Borneo Rainforests Are a Treasure Trove of Rare Species
By Diyan Jari and Reuben Carder
JAKARTA — 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 fauna.
“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 from March 20-31 in Curitiba, Brazil. 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 threats.
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 Asia.
“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 says.
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 extinction.
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 survived.
“The current situation will continue until the forest is gone,” Muhtaman said.