Thursday, December 29, 2016

Camera traps & forest islands

When I was born in 1985, the area of western Borneo where I now live was mostly covered in oldgrowth rainforest.  But the past three decades have seen rapid changes.  Our town of Sukadana now has a booming frontier atmosphere.  Swaths of mangrove forest disappear to make way for housing developments, canals and piers.  Forested hillsides are replaced by banana gardens.  New roads pop up almost overnight.  And nearly every day brings the sound of chainsaws in the distance.

Uncontrolled development is not unique to Borneo, but is happening across the country’s thousands of islands.  Indonesia suffers from the highest deforestation rate on the planet.  The islands west of Papua—which make up the vast majority of the country’s land area—have already lost over 70% of their vegetation.  At the same time, Indonesia is a competitor for the most biodiverse country on earth—only Brazil is known to harbor more native species.  By ranking at or near the top in both wildlife richness and environmental degradation, Indonesia is deep in the trenches of the global conservation struggle.

To support our conservation activities, we have tentatively mapped landscape changes around Gunung Palung National Park from 1989 to 2016.  The results are sobering.  In just three decades the park has gone from being a small chunk of a much larger forest to a beleaguered island of natural habitat in a sea of farmland.

The landscape around Gunung Palung National Park (outlined in black in top left), has been decimated over the past three decades.  Dark and light green show oldgrowth and secondary rainforests, and blue shows mangrove forests.  All other colors are some type of land clearing for human purposes.  The area of palm oil plantations in particular (magenta) has exploded over the past five years. (Maps courtesy of Ihsan Fawzi)

The chainsaws don’t stop at the park boundaries.  Every year more of the national park is illegally cleared for timber and farmland.  That’s where we come in.  Our organization tries to slow deforestation in the park using a four-pronged approach.  1) We monitor illegal logging activity and provide financial incentives to communities that halt deforestation.  2) We assist illegal loggers to transition to less destructive employment, and train farmers to become more productive on land that’s already cleared.  3) We teach communities and local schools about the importance of conservation.  And 4) we try to restore cleared areas to natural forest.

Our reforestation sites are small (totaling somewhere around 50 hectares, or 125 acres) and still young.  The first trees we planted are now only seven years old.   And while these budding landscapes are a vast improvement over farm fields and freshly burned landscapes, it will be decades before they revert to fully functional forest.  There are, however, some early signs of success.

Camera traps have captured photos of dozens of native species moving through or occupying our reforestation sites.  Among mammals, for example, we’ve photographed Bornean bearded pigs (Sus barbatus), leopard cats (Prionailurus bengalensis), Malay civets (Viverra tangalunga), short-tailed mongooses (Herpestes brachyurus), lesser mouse-deer (Tragulus kanchil), a Malayan sun bear (Helarctos malayanus), a Horsfield’s tarsier (Cephalopachus bancanus), Bornean orangutans (Pongo pygmaeus), and several others.  All of these on land that just a few years ago was scorched open space.

Bearded pigs survive relatively well around humans and are our most commonly photographed wildlife species

Malay civets, also good at tolerating humans, are often photographed at night


The tiny lesser mouse-deer is less common

We’ve also seen a sun bear…

…and a Horsfield’s tarsier…

…and a couple orangutans (camera trap photos courtesy of Fransiskus Xaverius)

Mammals, however, are just a tiny part of the forest.  In the next year or so we’ll try to find out if native ants and other insects are returning to the new forests, as well as birds and trees.  The results will help us determine which restoration methods help the forest recover most quickly, and how to scale up our efforts to larger areas.

At the very least we’ll provide just a little more space for Indonesia’s unique natural heritage.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Reforestation season

It’s the wet season in Borneo.  When I first moved here in October it was unbearably hot and sunny, with only scattered rains.  Now the skies are gray, mist hovers over nearby hills, winds buffet our house, and it rains nearly every day, sometimes in deafening downpours that drown out conversation.  And it’s still unbearably hot.

For many trees the rainy season signals the onset of fruiting.  Months of stored nutrients are channeled into fruit production, in anticipation of good growing weather for seedlings.  Here in western Borneo one fruit towers above the rest.  Durian, the king of fruits, is so valued that naturally occurring durian trees are often left standing as the forest around them is cleared for farming or timber.  Massive durian trees now stand over farms and homesteads, remnants of the ancient forest canopy that occupied those sites just years ago.

