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Archive for ‘From The Forest’

From the Forest

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.

Cabang Panti Research Station

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posted by: Raffaella Commitante


From the Forest: Jantho, Aceh Besar, Sumatra 2011


                      Dr. Singleton comforts Kis kis prior to the orangutan’s release into the wild

From the Forest is a new feature on the Orangutan Conservancy website written by those on the front lines of orangutan conservation and research. This month’s column comes from Dr. Ian Singleton of the PanEco Foundation: Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme. OC helps to support Dr. Singleton’s work.

From the Forest: Jantho, Aceh Besar, Sumatra 2011

by Ian Singleton, Ph.D

Conservation in Indonesia is always an uphill battle and it’s often difficult to know if you are ever achieving anything at all in reality.

The opposition, namely crony politics, massive corruption in every level of society and government, and the disproportionate influence on everything here of a relatively few extremely wealthy and powerful individuals and companies, means that a few dedicated conservation NGO’s, with relatively little money and overstretched resources, are always going to struggle.

In fact, it once occurred to me that many of the people we see and read about in the world, hard working and dedicated to their companies as they are, normally get to see the results of their toil directly, whereas we usually don’t.

Think of a large company CEO who is lucky enough to get a contract to build a major new airport. For sure he will be working just about 24/7 for several years, but then one day the job is done. He then gets to cut that ribbon and drink a swig of champagne, followed by a well earned rest before the next multi-million dollar contract comes along.

We in conservation, on the other hand, also work 24/7 for years on end – often for half the salary that a “proper” job might provide us – but we never get to cut that bloody ribbon! In fact, we may not see anything on the ground that we can definitely say is the result of our own labor, and even if we are lucky, we may in reality only be slowing down the inevitable.

Despite this rather depressing outlook, there is the occasional reason for hope that does get us out of bed (or wakes us up in the car half-way across Sumatra) and keeps us going. Just such an event happened to me earlier this year.

In 2009, a decision was made by the Aceh Government stating that they wanted all illegal pet orangutans confiscated in Aceh to be released there in the wild. This was after several decades of a separatist struggle in the region. Since 1998, a civil war raged on, which only ended after the tsunami of December 2004 devastated much of the province. Shortly after, Aceh Province was granted special autonomy status, which gave the provincial government considerable sway over the conservation of its own resources, including protected areas and wildlife conservation.

Given that directive, we began to look for a suitable site for orangutan release. We soon found it in the lush foothill forests of an area known as Jantho, near the northern tip of Aceh, and of the island of Sumatra itself. The site is a protected area of exceptionally rich lowland forest, with an unusually high density of fig trees, one of the orangutan’s staple foods. There is also a river at the edge of the forest that can normally be crossed by people on foot, but is at the same time an effective barrier to all but the most belligerent orangutans. The surroundings of the reserve are also largely open savanna-like areas with no local agriculture. The risk of orangutans released there coming out and raiding farmers’ crops is minimal. In the other direction, the forests are part of the immense Ulu Massen forest block (circa 750,000 ha) and ultimately connected to the vast Leuser Ecosystem, in which around 85% of Sumatra’s remaining wild orangutans reside. Jantho, in 2009, though, did not have any wild orangutan population, and may not have for several hundred years. We therefore considered Jantho the perfect site for the new project and began to build a simple site in the forest with accommodation for staff at one side of the river and some small cages and facilities for the orangutans at the other.

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posted by: Raffaella Commitante


From the Forest: The Kutai Orangutan Project

morio subadult male

From the Forest is a new feature on the Orangutan Conservancy website written by those on the front lines of orangutan conservation and research. This inaugural column is written by Dr. Anne Russon of the Kutai Orangutan Project. Kutai is one of the research projects that OC helps to support.

From the Forest: The Kutai Orangutan Project
by Anne Russon

Project Background

The Kutai Orangutan project was established in 2009, with Kutai National Park (“KNP”) authorities, to improve the knowledge and protection of its orangutans. Effective protection requires understanding their habits and needs. These orangutans are not currently well known, appreciated, or protected. This project was therefore designed around a long-term study of their behavior and habitat usage.

KNP orangutans belong to the E Kalimantan population of the easternmost Bornean subspecies, P. p. morio. Bornean orangutans are now classified as three subspecies—morio (east: Sabah, E Kalimantan), wurmbii (central-west) and pygmaeus (northwest). Compared to other orangutan habitat, E Borneo is the least productive and suffers the most severe irregular droughts, so morio faces the poorest diets and the longest, harshest food lows. Morio differ from orangutans elsewhere, physically and behaviorally. They are often “black” rather than red like Sumatrans or other Bornean orangutans. They may also be the toughest, specially adapted to E Borneo’s harsh habitat. They appear to rest a lot, and travel and socialize little, perhaps because their poor diet means they must economize on energy spending. They are important scientifically for surviving at the worst margin of the orangutans’ geographic range. Conservation-wise, their special ecology and adaptations need to be taken into account.

Morio in E Kalimantan (“EK”) probably differ from morio in Sabah. They are geographically isolated and evidence for genetic differences is accumulating, so morio EK may have adapted independently and differently. They are also governed separately (Indonesia vs. Malaysia). Morio EK should probably be managed as a separate taxonomic and conservation unit. In this light, morio EK is highly vulnerable to extinction. Its most recent official population estimate is 5,250. This makes it more fragile than the Sumatran orangutan, which the IUCN classifies as critically endangered at a population estimated at 6,500. Morio EK is even more vulnerable than these numbers suggest because its population is highly fragmented, its habitat the continuing target of extensive human development.

Unfortunately, little is known about morio EK behavior today although they were the first wild orangutans studied in Indonesia. Rodman, from May 1970, and his successors (Mitani, Leighton, Suzuki) contributed greatly to early understanding of orangutans through their studies of morio in KNP into the early 1980s, but little has been done since. Lack of interest is the reason, and it probably owes to the common belief that KNP and its orangutans are write offs. KNP and its orangutans have suffered major damage, ranging from poaching, encroachment, and surrounding commercial development to massive forest fires in 1982-3 and 1997-8. The threats persist because KNP protects a large expanse of coastal lowland rich in valuable resources, coal and agricultural land. KNP was recognized as one of the few remaining protected strongholds of morio EK; its orangutan population identified as a priority population for conservation in 2004 at an estimated size at 600. News reports in 2009 emphasized continuing uncontrolled human intrusions. Pessimists claimed the park’s remaining orangutan population had already been virtually eradicated—with only 30-60 individuals surviving.

Reports of their demise are, fortunately, greatly exaggerated.
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posted by: Raffaella Commitante