The most fundamental biological requirement of all animals is food and water. In the context of Malaysia and Indonesia, we could imagine under a different array of historical and current human attitudes that Sumatran rhinos could live in oil palm plantations, feeding on woody weeds, with wild cattle feeding on the grasses, together avoiding the need for herbicides. That is unlikely to happen now, but we can imagine other scenarios where plantations can play a role in conserving other rare wildlife species.
One of the most interesting plant genera in Borneo is Ficus. Commonly known as fig in English, ara in Malay and Indonesian, and nunuk in Sabah, there are over 150 species in Borneo, including tall trees, small trees, stranglers (hemiepiphytes if you are a botanist), epiphytes and climbers. A fig “fruit” is actually an arrangement of many small flowers within a receptacle, known as a syconium, but for convenience we call them fruit. Ficus is “keystone”, meaning a genus that has a disproportionately large effect on the functioning of its natural environment relative to its abundance. The main importance of Ficus lies in the fact that in any one area, there are almost always a few or many Ficus plants bearing fruits, and the fruits are eaten by many mammal and bird species. The young leaves are also eaten by some wildlife, including orangutans.
Borneo Rhino Alliance started planting Ficus in 2012, as a means to supply leaves to the rhinos, which favour Ficus leaves as food over many other kinds of plants. At that time, it was imagined that there would be several rhinos living in the Borneo Rhino Sanctuary facilities in Tabin Wildlife Reserve. Sadly, that was not to be. There were probably only four or five rhinos still alive in Sabah at that time, and three were already in captivity at Tabin. Now, BORA has living, planted Ficus of over 30 species on land occupied by the rhino food garden and old rhino facilities.
A significant feature of Ficus is that planting materials can be propagated vegetatively, without the need to wait for, harvest and plant seeds. Vegetative propagation is simpler and quicker than production of seedlings from seeds. Two vegetative propagation methods can be used : marcots (also known as air layering) and cuttings with application of rooting hormone. If marcots or cuttings are taken from mature fig plants and planted out as if they are seedlings, fruiting will occur much sooner in the planted-out marcot or cutting.
Trials are ongoing to seek optimum details of propagation methods, as well as requirements of the various species, and matching of species to sites.
What BORA offers
BORA can supply marcots or cuttings of many of the species now being grown in Tabin, each ready for planting, in a soil-compost matrix in black plastic bags. Orders should be placed in advance. Prices range from RM20 to RM50 per plant, depending on species (some are more difficult to propagate than others) and size. Sales come with advice, if needed, on optimum planting and maintenance methods.
BORA also offers short, customised courses on how to produce marcots.
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS AND CONTACTS
BORA thanks Quentin Phillipps for his outstanding contribution to Ficus identification in the field (https://borneoficus.info/) and for supporting us via the Borneo Fig Project; and PONGO Alliance for providing the impetus to pursue development of the nursery at Tabin Wildlife Reserve, with an emphasis on Ficus and vegetative propagation.