Our city of Sukadana has even erected a monument to the durian in the center of town.  In the countryside people risk their lives climbing homemade ladders to harvest the fruits from the dizzyingly tall treetops.  Or they camp out at the base of the trees, scooping up fruits as soon as they fall and being careful not to get clobbered by the giant spiky missiles.  Last week, as I entered Borneo from Malaysia, the customs official at the border wiped a smear of durian slime from his passport stamp before welcoming me back.

Rambutans (from rambut, Malay for hair) are one of many native plants that fruit at the start of the wet season

For us the rainy season is planting time.  My organization manages a few reforestation sites within Gunung Palung National Park.  We target patches of the landscape that have been cleared by loggers, farmers, or fires, and try to restore them to natural forest.  The onset of wet weather means a lower threat from fires and better conditions for seedlings.

Our pilot reforestation site is a hilly area that had been clearcut by loggers and then burned repeatedly by fires sweeping in from nearby farms and plantations.  The cleared areas were colonized by alang-alang grass (Imperata cylindrica), bracken ferns (Pteridium caudatum), and invasive acacia trees (Acacia mangium).  The long grass encourages further fires and the bracken ferns release toxins into the soil that impede the survival of young trees.  Without positive intervention to undo some of the damage, these fire-prone barrens stand little chance of recovering.

Our reforestation site is covered by burnt logs, relicts from wasteful loggers who cut down every tree, even those that weren’t harvestable, and the forest fires that followed

Some of the cut trees were centuries old and 3-4 meters in diameter, as demonstrated by one of our volunteers

It takes thousands of years to create oldgrowth forest.  There’s no way for humans to mimic the process.  We can jump start it, however, and provide protection for natural processes to go unhindered.  Starting in 2009, our organization has replanted a few hectares with native rainforest seedlings every year.  We collect seeds and seedlings from remaining forests in the park, rear them to a size where they are likely to survive, and then transplant them to the reforestation site.

Relying on an expert staff of local foresters with experience all over Borneo, we plant native seedlings on degraded areas within the national park

For the most exposed and hottest sites, we often plant fast-growing legumes—mostly jengkol (Archidendron pauciflorum) and petai (Parkia speciosa)—as pioneer species.  We also plant native fruits like mangoes (Mangifera sp.), jambu (Syzygium sp.) and breadfruits (Artocarpus sp.), plus any other native species we can get to survive.  Our most prized seedlings, however, are several species of dipterocarps—a family of giant trees that includes the tallest tropical species in the world.

Dipterocarps usually dominate the canopy in oldgrowth Bornean forests.  Collecting seeds is difficult, however, because the trees only fruit during mast events that occur once every few years.  Nevertheless, we’ve managed to rear a few species of meranti (Shorea sp.).  As mature forest specialists, meranti seedlings often need shade to survive.  So we plant them inside groves of the invasive acacias.  Eventually, the natives will tower over and outcompete the acacias, or we’ll remove the acacias ourselves once the natives have formed a canopy of their own.

Unplanted areas (on the left) are still covered in bracken fern, alang-alang grass, and acacias, whereas the newly-planted plot (right) will soon be covered with native rainforest trees

New seedlings are dwarfed by the charred remains of the site’s original trees, but may one day form an oldgrowth forest.  Once the native trees are tall enough to form their own canopy, the acacias in the background will either be outcompeted or removed by hand.

There are occasional setbacks.  In 2013 a fire escaped from nearby farmland and burnt most of the site, undoing years of effort.  We revised our fire control measures and the planting continued.

Despite setbacks from fires, much of our reforestation site is now covered in young secondary forest

We also haven’t had much success cultivating one of our rarest trees—Bornean ironwood (Eusideroxylon zwageri).  Ironwood is one of the world’s most durable woods, making it a prized timber tree and a cultural symbol for the people of Borneo.  But its durability comes from extremely slow growth.  It takes decades for an ironwood tree to grow a single meter.  They can live for over a thousand years, and those centuries or millennia of tiny incremental growth result in extremely high wood density.  Unfortunately, the combination of high timber value and slow growth means that ironwood has been wiped out from most areas.  While I have seen plenty of ironwood stumps, I have yet to see a full grown individual.

