What It’s All About

Yesterday I went out again with Elisa, a Malaysian PhD student studying pangolins in the Lower Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary (LKWS), where DGFC is based. As we had done a few days previously, we were doing environmental surveys of potential pangolin habitat to try and determine what sort of environment they prefer. This time, however, we were not conducting our survey in the rainforest, but in a huge palm oil plantation just a few minutes downriver from DGFC.

I would love to tell you that our Field Centre is buried deep in pristine, virgin rainforest, a true wilderness far removed from human interference. Unfortunately, the reality is quite the opposite. As isolated and ‘wild’ as this place can sometimes feel, the truth is that we are surrounded on all sides by palm oil plantations, that have replaced the majority of the rainforest here in Sabah, northern Borneo. As part of my orientation at DGFC, I was shown a graphic of rainforest cover in Sabah between 1982 and the present day, taken from satellite imagery. It really was shocking. Vast areas of forest green switched to white at an unbelievable speed. Where just 30 years ago most of Sabah was covered in rainforest, now just a narrow strip – the LKWS – remained to connect the coastal mangrove forests with the jungles of Borneo’s interior.

Now, that is not to say that the degraded, fragmented nature of the LKWS rainforest makes it any less important or interesting as a study site. In fact, this is the very reason that DGFC exists – to understand how different species respond to deforestation and habitat fragmentation – and the LKWS is an ideal, concentrated site to study these changes. In many ways it is a microcosm of what is happening in rainforests all over the world. In 2017 the world lost an area of forest the size of a football pitch every second, be it for soya beans in the Amazon, coffee in Central America, or illegal timber in equatorial Africa.[1]

The culprit in Southeast Asia? Palm oil.

The palm oil issue is vast, complex and tied up with the economics, politics and the wider geopolitics of Southeast Asia, so I will try to keep things to the point here. The oil palm plant is the single most profitable plantation crop on the planet. Harvestable every two weeks, the crop is ten times more profitable than soya, and five times more profitable than rapeseed. [2] The high-yielding, versatile oil is almost ubiquitous in consumer products all around the world, from confectionary to cosmetics, and from margarine to soap. A typical 10,000 hectare plantation can generate $20-50 million of revenue per year, and with plantation workers earning a measly 900 Malaysian Ringgit per month (working out at about 75p per hour), it has become an astonishingly profitable, and destructive, business.[2]

In Borneo alone, over 75,000 km2 of rainforest was converted to palm oil plantation between 1973 and 2010,[3] with disastrous consequences for the populations of some of the island’s most iconic wildlife. To put that into perspective, scientists estimate that converting 100 km2 of rainforest to plantation results in the loss of 28 elephants, 5,000 of our ancient relatives, the colugos, and 200 of our evolutionary cousins, the orangutans.[4], [5], [2] The rainforests of Borneo are, of course, a hotspot for biodiversity, and being the oldest forests in the world (perhaps twice the age of the Amazon) evolution has had time to sculpt the wildlife into myriad different species, many of which are endemic to Borneo (found nowhere else on Earth). Borneo is home to 63 species of endemic mammal, 59 endemic birds and a staggering 6,000 species of endemic plants.[2], [6] The loss of these rare and unique species would be a tragedy for Borneans and for the world, and it’s happening on our watch.

Besides destroying the home of these animals, the plantations carry a secondary, more sinister threat. Converting swathes of land from once impenetrable forest to oil palm plantations, along with all the roads and other infrastructure necessary to keep a plantation running, makes the rainforest accessible for hunting, poaching and logging. But this is no one-way street. Suddenly, with dwindling forest habitat, and almost unlimited supplies of free, nutritious oil palm fruit on their doorstep, many species forage in the plantations, with obvious ramifications for human-wildlife conflict.

Rats are rife in the plantations, so predators like leopard cats and reticulated pythons hunt there. They are often killed by plantation workers as a perceived threat or, in the case of the python, for their valuable skins. Pigs, elephants and sun bears enter plantations to feed on the fruits themselves, and often suffer similar fate, the latter opportunistically hunted for their meat despite being a protected species here.

