US Embassy supports Oil Palms and Orangutans faculty-led program!


 US Embassy supports Oil Palms and Orangutans faculty-led program!



Following participation in a delegation led by Ambassador Joseph Yun aimed at sponsoring linkages between wildlife and forest conservation leaders in Sabah, Borneo and Oregon, USA, Oregon State University’s College of Forestry immediately began to seek a way to introduce US students to the critical issues surrounding protection of Borneo’s fragile rainforest habitat.  John Bliss, Associate Dean of International Programs and faculty member in the department of Forest Ecosystems and Society, launched a program entitled “Oil Palms and Orangutans: Forest Conservation in Malaysian Borneo”.  The course quickly enrolled ten students (nine undergraduate and one PhD student) from across the university; their courses of study included Natural Resources, Forestry, Wildlife and Fisheries Biology, and Environmental Sciences.  Partnering with the Sabah Forestry Department, Danau Girang Field Centre and the CREATE Centre, a two-week course was designed that would expose students first-hand to the forces at play in the region – decline in key species populations, habitat under pressure from commercial use, the need for local and international community education and support for conservation. 

Traveling halfway around the world to encounter one of the world’s most famous rainforests, which houses flagship species such as orangutans, clouded leopards and pygmy elephants, would seem an unattainable dream to most college students.  But we are convinced that firsthand experiential learning is the key to educating a generation that cares about forests and their protection, and that is willing to ask hard questions of consumer society which exploits these irreplaceable ecosystems. In order to provide an international experience that would be affordable to students from all economic backgrounds, the OSU College of Forestry applied for, and ultimately received, grant funding from the US Embassy for assistance with in-country costs. The program was also supported by the Oregon Sabah Collaborative, Oregon State University, and the OSU College of Forestry. Danau Girang Field Centre was a key partner in facilitating the program design, implementation, and continued success.

The OSU group completed a community service project, spending an afternoon with an organization called CLEAR, which works with local communities to turn green waste into compost, plant trees in riparian areas to protect watersheds, and prevent waste from entering the waterways. Students helped out by making compost, filling and planting nursery bags, and helping CLEAR staff cement an area of their headquarters. 

The group began its journey in Kota Kinabalu, arriving on August 17 and transferring to the CREATE Center in Penampang for an introduction to grass roots community organizations that work to protect the rainforest, its indigenous cultures, peoples and wildlife. The group learned from Green Empowerment, a Portland-based NGO, about the benefits of (and challenges to) providing micro-hydrological turbines as alternatives to dam building which destroys riparian habitat and impacts forest communities.  They were also introduced to the key theme of the complexity of resource management – how can the goals of economic development and environmental protection be addressed in one area?  What impact does human activity have on rainforest ecosystems, and how is that investigated by scientists?  Hands-on work gave them personal insight into the daily tasks that go into building caring for the environment on a daily basis.

From Kota Kinabalu, students and faculty leaders then flew to Sandakan and traveled to Sepilok, visiting the Sabah Forestry Department’s ecological education facility, the Rainforest Discovery Centre, where Dr. Robert Ong, introduced them to the biodiversity of Borneo’s rainforests.  They toured Sabah Wildlife Department’s Orangutan Conservation Centre, and the independent Sunbear Conservation Centre.  Here the group learned firsthand about the rich diversity of rainforest habitat, and the wildlife species that make their home in these forests.  Many of these animals are endangered, and the students were brought to understand issues around deforestation, degradation of forest habitat, poaching and human-animal conflicts that have resulted in dwindling and isolated wildlife populations.  Speakers from the Sabah Wildlife Department and Centre staff introduced them to the work being done to rehabilitate individual animals (especially orangutans, elephants and sunbears) and reintroduce them to the wild, and to educate local and global communities about their plight.