Full-grown Bornean ironwood trees are rare today, but young saplings sometimes sprout from cut trunks

The good news is that Bornean ironwood, if left alone, can resprout from the roots of cut trees.  We have two such individuals at our site, spindly saplings growing straight up from the sides of massive stumps.  Centuries from now ironwood forests may once again be a prominent feature of the landscape.

Until then, we’ll keep planting.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

From Java to Borneo

In preparation for our work in Borneo, Sara and I spent the past month studying the Indonesian language.  We’ve been living in Jogjakarta, on the island of Java, about 450 miles south of our home in Borneo.

When I talk about conservation issues in Indonesia, I usually start with Java.  With a population of around 140 million people, Java is the most heavily populated island on the planet.  It has about the same land area as North Carolina but with fourteen times as many people.  Jakarta—Indonesia’s capital and the world’s second largest city—alone contains over 30 million people in its immediate area.  That’s more than the entire population of Texas, or the combined census populations of the fourteen largest cities in the United States.  All in one massive metropolis.  Needless to say, there is not much room for nature here.

Java’s remaining forests are mostly limited to the steep sides of tall volcanoes.  Almost all other parts of the landscape are devoted to human use.  Crops are planted right up to the edges of rivers and over the spines of ridges, leaving few corridors of natural vegetation.  The vast majority of Java’s native species are now divvied up into isolated populations holding on in pockets of rainforest, unable to cross the expanses of farmland to move from one to another.  Many of Java’s largest species, like elephants and tigers, have already been wiped out.  The world’s last population of Javan rhinoceros, the most endangered of the five rhino species, persists in a single national park at the island’s western tip.

Java’s remaining forests—seen here as dark green dots—are limited to a string of volcanoes running west to east along the island’s spine.  The light green areas dominating the rest of the island are farms or plantations, and gray blotches are cities.  The ashy smear near the northwest tip is Jakarta, the second largest city on earth.

These issues—overpopulation, intense human use, and habitat destruction and fragmentation from farming—aren’t unique to Java.  They’re the primary conservation issues in Indonesia’s other islands and throughout the world.  But as an extreme example, Java illustrates what happens when those processes go unchecked.

Today many of Java’s remaining forests are protected as small, but vitally important, national parks.  Those scattered conservation areas are the last stronghold for the island’s natural heritage, and the key to its the future.  Decades or centuries down the road, as the human population declines to healthier levels and the economy becomes less agricultural and extractive, the hope is that forests and their native species will expand out of their volcanic strongholds and reclaim other areas of the island.

In Borneo, meanwhile, our organization works to ensure that national parks serve as similar refuges for this island’s biodiversity.  We also try to prevent the same excesses that characterize Java from occurring here.  By reforesting degraded areas, mitigating conflicts between humans and natural ecosystems, and developing alternative livelihoods for the region’s poorest communities, we hope to reduce human impacts on the landscape.

Yesterday Sara and I, now armed with a solid understanding of the Indonesian language, returned to Borneo to take up this challenge.  In a fitting start to this chapter of our life, we found that our house had been occupied by some wildlife of its own.  During our month away, vines had taken over our deck and outdoor kitchen, alang-alang grass (Imperata cylindrica) had grown tall in our front yard, and a colony of spiny golden ants (Polyrhachis sp.) had made a nest in between our front door and its frame.

In our own conflict with nature, a colony of beautiful spiny golden ants took up residence in our front door…

…and vines had colonized our back deck from the garden behind the house.

As far as I’m concerned the vines can stay, and I may replace the grass by planting more trees, but the ants had to go.  They fled with their eggs and larvae soon after we opened the door and disturbed them.  Then I carried Sara over the threshold of our first home and we set to work.

It’s going to be an interesting year.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

New beginning in Borneo

I became a biologist to work in conservation.  In grad school, however, especially at a research-oriented campus, most of the training and mentorship you get revolves around landing a tenure-track job and working as a professor.

The reality, of course, is that most scientists will never get a tenured position, either because they don’t want one or because the jobs aren’t available.  All the same, it can be daunting for grad students to go against the institutional grain and speak up about alternative career aspirations.  Even if they do, it can be difficult to get advice about non-university jobs.

