Tuesday, April 12, 2016

My Journey to Borneo: A zookeeper’s dream of learning in the rainforest

Borneo is a place I’ve always dreamed of visiting, but I didn’t think it would ever become a reality. I had a college professor who used to share stories of doing research on orangutan vocalizations there. He told us about the dense peat swamp jungles, and how they’d wear waders to walk through the swamps while holding recording equipment up in the air, listening to the calls of the orangutans. Even though I didn’t want to get into that water, I knew it was a special island that I needed to add to my bucket list.

Since 2001, I’ve worked with primates, but I’ve always wanted to observe endangered orangutans in the wild. This past year, I was one of the lucky recipients of an Earthwatch Expedition Fellowship in Malaysian Borneo, where I worked on an important research project for eight days in the middle of the jungle.

Each year, the Dallas Zoo awards a few staff members an Earthwatch Expedition Fellowship. Earthwatch is an environmental charity that engages people worldwide in scientific field research to promote understanding and action for a sustainable environment. It’s pretty much the greatest experience for anyone who has ever had the childhood dream of doing fieldwork in the wild.

I was honored to be awarded the one fellowship I wanted so badly, which was being offered for the first time: “Climate and Landscape Change in Borneo’s Rainforest.”

The problem

Borneo’s the third-largest island in the world and is shared by Malaysia, Indonesia, and Brunei. It contains some of the oldest forests, dating back 130 million years. Borneo’s rainforest is one of the biodiversity hotspots of the world, containing 15,000 species of flowering plants, 3,000 species of trees, 221 species of mammals and 420 species of birds.

Several Earthwatch researchers are involved in various locations in Borneo, all with different focuses.  My group’s focus was on dipterocarp trees. Although the name isn’t well-known, the dipterocarp is the giant canopy tree that towers above all the rest. Dipterocarps create the iconic picture of the Bornean rainforest. Gibbon apes use the platform of this tree to make their territorial calls across the valleys as the sun rises on the misty, rainy mornings. These massive trees can grow upwards of 80 meters and live for 200 years.

In 1996, logging and commercial activities were banned in Danum Valley, a dipterocarp forest in Sabah, Malaysia, when it received the status of Protection Forest Reserve. Until then, some areas were logged, making it an optimal area to study the theories on sustainable logging.

It’s logical to think that over time a forest will regenerate and correct itself, and part of this project’s goal was to see if that is true. Some logging companies planted new trees where they removed others, but they only planted a few types of trees. Different species can be affected by weather patterns, so if the conditions are not correct, they will lose most of the trees they planted.

Another big concern that is being analyzed is forest fragmentation. Even if a patch of land is untouched, depending on the size it can only sustain a certain amount of wildlife. If there are not corridors between the forest fragments, the wildlife cannot look for new breeding opportunities or forage for food.

It’s also important to consider fragment shape rather than just size. Scientists have shown that there is an important correlation between forest edge and center. For example, if a forested area is long and thin, there is more edge than protected center. Edges tend to be thinner in tree density and are often affected by whatever is boarding the forest. It gives people more access to the wildlife. There has been so much deforestation and fragmentation in Borneo that these researchers are trying to analyze each fragment to see if what is left is still sustainable.