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HUTAN - Kinabatangan Orang-utan Conservation Programme

Current initiative


Bornean orangutans from the Orangutan Conservation Programme

Bornean orangutans from the Orangutan Conservation Programme. Credit: HUTAN/Kinabatangan Orangutan Conservation Programme

In 1998, HUTAN, a French NGO, partnered with the Sabah Wildlife Department in Malaysian Borneo to establish the Kinabatangan Orang-utan Conservation Programme. Initially, the programme focussed on research specific to the orang-utan but has now grown to include working with communities to address human-wildlife conflict and developing alternative livelihoods. The team now comprises more than 50 highly skilled staff from the local community, who work in close collaboration with an effective network of partners. HUTAN aims to prevent the extinction of the orang-utan and solve human-wildlife conflict through the active engagement of all stakeholders, and by creating innovative mechanisms that address local development and conservation.



The Kinabatangan floodplain of Malaysian Borneo encompasses about 60,000 ha of forests. Roughly two-thirds of this is protected, and 400,000 ha of land comprises oil palm plantations and other human landscapes.

The poaching and wildlife trade problem

Species affected Asian Elephant Elephas maximus , Bornean Orangutan Pongo pygmaeus , Edible Nest Swiftlet Aerodramus fuciphagus , Green Sea Turtle Chelonia mydas , Helmeted Hornbill Rhinoplax vigil , Sunda Pangolin Manis javanica

Products in trade

There is a local trade of certain species which are poached for bushmeat or traditional medicine. Elephants are poached for the international ivory trade and some bird species are poached for the pet trade.

Overview of the problem

Traditionally, local communities have not participated in forest hunting but there are now increasing threats from outsiders who enter lower Kinabatangan in search of game or trade species. Human-elephant conflict is also on the rise, leading to increased poaching from retaliatory killings.

Generally, communities are not involved in, nor support, illegal wildlife trade. For the small minority of community members who do engage in poaching, this is usually in retaliation to conflicts or when species are seen as pests. The exception to this is illegal harvesting of edible nest swiftlets, which has caused a serious decline in the species’ population and in some areas, local extinctions.

The anti-IWT initiative

In addition to orang-utan specific research, HUTAN has designed and implemented a number of community-based initiatives.

1. Wildlife Wardens

In response to threats to wildlife and protected areas, the Sabah State Government made a provision to appoint Honorary Wildlife Wardens (HWW) through the Wildlife Conservation Enactment of 1997 (WCE). Staff from HUTAN were first appointed as HHW in 2001 after training sessions and upon successful completion of a test. In 2008, HUTAN also established a dedicated team to work on HWW full-time. Today HUTAN is equipped with 24 HWW.

2. Reforestation Project

Since 2008, HUTAN has been working to rehabilitate critical orang-utan habitat, with the aim of recreating forest corridors for wildlife. Two of the biggest threats to the lower Kinabatangan region is forest degradation and fragmentation, and due to past logging activities fast-growing tree species need to be planted in order to promote natural forest regeneration.

Initially, four women from local villages were hired and trained and three plots were selected for seed planting. The survival and growth rates of the planted seedlings were monitored monthly, and protected by an electric fence to prevent crop-raiding by elephants.

3. Swiftlets

Since 2009, HUTAN and the Sabah Wildlife Department (SWD) have worked together to develop a recovery programme for the edible nest swiftlet population in the area. The project aims to combine conservation with economic benefits to the Sukau community. Nests are an important traditional Chinese medicine and have been harvested and traded since the 14th century. Three cave systems, once owned and exploited by local families, are now the property of the government and are managed by SWD.

4. Fishermen for conservation

Traditionally, bubu (prawn/fish traps) were made from tree bark, and fishermen would venture illegally into protected areas and unintentionally damage the trees by removing the bark. HUTAN developed a suitable alternative by working with experienced fishermen from the village to experiment with various types of environmentally friendlier materials. The best alternative to tree bark is plastic wire mesh, as it is quick and easy to make. The new bubu has spread to surrounding villages and HUTAN provides a small loan to cover the cost of equipment as well as free training.