“Our group at one of the auction yards at Deramakot.  Robert Ong (center), is surrounded by (from left to right) Amber, Phil, Noel and Larry. After driving through palm oil plantations for miles, we emerged onto this auction yard at the edge of Deramakot Forest Reserve, a sustainably managed forest.  This is easier said than done, as students learned while they watched a worker cut down a tree. Here students learned about the technical challenges of harvesting. They saw, firsthand, how felling one tree would often damage the trees around it, and learned about how factors like rain can delay or even prevent active logging. 'Do you think the price we pay at the local hardware store really reflects this cost, or encourages consumers to think about the process?’ John Bliss asked. After slipping and sliding down a muggy logging road, standing in the heat and humidity of the jungle for even 15 minutes, and hearing about how the immigrant workers would be chased by bees who knew the sound of a chainsaw, and would be unable to return to their families while working, I didn’t see a single student head nod a positive response to John’s question.”

-          Gretchen Engbring, PhD student, group leader


With Dr. Ong, the group traveled to Deramakot Forest Reserve, where Dr. Ong explained to us how the Forestry Department seeks to provide an example of carefully managed forests and logging operations that comply with Forest Stewardship Council certification. Although production focused, Dermakot demonstrated how forests can be managed to meet multiple objectives. 

The final stop in the group itinerary was reached by a three-hour boat ride up the Kinabatangan River to the Danau Girang Field Centre (DGFC), operated collaboratively by the Sabah Wildlife Department and the University of Cardiff in Wales; along the way, students passed miles and miles of palm oil plantation, which underlined the severity of the problem facing Borneo’s native forests.  Native plant and animal species are encroached upon on all sides, and critical wildlife corridors are often inadequate, or entirely missing.  The students observed how native forest is often retained in small islands in the sea of palm.  They observed diverse species, including proboscis and silver leaf monkeys, crocodiles, wading birds and birds of prey.  At DGFC, the students spent four days immersed in field work deep in the rainforest.  Graduate and undergraduate students from the UK, US and other nations served as mentors to the OSU students, guiding them through the trackless jungle to observe animals and plants in their native habitats.  The group was introduced to various field research techniques including surveying, camera trapping, GPS and radio monitoring.  The group was able to discuss research objectives with the resident students, and truly come to understand the nature and potential impact of research in this unique environment.

Phil Carbary, OSU undergraduate in Natural Resources, uses radio telemetry to locate a slow loris near Danau Girang Field Centre.  “After wandering around for hours in the jungle, listening to and following the little beeps despite bugs, fallen logs, draping vines, and an utter lack of trails, suffice it to say that the students began to realize that while the conclusions in a journal article may be brief and exciting, there are hours, months, even years of hard work behind these results. It’s a process, an ongoing one at that, and it’s not always glamorous! The trip emphasized the conditions that many scientists endure, but as we took a boat ride down the Kinabatangan past palm plantations that encroached on buffers and came right down to the river, I don’t think any of the students thought that kind of research wasn’t absolutely critical.” 

-          Gretchen Engbring, PhD student, group leader



Following their stay at Danau Girang Field Centre, the group returned by river and road to Sandakan, and six of the ten students returned home.  Four, however, remained on in Sepilok for three weeks of internship experience.  Two students are currently working along Sabah Wildlife Department veterinarians and staff on orangutan rehabilitation and nursery programs at the Sepilok Orangutan Centre; two are involved in preparations for a Wildlife Festival at the Rainforest Discovery Centre.  All students report that the program and subsequent internship are amongst the most significant educational experiences of their academic and professional careers.

This program has been a marked success for the OSU College of Forestry, and it would not have been possible without the generous grant from the US Embassy in Kuala Lumpur.  We owe a debt of gratitude to Ambassador Yun and his staff for their support.  A number of the students who participated are first generation college students.   Several had not previously left the United States. For all of them, this was their first trip to Malaysia, and for most, their first exposure to an Asian country.  The opportunity to encounter Borneo’s wildlife under the guidance of OSU faculty and to engage with those in Borneo who are striving to make a difference in conservation and sustainable forestry has been life-changing.  We must also extend our profound thanks for the guidance and support of Dr. Robert Ong (Sabah Forestry Department) and Dr. Benoit Goossens (Danau Girang Field Centre).  Thanks also go to Gabriel Wynn at Green Empowerment (CREATE Center), Dr. Wong Siew Te (Sunbear Centre), Dr. Sen Nathan and his staff (Sepilok Orangutan Centre) for their involvement in this program.

Completion/Archive Date: 
Sunday, May 21, 2017