Even Elisa’s beloved pangolins, finding plenty of ants and termites (their favourite food) in the plantations, meet their end here. Pangolin scales are highly sought after in China as a traditional (read: entirely unproven) remedy for a variety of ills, making the humble pangolin the single most trafficked animal on Earth. Given the poverty of the plantation workers, many of whom are undocumented migrants from neighbouring Indonesia unable to find conventional employment in the cities, a diminutive, defenceless pangolin is little more than money on legs. The plantations are what is known as an ‘ecological trap’, where animals are tempted out of the forest by the promise of an easy meal, only to be killed at the hands of humans, who are often desperate for a lucky break themselves.

So what is to be done?

The natural response might be to boycott palm oil altogether. It sounds very noble, but in the modern world it is an unlikely proposition, unless you have the time and money unavailable to many in the West. Some supermarkets in Europe are beginning to wake up to the problem. In the UK, Iceland will ban palm oil in their own-brand products by the end of 2018, which is certainly a step in the right direction but is unlikely to be a magic bullet. Because there is no magic bullet. Rather than turning ourselves inside out to do a weekly shop palm oil-free, the best you and I can do as consumers is to ensure that all the palm oil products we buy are sourced sustainably, according to the guidelines set out by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). A handy sustainable shopping list can be found here. The West boycotting palm oil altogether will solve nothing. The void we leave will only be filled by increased exports to China, which has shown little interest in bringing this out of control industry into line. We would only be losing our place at the negotiating table.

Having a voice is crucial. We are all tiny cogs in a wider machine, but if we show producers that we will only accept sustainably-sourced palm oil in our products, they will listen. At the end of the day, money talks.

[1] Global Forest Watch
https://blog.globalforestwatch.org/data/2017-was-the-second-worst-year-on-record-for-tropical-tree-cover-loss

[2] Phillipps, Quentin. 2016.  Phillipps’ Field Guide to the Mammals of Borneo and their Ecology

[3] Gaveau, D. L. A. et al.  2014. ‘Four decades of forest persistence, clearance and logging on Borneo’

[4] Boonratana, R. 1997. ‘A statewide survey to estimate the distribution and density of the Sumatran Rhinoceros, Asian Elephant and Banteng in Sabah, Malaysia (in [2])

[5] Lim, N.  2007. Colugo: The Flying Lemur of South-east Asia (in [2])

[6] WWF http://wwf.panda.org/knowledge_hub/where_we_work/borneo_forests/about_borneo_forests/borneo_animals/

An Evening to Never Forget

The next night, we headed out with Rich on another mission in search of pythons. This time we were going far downstream, so set off before sundown. We glided smoothly over the water in the golden evening light, arcing left and right as the Kinabatangan slithered through the rainforest. The humming of crickets and the obligatory chatter of macaques provided the soundtrack for our journey, as the colours of the sky above mixed and blended like a giant artist’s palette. Golden-yellows passed through peachy oranges, ending in a pink crescendo that flushed the air with a rosy glow, like we were all literally looking through rose-tinted glasses. Talking about exotic sunsets on a travel blog may be a bit of a cliché, but this truly was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen – so what if I sound a bit cheesy?

In the afterglow we stopped for our ‘makan’, which Kila had kindly bagged up for us to take. It was excellent as ever, and we even had a mini bottle of soy sauce packed in for good measure. She could never let us go without, could she? We spent half an hour floating on the almost still water, the river sliding beneath us imperceptibly slowly. After Alut, our driver for the night, restarted the engine, we had barely covered 200 metres before he suddenly stopped again.

‘Elephant!’

In a frenzy, we all span to where he was pointing, an area of elephant grass hugging the water’s edge. Sure enough, the grass lived up to its name, and a pair of Borneo pygmy elephants were digging into their evening meal, munching noisily on the tough stems. One was also using its food as a makeshift fan, whipping the grass above its head with its tactile trunk to ward off swarms of bloodsucking insects. It seemed to be a small female and perhaps a young male, not fully-grown but displaying those archetypal white tusks. We sat watching them in giddy silence for several minutes, eavesdropping on their rumbling, guttural conversation, the crunching of their food and the gentle wafting of their fantastic ears. Eventually, the pair lumbered off into the undergrowth, and we continued our journey, grinning from ear to ear.

