reconnect them, they will become extinct very soon.”

Hutan estimates the number of orang-utans in Sabah has decreased eight-fold in the past 15 years, though conservation efforts in recent times have slowed the decline.

“It has been a great project for us to be involved in, working with the Sabah Wildlife Department (SWD), non-governmental organisation, HUTAN, Danau Girang Field Centre (DGFC) and Borneo Conservation Trust Japan”, says Fieldskills Borneo Director Simon Amos. “Tourism and adventure travel has provided income for us to develop the rope skills of our local staff, now it is very rewarding to be able to put these skills to such good use.”

The project is ongoing and DGFC director Dr Benoit Goossens says similar bridges would be set up at tributaries in the vicinity of DGFC following a survey carried out by HUTAN last year, which identified sites suitable for bridge construction to alleviate the issues of orang-utan population fragmentation.

And that’s how adventure travel, green tourism, conservation, and sustainability can work together for very positive results.

If you’d like to get involved with adventure travel experiences in Borneo, including a Borneo Three Peaks Challenge and a Mount Kinabalu Mountain bike Circumnavigation expedition, contact admin@fieldskills.com or visit www.fieldskills.com