The strategy

Strengthening disincentives for illegal behaviour

Paid in money community scouts
Paid in-kind community scouts
Raising community awareness about wildlife crime penalties and sanctions
Strengthening and supporting traditional norms and sanctions against IWT
Further detail

Since 2002, a team of 24 villagers has been employed as Honorary Wildlife Wardens. They are granted the same legal powers as rangers, allowing them to enforce laws and apprehend offenders if necessary.

In 2008, HUTAN created a Core Wildlife Warden Team consisting of local community members. Salaries are paid and members provided with technical support and equipment.

HUTAN also hired 13 members of the Sukau community to guard the caves against nest thieves and other intruders to protect the edible-nest swiftlet.

Increasing incentives for wildlife stewardship

Legal trade
Further detail

HUTAN has supported the Sukau Homestay Programme since 2002 - where communities have exclusive rights for ecotourism. In 2016, 14 families were members of the Sukau Homestay, receiving a total of 624 tourists and generating an income of nearly $50,000 for the community.

Sustainable harvest of the edible-nest swiftlet for local trade.

Jobs have been created in wildlife monitoring, management of the sanctuary and collecting scientific data.

In 2004, ‘Fishermen for Conservation’ was established to find sustainable alternatives to traditional fishing traps made from tree bark.

Decreasing the costs of living with wildlife

Preventive measures to deter wildlife
Physical separation of people/livestock and wildlife
Further detail

The Wildlife Surveys and Protection team (WSP) are available 24/7 to help the community minimise wildlife conflicts. The team regularly conduct night patrols in villagers’ fields and help to maintain electric fences to prevent crop-raiding. The team is also working with the communities to design a fence that will allow animals to move freely across a larger landscape.

Since 2000, HUTAN has been monitoring the levels of human-wildlife conflicts within the lower Kinabatangan region, assessing their causes and working with the Sabah Wildlife Department to develop innovative solutions to mitigate these conflicts.

In 2002, HUTAN set up the Elephant Conservation Unit (ECU) with a group of villagers to assist local farmers to efficiently control wildlife crop-raiding damages in village orchards and small-scale palm oil plantations. Combining traditional knowledge of the local wildlife and area with intensive technical training, the ECU has so far succeeded in greatly reducing the extent of damages caused by elephants to the villagers’ crops. Today, the ECU works closely with the Honorary Wildlife Wardens.

In 2016, four workshops were held with communities to share experiences of human-elephant conflict and to discuss long-term solutions.

Increasing livelihoods that are not related to wildlife

(Non-wildlife-based) enterprise development/support
Further detail

Since 2008, HUTAN has supported the development of community tree nurseries as an alternative source of income for village families. In addition, with the creation of the seedling collection centre in 2016, they were able to increase purchases of seedlings, generating an income for 18 village home nurseries.

In addition, job opportunities have been developed for women in the HUTAN reforestation team.

Build/and or support sense of community ownership or stewardship

Further detail

HUTAN is embracing a community-based approach. Except for the two programme directors (Drs Isabelle Lackman and Marc Ancrenaz), the entire team of KOCP field researchers (more than 60 persons) is originating from the villages of Lower Kinabatangan. At HUTAN, we believe that the villagers who are sharing the same environment with elephants and other species are the key actors to ensure the long-term maintenance of these animals outside of protected forests in Sabah. We not only need to harness the support of local communities in our conservation efforts, but we need their active involvement in all activities described in the proposal. Being members of local communities themselves, the KOCP teams are in a unique situation to develop a trustful relationship with other villages and communities.

All HUTAN activities are decided, developed and implemented by local community members. Direct benefits for the local staff are gained through direct empowerment to manage their own natural resources, income security and opportunities for capacity building (including traveling, attending conferences, personal career development and etc.). Recipients of our conservation efforts are also primarily community members.

Improving education and awareness

Further detail

In 2003, HUTAN implemented an Environmental and Awareness Program (HEAP) after recognising the lack of environmental education for rural communities. HEAP runs programmes for nursery, primary and secondary schools in the region. Each programme is individually tailored and features outdoor activities. In 2016, HEAP conducted 49 programmes in total in 7 districts.