Again, the pythons were nowhere to be found. Our only company along the survey route being several magnificent crocodiles, their eyes glowing red in the torchlight before they slunk off into the water. No matter, though, as on our way back we spotted yet more elephants, this time a group of five who were just clambering out of the water as we passed. What a shame that we didn’t arrive a few minutes earlier to watch them cross the great width of the Kinabatangan. Still, it was an incredible sight, and the noise was even more impressive. The low rumbling from earlier was now punctuated by the occasional trumpeting, which echoed through the blackness of the night-time forest.

Once this group had moved off again, we headed back to the Centre. No pythons again, but even Rich didn’t mind another night without python data in exchange for a double-encounter with the giants of the jungle. Just as we pulled in at the jetty, Rich received a text from Benoit, the director of DGFC who was arriving the next day. ‘Elephants heading to DG’ it read. Watch this space!

The River by Night

The morning of my second day at DGFC was spent retrieving a large, and very heavy, cage that was used to capture bearded pigs, so that they can then be fitted with radio collars. It was sweaty work in the heavy morning heat, and lowering the great contraption down the steep river bank was quite an operation. More than once my wellies got stuck in the knee-deep mud, and it was a minor miracle that I stayed upright the whole time, unable to move as a massive pig cage was sliding down on top of me. Eventually we managed to haul the cage onto the boat, then crawled inside it to be transported back to DGFC like a group of common criminals.

That evening, there was some more glamourous activities in store. After dark, we joined Rich on his river survey in search of reticulated pythons, the longest snake in the world. For his PhD, Rich is researching the ecology of these snakes all along the Kinabatangan River, so our objective was to locate and capture a python to bring back to the Centre, where our vet, Roopan, would fit it with a GPS tag before release. Just a week or so earlier, reports had reached Britain of an Indonesian woman being eaten by a massive reticulated python. This had obviously sent my mum into a panic, so to soothe her nerves I promised her that I wouldn’t be doing anything with pythons, yet here I was on my second day going out to try and capture one. Sorry Mum…

Anticipation was high as we set off downstream, our torches scanning the riverbank for any snake-like shapes poking through the vegetation. There were a couple of false-alarms early on, the bright lights casting deceptively serpentine shadows through the thick stands of elephant grass. Once we had confirmed that all we had spotted was a trick of the light, we pushed on further downstream. Sapphire-coloured kingfishers shimmered in the torchlight, owls glared accusingly at the passing boat, and long-tailed macaques broke the tension with their piercing shrieks. Out of the gloom, a large crocodile appeared. Lying parallel to the water’s edge, it’s full profile revealed its impressive length. Less intimidating but just as exciting were the civets, small forest predators which smell distinctly of popcorn, scuttling excitedly in and out of the undergrowth. The banded palm civet was particularly beautiful, its fur golden-brown with striking black markings.

Still we ploughed on, but the pythons remained elusive. It was up in the trees that we saw most of the action. As we passed an area of tall trees overhanging the water, Wan, our boat driver, cut the engine and pointed high into the canopy. I peered upwards to where the torch spotlights converged, but saw nothing, despite all the ‘oohs’ and ‘ahs’ coming from the others on the boat. ‘Do you see it?’ Rich asked me. Not wanting to come across too green, delayed for a second. Thankfully, at that very moment the animal turned its head, its eye shining red in the torchlight. ‘Yep, I see it’ I replied, my blushes spared. It was a colugo, or ‘flying lemur’, a small, elusive mammal which glides from tree to tree on kite-like skin membranes. The colugos are among our closest relatives after apes, sharing a common ancestor with primates 80 million years ago, when dinosaurs still roamed the Earth. It was like seeing a relic from our forest-dwelling past.

With that rather profound thought in mind, we restarted our search. Despite our best efforts, there were no pythons to be found. Not unusual for such an elusive and secretive animal, and it seems that the brightness of the full moon might restrict their activity. Mum, I’m sure you’ll be pleased!

Day One

It was already dusk by the time I arrived at Danau Girang, so my first night was spent getting settled in. After two days of nothing but plane food and airport snacks, I was desperate for a proper meal. So you can imagine the relief when I heard the call of ‘Makan!’ (food) coming from the kitchen. Kela, the cook, laid out a spread of Malaysian fried chicken, salad, rice and the obligatory chilli and soy sauces. Fair to say I demolished it. My belly full, I headed off for some much-needed sleep.

