March 30, 2006

Borneo rainforests a treasure trove of rare species

By Diyan Jari and Reuben Carder

JAKARTA (Reuters) - About three years ago, wildlife
researchers photographed a mysterious fox-like mammal on the
Indonesian part of Borneo island.

They believed it was the first discovery of a new carnivore
species there in over a century.

Since then, more new species of plants and animals have
been found and conservationists believe Borneo, the world's
third-largest island, is a treasure trove of exotic plants and
animals waiting to be discovered.

The new finds were all the more remarkable after decades of
deforestation by loggers, slash-and-burn farming, creation of
vast oil palm plantations, as well as rampant poaching.
Conservationists hope that Borneo will reveal many more
secrets, despite the myriad threats to its unique flora and

"There is vast potential," said Gusti Sutedja, WWF
Indonesia's project director for Kayan Mentarang national park,
a sprawling reserve on the island where the new mammal,
nicknamed the Bornean Red Carnivore, was photographed in a
night-time camera trap.

The animal itself is so rare, it's never been captured.

"In 2003, we conducted joint operations with Malaysian
scientists and discovered many unknown species of lower plants.
Three frogs discovered are being tested by German researchers.
We also recorded five new birds in a forest survey in 2003."

Some conservationists believe Borneo could be the next
"Lost World" after the recent discovery of a host of
butterflies, birds and frogs in another Indonesian jungle on
the island of New Guinea.

The tropical island's fate, along with other threatened
areas on the planet, are at the center of a U.N. meeting in
Curitiba, Brazil, that ends on Friday. Governments are
discussing how to protect the world's biodiversity under a U.N.
goal set in 2002 to slow the loss of species by 2010.

Progress toward meeting that goal looks bleak.

Borneo -- a territory shared among Indonesia, Malaysia and
Brunei -- is home to about 2,000 types of trees, more than 350
species of birds, about 150 types of reptiles and 210 mammal
species, including 44 only found on the island.

Many animals such as pygmy elephants, Sumatran rhinos,
orangutans as well as the clouded leopard, the sun bear and the
Bornean gibbon top the list of Borneo's endangered species.


Environmentalists say the island, described by Charles
Darwin as "one great untidy luxuriant hothouse made by nature
for herself," is being stripped of vast swathes of forests by
loggers. Mining, lax law enforcement and corruption are also

According to some estimates, Borneo loses forests
equivalent to an area of about a third of Switzerland every
year, or at a rate of 1.3 million ha (3.2 million acres), much
of it to feed the voracious appetite for timber in the West and

"Indonesia's forests are being destroyed at a rate of 2
million ha (4.9 million acres) a year," said Indonesian
forestry consultant Dwi R. Muhtaman. "Within a short time the
forest in low-lying areas (of Borneo) will be gone."

WWF's Sutedja did not have a precise figure, but he
estimated the rate of deforestation in Borneo was the "the
equivalent of one football field per day."

In addition to logging, Indonesia's plans to develop a
major palm oil plantation in the heart of Borneo near the
border with Malaysia also threaten to devastate some of the
last remaining natural forests in Southeast Asia.

The area is remote highland forest from which many of the
island's largest rivers originate and has so far managed to
remain intact because of its rugged terrain and distance from
the coast.

"There is opposition from most environmental NGOs. Their
research says that areas of natural forest could be converted,
and the project could affect rivers," Sutedja said.

"Flooding could occur, which would affect the indigenous
Dayak people who live downstream," he said, adding that WWF did
not oppose the plan, but was concerned it be carried out in
accordance with environmental principles.


Environment Minister Rachmat Witoelar said the government
plan to open major palm oil plantations had taken into account
his ministry's concerns.

"We will start by making use (of) the areas that are
already ready for planting. I strongly oppose ... cutting down
forest for the replanting of palm oil plantations, which does
not make sense," he told Reuters.

Environmentalists say they are particularly worried as
island ecosystems are known as much for their fragility as
their ability to harbor rare animals and plants.

Of approximately 800 species extinctions worldwide since
accurate scientific recording began in 1500, the vast majority
have been from island ecosystems, the World Conservation Union

Green groups say hundreds of orangutans are killed or
captured every year on the Indonesian part of Borneo as part of
an illegal trade that is driving the primates toward

According to a study by WWF International and wildlife
trade monitor TRAFFIC, between 200 and 500 Borneo orangutans
are traded in various parts of Indonesia each year. The vast
majority are infants sold as pets.

WWF International estimates poachers have also killed most
endangered rhinos in Borneo and only about 13 might have

"The current situation will continue until the forest is
gone," Muhtaman said.