Alongside this, HUTAN runs community awareness programmes with various events such as earth days and festivals.

HUTAN builds the capacity of staff members using training programmes and courses on topics such as camera trapping, law enforcement for wildlife crime, water quality monitoring, climate change and photography.

Has the initiative made a difference?

Specific results include:

- Yearly market raids as part of campaigns led by local authorities to halt the illegal sale of turtle eggs, resulting in several hundred eggs seized since 2016

- Monthly nest counts of swiftlets showed a maximum of 1,392 nests in 2016, a 35% increase in the number of swiftlet breeding pairs since 2015 and a 519% increase since the first nest count in 2011

- Illegal tree felling and bark harvesting has reduced within the region as a direct result of the fishermen for conservation initiative, with more than 10,000 trees saved

- Elephant Conservation Unit has so far succeeded in greatly reducing the extent of damages caused by elephants to the villagers’ crops



Compared to our baseline data, we have witnessed a decrease of HWC over the years since we started our activities. In particular:

-Protection of graveyards with electrical fences resulted in a halt of damages and conflicts with elephants. Then people’s perception started to be more positive toward elephants

-Formation and training of teams of villagers who would patrol and mitigate conflicts was successful in decreasing the conflicts by more than half. More importantly, villagers started to understand why there were conflicts: i.e., wildlife is losing its habitat and hence need to go into people’s crops to survive.

-Tourism activities developed in the area started to benefit increasingly local communities. Villagers started to understand the financial value of wildlife presence in their vicinity. In this case, it is easier for villagers to accept a certain level of conflicts when animals offer alternative sources of incomes

-Awareness activities also raise the level of acceptance for peaceful co-existence.


Poaching has also decreased because of increased patrolling efforts: the patrols are recording y the number of cases of illegal activities.

What works and why

The Wildlife Enactment, 1997 allows people from any community to train to become Honorary Wildlife Wardens, which is very important to fostering environmental stewardship. Furthermore, the government of Sabah has been key enablers for certain aspects of the project.

The heart of our long-term success lies with local communities: villagers need to become actively involved as guardians of their natural resources, and not only seen as passive collaborators. Such an approach is possible with any community but requires time and patience (hence a long-term commitment over more than 10-15 years).

Before anything else, we need to spend time with communities we want to work with; we need to try to understand their aspirations and issues, and we need to build trust with them. We cannot tell people what they could or should do; we need to listen to them, and together we need to design and implement solutions for their problems. People also need to understand that only they can find solutions that are sustainable in the long-term. They cannot rely on government agencies, industry players, or NGOs to solve their HWC issues. They need to understand the reasons for conflicts and design and implement their workable solutions.

Factors for success

Long-term donor support that is flexible, adaptive and/or based on realistic time goals

Sufficient time investment in building relationships and trust between the initiative and local communities

Clear and tangible benefits to local communities from wildlife (These may be financial and/or non-financial)

What doesn’t work and why

There is relatively poor communication and collaboration between the different sectors in charge of policies development or implementation.

Additionally, there is poor law enforcement, for example, poachers have only just started to be prosecuted in Sabah, and some officials may even be involved in international trade.

Factors that limited or hindered success

Ineffective and unaccountable community-based natural resources management institutions

Ineffective and/or untrustworthy community leaders

Lack of transparent and accountable distribution of benefits to local communities

Organisers, donors and partners


Government of Sabah: Sabah Wildlife Department, Sabah Forestry Department, Sabah education Department

Research Institutions: University Malaysia Sabah, Danau Girang Field Center

Financial partners: Zoos (Beauval, La Palmyre, Chester, Basel, Apenheul, Hogle, Woodland Park, Colombus, Houston, Cleveland, Kansas, Phoenix, Cheyenne, Stichting Ouwehand, Toronto, Wroclaw Nashville, and etc.); private foundations (Arcus, Intrepid Travel, Synchronicity Earth, World Land Trust, Holonics, Points Family, etc.); USFW Conservation Fund and many others.

For further information contact Dr Marc Ancrenaz (