Peatland ecosystems play a vital role in combatting climate change as they take up and store unmatched quantities of carbon, provide refuge for rare wildlife and contribute to rural livelihoods. Despite all these benefits, they are at a high risk of disappearing. This World Wildlife Day, EcoActor Sara Campanales Planas shares the success story of the Katingan Mentaya Project. Developed and managed by Permian Global and PT. Rimba Makmur Utama (RMU), and supported by EcoAct, the project uses nature-based solutions and carbon finance to preserve, restore, and sustainably manage a remaining peat swamp forest in Borneo, Indonesia.
The Katingan Mentaya Project (KMP), which EcoAct recently audited in the field, is based within Central Kalimantan in Indonesian Borneo, and is focused on protecting and restoring 149,800 hectares of peat swamp forests in Indonesia. This forest constitutes one of the largest remaining intact forests of its kind, which are under threat globally due mainly to land conversion and climate change.
Peatlands cover only 3% of Earth’s land surface1 but store up to one-third of the world’s soil carbon2 and serve as biodiversity hotspots. Katingan’s peatlands are home to many of the island’s endemic species – in particular, globally threatened primates such as the Critically Endangered Bornean orangutan (Pongo pygmaeus), the Endangered Proboscis monkey (Nasalis larvatus) and the Endangered Bornean white-bearded gibbon (Hylobates albibarbis), as listed in the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List. Initial estimates suggest that over 4,139 Bornean orangutans, 9,789 Gibbons and more than 540 Proboscis monkeys roam in the area. These species play a unique role in the well-functioning of the ecosystem, such as by consuming and dispersing fruit seeds as they navigate across their habitat, which benefits natural forest regeneration. The protection of the peat swamp forest, and in turn these species, is a win-win for both nature and the 43,000 local community members who depend on the ecosystem services it provides.
As part of conservation efforts, the KMP uses biodiversity monitoring to identify species in the forest area, examine the status of their population, and in turn design and implement appropriate conservation actions. As the project area is so vast, monitoring this territory can be challenging. To tackle this, in addition to regular field patrols, carbon finance has allowed the project to deploy advanced digital technologies, such as camera traps. Camera traps are effective at targeting elusive species in remote, difficult to access areas and have allowed those working on the project to transform the way they study local wildlife.
The camera traps used by the project are digital devices that are automatically triggered by movement and capture images of passing animals. These tools have been widely used within wildlife research and have had a hugely positive impact on conservation. For the KMP, the deployment of 200 camera traps throughout the project area has confirmed the presence of the globally threatened Bornean orangutan (Pongo pygmaeus) and Sunda pangolin (Manis javanica) that are categorised by the IUCN Red List as “Critically Endangered”, as well the magnificent Sunda clouded leopard (Neofelis diardi) that is categorised as “Vulnerable”. It is important to note that the Bornean orangutan and Sunda pangolin are strictly protected by Indonesia Law (Undang-Undang No.5, year 1990) and listed on the Ministry of Environment and Forestry Regulation No.P.106, year 2018. Other surprising findings include sightings of the Hairy-nosed otter (Lutra sumatrana), a rare species endemic to Southeast Asia that was thought to be extinct in 1998.
Meyner Nusalawo, better known as Opo, is the project’s Area and Biodiversity Monitoring and Protection Manager and is highly involved in wildlife monitoring and habitat protection including fire prevention and handling.
“Where possible, we leave the forest to do what forests do best – to grow, to store away carbon and to provide for all the species that live there. Nature has been doing that for millions of years, we just need to ensure it is given the space to thrive.” He explains that “as conservationists, though, there are occasions where we must go in. In extreme cases, this is to respond to fire alerts or prevent illegal logging. By far the most rewarding part is the surveying and monitoring work we do to track the forest’s wildlife.”
Orangutans were once widespread across Southeast Asia, but human-induced habitat fragmentation and loss has pushed them close to extinction. Today, all three species of orangutan (the Bornean, Sumatran and the recently discovered Tapanuli) are classified as Critically Endangered by the IUCN Red List.
The KMP is home to 5-10% of the remaining populations of the Bornean species, currently estimated to be around 70,000 to 100,000 individuals. Between 1950 and 2010, the population saw a sharp 60% decline, largely attributed to the loss of peatlands3. This demonstrates the fundamental value of the project, which is not only successfully protecting the orangutan’s precious habitat but also monitoring the status of these remaining populations and acting upon any threats to their survival.
The project’s monitoring programme combines field surveys and camera trapping, both effective, non-invasive approaches to studying arboreal animals like orangutans, which spend most of their time in the forest canopy. KMP staff regularly conduct orangutan nest counts and deploy camera traps throughout the project area to obtain valuable data to estimate population density and distribution, and understand the status and ecology of all wildlife in the project area. So far, the research has found orangutans to be populous but unevenly distributed across the surveyed areas. Although there is still no straightforward explanation to this, the findings have helped design another round of stratified random sampling to improve the accuracy of population estimates. The project’s long-term vision is to identify and study the factors, such as certain habitat conditions and management interventions, that influence distribution to boost populations in low-density areas and maintain healthy numbers in the most populated through concrete conservation measures.
Camera trap footage of a Bornean orangutan mother and her young. The KMP is home to 5-10% of the remaining population of this species. © Permian Global and PT. Rimba Makmur Utama.
The project’s success in protecting and restoring the peat swamp forest ecosystem is primarily owed to the engagement of the surrounding, forest-dependent communities. From its foundation, the project has employed a community-based approach towards conservation by recognising the communities’ rights to natural resources, encouraging their participation in decision-making, and providing the tools and capacity to foster sustainable livelihoods.
High community acceptance and participation has led to one of the project’s most notable achievements so far: the end of the slash-and-burn practice in one of the communities. This agricultural practice is historically common in the region and involves starting fires deliberately to clear land for cultivation. Drained peatlands are particularly susceptible to this technique, as their soil is mainly composed of highly flammable organic matter. Even after a fire is supposedly extinguished, it can continue to smoulder and spread underground, remerging at any time. This phenomenon has been termed “zombie fires” and is increasingly frequent due to rising temperatures and drought, both linked to climate change.
Peatland degradation not only has catastrophic climatic effects by releasing the stored carbon into the atmosphere but causes the fragmentation and loss of habitat for endangered species such as the orangutan. Shockingly, Indonesia’s man-made peatland fire crisis in 2015 emitted around 16 million tonnes of CO2 per day4.
With the intention to better control fires and, ultimately, put a stop to this destructive practice, the project set up a fire patrol group to raise awareness of its dangers and scout the area to detect and put out forest fires before they spread out of control. Early detection is key to prevent fires from penetrating deep into the ground and cause zombie fires later on.
Although the local community was, at first, reticent to change, it is today the first to inform of forest fires. Murniah joined the forest fire patrol in 2019 as, she confessed, “My soul was just called to action”. A victim of forest fires herself, she explained that “During the forest fires in 2015, much of the villagers’ land was burnt, including my own. It felt only right that our village has our own Forest Fire Patrol to prevent the next tragedy from happening.”
Murniah is just one of the many members that play a fundamental role as firefighters and that have successfully contributed to making forest fires a much less frequent occurrence today.
Fire forest patrol team actively working on rewetting peatland to prevent fire ignition. © Permian Global and PT. Rimba Makmur Utama.
To increase financing for projects like KMP, that work for both nature and the people, more investment from all sources – public, private, national and international – are needed. If we are to stay on track for 1.5°C, we need to not only halt but also reverse the loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services in parallel to transitioning to a low-carbon economy.
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