Of the nearly 250,000 flowering plants known, 170,000 or 68 percent occur in the tropics and subtropics, making tropical rainforests among the most diverse and complex living environments on Earth. Those of the Far East, including Borneo and Sumatra, may be some of the most complex of all. Borneo and Sumatra support 10% of Indonesia’s known plant species, 12.5% of its mammals, and 17% of its other vertebrates. Borneo alone has 10,000-15,000 species of flowering plants.
That is as rich as the whole of Africa, which is 40 times larger, and 10 times richer than the British Isles. In addition Borneo has 3,000 species of trees, 2,000 orchids, and 1,000 ferns. One tiny 1.12 hectare Bornean rainforest plot included 264 tree species and that did not include its palms, lianas, orchids, ferns and other vegetation.
Borneo’s animal life is no less diverse. It supports on the order of 222 mammals, 420 birds, 166 serpents, 100 amphibians, and 394 fresh-water fish, not to mention the invertebrates, by far the most numerous animal species in tropical rainforests. Many of these life forms are endemic, or unique to the island — proboscis monkeys, hornbills, gibbons, clouded leopards, and orangutans.
Each of these organisms is dependent on the whole ecosystem functioning – like a house of cards is dependent on all of its cards. If whole areas of forest are clear-cut, the whole system fails; habitats for thousands of species disappear, and are lost forever. Once the forest is gone, the tropical, acidic, and nutrient poor soils make it difficult for crops to prosper for more than a few years, eventually being replaced by weeds or coarse grasses such as alang-alang in Indonesia. Such plants as alang-alang have no economic uses, are very hardy, are not edible and may be alleliotrophic, meaning that other plants are repelled from growing nearby. These areas become much like a desert.
Today roads cross much of Borneo’s remote interior. Commercial logging concessions cover more than 30 percent of Indonesia’s landmass. Poor concession management, slash and burn agriculture, illegal logging and the massive expansion of palm oil plantations have all contributed to a decreasing rainforest habitat. The fires of 1997 and 1998 eliminated thousands of acres of forest and were termed by the UN as one of the worst ecological disasters of the century. It is estimated that 1/3 of the wild orangutan population was lost during this time, and Indonesian people suffered widespread respiratory and other health problems due to smoke inhalation. Massive floods and contaminated drinking water are just two of the consequences of illegal logging to the people living in Indonesia and Malaysia.
The value of biological diversity and the rainforest can only be estimated. Every time an acre of rainforest is burned or chopped down, we might lose a cure for cancer or AIDS. Scientists have already seen it happen. A chemical that was a potential cure for AIDS was found in the bark of a gum tree in Malaysia (Sarawak). Scientists took a sample of the bark and studied it to see if it killed the AIDS virus. The results looked good, so the scientists returned to Malaysia to get more samples for further study. When they got there, the tree was gone. The scientists looked for another tree like it, but none was found. It was believed that what could have been a cure for AIDS was gone forever. After several years of continued searching another tree was found in Sarawak on the island of Borneo, and the National Cancer Institute (NCI) could continue the testing on the chemical compounds of this tree. Today clinical testing on humans has begun using the medicine developed from this tree. The government of Sarawak has declared this species to be protected and formed a Biodiversity Center which will continue the search for other life-saving medical miracles.