The next morning I woke up surprisingly jet lag-free. 11 hours of solid sleep probably put paid to that. At 8am I headed into the main building of the Field Centre to meet the others for breakfast, where Rich, a PhD student studying reticulated pythons, asked if I would like to join some other students to track down a slow loris that had been fitted with a radio collar. I had assumed that my first day would be committed to R&R, but I felt well rested and well caffeinated, so I thought why not get stuck in?

Later that day I headed out with Luke, one of the students from Cardiff University spending a year here as part of their degree, and a handful of American students on the last day of a field trip. Slow lorises are nocturnal, so our task was to find which tree our collared loris was sleeping in. Determining where the loris prefers to sleep, and whether it favours any particular tree species, will help build a picture of how this small primate uses its forest environment and will help inform conservation decisions in the future.

We used a radio antenna to scan the forest for our loris, listening out for the tell-tale ‘ping’ coming back from the radio collar. Luke led our group through the network of paths and trails criss-crossing the dense jungle, and within minutes my sense of direction was completely scrambled. Luckily Luke has been here for 11 months already, so we were in safe hands. Very soon we had strong radio signal to follow, but it seemed that the closer we got the fuzzier the picture became. While we knew we were very close, the ‘ping’ seemed to be coming from all different directions, sending us back and forth through the dense vegetation as we tried to pinpoint the tree we were looking for.

Eventually, after an hour of toing and froing, a lot of mixed messages and a fair amount of walking in circles, we managed to isolate the loris’ tree of choice. It was a massive hunk of a tree, surrounded by thick undergrowth and creeping vines. The crown (the leafy upper section of the tree) sprawled across the canopy, spreading into the surrounding trees and forming a tangled knot of branches, leaves and vines. All this dense vegetation had scrambled our signal, turning this little patch of forest into a house of mirrors and just generally making our lives difficult.

But that’s nature I suppose. Nothing is ever as simple in practice as it sounds in theory. Hot, bothered, and drenched in sweat, but satisfied with a mission accomplished, we headed back through the jungle to the Field Centre. No doubt the slow loris carried on snoozing in its tree, blissfully unaware of all the trouble it had caused below.

41 Hours

Our motorboat rounded another sweeping bend on Borneo’s Kinabatangan river, and finally, in the distance, I could see a little jetty poking out of the dense undergrowth. I checked my watch. 5.30pm Malaysian time. 41 hours since I left suburban Manchester for the jungles of northern Borneo.

Just getting here had been an adventure in itself. There had been four flights, pitstops in the desert moonscape of Abu Dhabi and the vast metropolises of Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur, through a lightning storm, vivid sunsets and an endless stream of aeroplane food, before finally arriving at Sandakan airport. Once my bag had finally, and miraculously, appeared on the carousel, I was met by Peter, one of the local staff at Danau Girang Field Centre, where I will be spending the next eight weeks.

During the two hour drive from the airport to the river, Peter and I chatted about Malaysia’s new (but at 93, very old!) president, the unbroken swathes of palm oil plantations that stretched as far as the eye could see and which have replaced so much of Borneo’s rainforests, and, of course, the universal topic of football. ‘So when are Malaysia going to qualify for the World Cup?’ I asked. ‘Never’, Peter replied, ‘but normally in the World Cup I like to support England’. Well, some people are just their own worst enemy.

When we got to the river we loaded the boat with all the food, water and fuel needed to keep dozens of scientists, students and staff alive in the jungle. No picnic after on three hours’ sleep and in 35-degree heat! Once the little boat was packed to the brim, we set off downstream, the vast Kinabatangan crawling away into the jungle ahead of us. Within minutes, we were surrounded by wildlife. Egrets and ibis glided above us, hornbills hopped from treetop to treetop, and the aptly-named stork-billed kingfishers flitted around the water’s edge. Later on, troops of long-tailed macaques patrolled the riverbanks, and families of proboscis monkeys watched lugubriously from their treetop perch.

Noticing a hint of disappointment in my face when I failed to get the perfect picture of the animals as the boat sped past, Peter chuckled. ‘Don’t worry, this is just a little introduction’, he said. Here’s hoping he’s right!