RFF’s project area in Sabah. Picture by R. Risch

by Uwe Fischer |

In a pilot project started in March 2019, scientists in collaboration with Borneo‘s forestry authorities proposed to convert palm oil plantations into rainforests. Lessons learned from this could then be used as a blueprint for future reforestation projects. The rainforests of Malaysia are among the most species-rich habitats in the world. Orangutans, dwarf elephants, gibbons and the wild cattle Banteng still live here and are all threatened with extinction.

The main reason for this is the loss of rainforest because of ever encroaching palm oil plantations. In Sabah, about 1.6 million hectares, or 20 percent of the total land area, are palm oil plantations, especially in the east. The German organisation “Rhino and Forest Fund” (RFF) has bought 33.5 hectares of land in Sabah, Malaysia, to reforest it under the scientific observation.

Connecting isolated forest islands

The project aims to create a green corridor between two protected areas, the Tabin Game Reserve with an area of around 123,000 hectares and the Kulamba Game Reserve, which is part of another almost 80,000 hectare nature reserve. The Tabin Wildlife Reserve is completely surrounded by palm oil plantations and a mangrove swamp area. “In order to prevent mass extinction of species, isolated forest areas must be reconnected as soon as possible. Therefore the costly acquisition of certain areas of oil palm plantations and their conversion into protected areas are indispensable. It is very surprising that no one has ever done this before“, says Robert Risch, board member of RFF and employee of the Leibniz-IZW.

Donations needed for purchasing more land

The money needed for buying the plantations was raised by donations from Germany. A hectare of palm oil plantation currently costs between 11,000 and 22,000 Euros, depending on the location, productivity and age of the plantation. A few hectares of land at the crucial point can make the difference whether whole species die out or not, says Robert Risch, adding they would immediately buy 1,000 hectares to secure the link between the protected areas if they had the necessary financial backing.

However, the RFF cannot afford this and thus proceeds step by step. If possible, the conservationists will buy more land soon. The conditions at the moment for this are favourable as the EU has decided to phase out the use of palm oil in biofuel in future, decreasing the land prices a bit.

The Germany-based RFF has been active on Borneo since 2010 and is collaborating with the Sabah Forestry Department and is supported by the Sabah Wildlife Departments.


  • https://www.rhinoandforestfund.org/en/home/newsdetail-en/article/zurueck-zur-natur-erstmals-werden-oelpalmplantagen-in-geschuetzten-regenwald-umgewandelt.html
  • https://www.spektrum.de/news/regenwald-statt-palmoel-plantage-wiederaufforstung-kann-arten-retten/1656952