Thursday, December 19, 2013

In Imperiled Forests of Borneo, A Rich Tropical Eden Endures


In Borneo's Danum Valley — one of the last, untouched forest reserves in a region ravaged by logging and oil palm cultivation — a team of international and Malaysian scientists is fighting to preserve an area of stunning biodiversity.

After three decades of studying the world’s great rainforests, including the Amazon and Congo Basin, I thought I’d seen the best nature has to offer. But that was before I visited a small pocket of forest in northern Borneo known as the Danum Valley. There, I found a dedicated band of international and Malaysian scientists fighting to save a true biological Eden.

In just three days at Danum, I saw a stunning assortment of creatures. Dense rainforests are notoriously difficult places to spot wildlife, but not at Danum — animals are practically dripping from the trees. Bornean gibbons howl from treetops, while giant squirrels and macaques leap spectacularly among branches. Pygmy elephants abound, along with sambar deer and bearded pigs. Orangutans are spotted regularly, while my nighttime hikes revealed palm civets, leopard cats, and giant flying foxes.

Even while taking breakfast on the deck of the research lodge, I was enthralled by a kaleidoscope of butterflies and birds, including magnificent rhinoceros hornbills. And soon after that I had a jolting encounter on a forest track with a spitting cobra, which reared up with hood extended just six feet in front of me.

By any measure, Danum ranks among the world’s most biologically rich and imperiled real estate. My host at Danum, Glen Reynolds, who oversees the British Royal Society’s research in the area, explained how the forests of Borneo have suffered hugely in recent decades from rampant logging, slash-and-burn farming, and cutting for oil palm and rubber plantations.

The island’s rich lowland forests have nearly vanished, with rates of forest loss still among the highest on Earth. For this reason, Borneo is a global epicenter for endangered wildlife, with conservation prognoses for many species becoming ever more perilous.

But Danum has survived, thanks in part to the prestige of the Royal Society and its three decades of collaborative research in Sabah, the Malaysian state in which the conservation area is located. The Royal Society has forged close ties with several influential partners, including the Sabah Forestry Department, the nearby Universiti Malaysia Sabah, and the Sabah Foundation, which administers Danum Valley and its surrounding forests.

It also has trained scores of Malaysian scientists and policy makers, including a number who now hold key research or government positions in Sabah and elsewhere in the region.

Danum is not big by nature-reserve standards — it spans just 438 square kilometers (169 square miles) — but it has impressive attributes and occupies a pivotal position in a rainforest region under siege. In Borneo, half a square kilometer of forest can sustain well over a thousand tree species — more than occur in the entire Northern Hemisphere.

In addition, while the forests surrounding Danum have suffered considerably, the reserve itself has never been hunted or logged. That means that wildlife abounds in rainforests dominated by ancient, towering trees, some reaching up to 80 meters (262 feet) in height.

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