January 24, 2012
From the Forest:
Reflections on the Conservation Value of Research
in Gunung Palung National Park,
West Kalimantan, Indonesia
Andrew J. Marshall
I first went to the tropics in 1994 with a strong desire to help “save the rainforest.” I aspired to become a scientist who would discover important things about animals and plants, facts that would demonstrate the importance of tropical forests and the necessity of preserving them. I wanted to make a difference. At the time I didn’t know much about tropical forests, but I had read enough to know that they were extremely complicated places and that we lacked answers to some of the most basic biological questions about how rainforests worked. I also knew that rainforests were under threat, a fact that was clear to anyone who paid even passing attention to the media. The rates of forest loss reported in the Amazon basin seemed to me inconceivable. How could areas the size of football fields be disappearing in the blink of an eye? Who was allowing this to happen? Why?
Despite grim projections about the fate of tropical forests, my first years of work there were filled with an optimism, zeal, and sense of possibility that I can vividly remember. I believed in the value of scientific research, that a deeper understanding of tropical forests and their inhabitants must help conservation. I thought my research was important and that I was helping to protect the Indonesian forests that I had come to love.
Now, years later, I question how effective I have actually been. Like many of my colleagues, helping to protect threatened forests and animals is a major justification for my work. It is, however, often uncomfortably difficult to point to clear evidence that demonstrates our contributions. In part, this is because objective assessment of the effects of conservation research is difficult; conservation threats and opportunities are highly situation specific, so we must compare the results of our activities against the unknowable outcome if we had not intervened at all. Still, by most objective measures, conservation research has generally fallen short of expectations– precious forests continue to disappear, populations of endangered species continue to shrink. It is reasonable to question what value scientists add to conservation. Do tropical forests need more scientific researchers, or would conservation be better served by training more lawyers, activists, economists, development workers, and forest rangers?
We know that research can contribute meaningfully to conservation. Intervention by dedicated scientists has almost certainly prevented populations of endangered species from extinction–Mountain Gorillas, American Bison, and Southern White Rhinoceroses are classic examples. Similarly, the day-to-day presence of researchers at field stations across the tropics is beneficial for conservation as it can facilitate law enforcement, provide alternative income to local communities, and promote awareness of the importance of biodiversity and its protection. Involvement of students in research projects can help train the next generation of conservationists and natural resource managers. But in each of these examples, it is usually the personal commitment, social involvement, and political actions of individual scientists that make a difference, not the results of their scientific research. As important as these ancillary benefits are, many of us would like the results of our science, not merely our presence, to make a difference. This is not easy to do and I am personally far from satisfied with my own ability to ensure that the results of my field studies are directly relevant to conservation.
I am certainly not the first to question the relevance of much scientific research– at least as currently conducted– for real world conservation efforts. For recent and thoughtful discussion of this topic in an Indonesian context I commend to readers the writing of Dr. Erik Meijaard, who along with Dr. Douglas Sheil and others has eloquently made the case that researchers have not contributed to conservation nearly as effectively as we might. The goal of my essay is not to tackle these larger questions, important though they are. Instead, I choose to focus on some work in which I have been involved at Gunung Palung National Park that demonstrates ways in which basic field research might provide useful information that can assist conservation efforts.
To date, much of my research has sought answers to very simple questions about tropical forests and the animals that live in them. Why are some tropical forests more productive than others? What determines the types of animals that can live in a particular forest habitat? How do differences in the quality of forest habitats affect the animals that live in them? Although these questions are simple, they are fundamental to our understanding of the structure and function of tropical forests. They are also difficult to answer because they require study of animals in many different habitats. Comparisons of results from distant study sites are difficult to interpret as they are usually confounded by differences in study period, methods, and biogeographic history. The Cabang Panti Research Station in Gunung Palung National Park, West Kalimantan, Indonesia provides a unique opportunity to overcome these limitations. Within our trail system are seven highly distinct types of tropical forest that differ substantially in their soils, drainage, elevation, plant communities, and patterns of productivity. These differences occur over the scale of a few kilometers, permitting comparison of the effects of key variables (such as plant productivity) on animal populations while controlling for others (like biological history and presence of diseases and predators). These forest types are all essentially undisturbed by humans and are still inhabited by the full set of animals thought to have occupied them for at least the last several thousand years. Undisturbed tropical forests– especially lowland forests such as those found at Cabang Panti– are now very rare in Indonesia, and the presence of healthy animal populations and a high diversity of forest types is unparalleled. These unique qualities first attracted my friend and mentor Dr. Mark Leighton and colleagues to open Cabang Panti in the mid 1980’s and have drawn researchers to the site ever since.
posted by: Tom