In my case, I knew I wanted to do a combination of research and conservation, ideally working with local communities.  I shared my goals with my committee early in my graduate career and they agreed that I could spend much of my time pursuing side projects with NGOs.  The plan paid off.  In addition to the six papers from my dissertation research, I also produced a handful of publications on biology and conservation in places as far afield as Madagascar, Suriname and Guyana.

Those side projects also laid the groundwork for applying for NGO jobs in my final year.  At first I spent a few months applying to jobs I wasn’t very excited about, including a few post-docs that came with low job security and little independence.  Eventually I decided to revisit something I’ve been passionate about for the past five years—Indonesian conservation issues.  I began looking for NGO jobs in Indonesia, and it all worked out from there.

I soon found a job with an organization that works with rural communities in Borneo to conserve forests and improve local access to healthcare.  The organization offered me a job as Conservation Director and offered Sara a position as well.  Now we live in Indonesia, speak and work in another language, and face new challenges every day.

We are working to protect and restore forests in and around Gunung Palung National Park in Indonesian Borneo.  The forests here, while nominally protected, are subjected to illegal logging and the constant encroachment of farmland.

The peat swamps and upland forests of Gunung Palung are home to one of the largest remaining populations of Bornean orangutans (Pongo pygmaeus), as well as endangered Bornean agile gibbons (Hylobates albibarbis), proboscis monkeys (Nasalis larvatus), Sunda pangolins (Manis javanica), and helmeted hornbills (Rhinoplax vigil).  They also contain an unknown number of ant species waiting to be discovered.

The job came with some benefits people might normally associate with a tenure-track position, such as lab space, travel and equipment budgets, and fiscal autonomy.  But it also came with a few extra perks—a house, an experienced staff, established field sites, and foreign language training.  At the same time, it offers a host of different challenges.  We have to navigate cultural and linguistic divides, live in rural conditions far from family, and quickly learn skills outside our areas of expertise.

The biggest difference, of course, is a sense of mission.  Indonesia is at the forefront of tropical conservation issues, and our task is daunting.  We grapple with a seemingly simple purpose—halt deforestation in West Kalimantan.  But halting deforestation means delving into a range of other problems.  In addition to basic ecological questions, we also have to deal with poverty, law enforcement, gender equality, and politics.  Basic research is one part of a much larger solution, and we face that reality every day.

In spite of (or because of) these challenges, I’ve learned a ton in just a few weeks on the job—about the ecology of Bornean rainforests, agriculture and agroforestry techniques, the economics of logging and community development, Indonesian customs and language, and even how to ride a motorcycle.  At the very least, this job will be interesting, and I couldn’t ask for more than that.

I look forward to writing more about our life and work in Borneo.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Mercury contamination in fire ants

In a new paper, just out in Insectes Sociaux, my collaborator Brent Tweedy and I did something no one had ever thought to do—we looked for mercury in ants.

Mercury contamination is a serious environmental and health concern in the US and other countries that rely on coal-fired power plants.  Government agencies routinely check for mercury in drinking water and in other situations that might lead to its ingestion by humans.   When looking for environmental mercury contamination, it might seem that ants—one of the most conspicuous animals on the planet— would be an ideal place to start.

But it turns out that mercury contamination is largely an aquatic issue.  Mercury comes in many forms, some of which are relatively harmless.  The dangerous version of mercury—the one that can kill or debilitate humans and wildlife—is an organic form known as methylmercury.  And methylmercury is produced by microorganisms that live in water.  Once produced, methylmercury moves around in water bodies and builds up in the species that inhabit them, but doesn’t easily make the jump onto dry land.

So while we routinely monitor mercury in wild fish to determine whether they can be safely eaten by humans, we usually ignore it in land animals.  Ants, regardless of how abundant and pervasive they are, are blithely overlooked where mercury is concerned.

The error in this approach—water is potentially toxic, but land environments are safe—is of course that land animals eat aquatic animals.  The living world is stitched together by food webs, and when one animal eats another it inherits the methylmercury of its prey.  In this way mercury can move into terrestrial food webs when aquatic insects get eaten by predators like spiders and birds.

Ants that live near water bodies may likewise prey on aquatic insects, or scavenge dead ones that wash ashore.  Colonies have long lifespans and forage over large territories, so they could potentially accumulate a lot of mercury.  To test this idea, we measured the mercury contents of four ant species eaten by Purple Martins in southern Oklahoma.  To ensure we studied individuals that actually ended up as prey, we took flying queens and males directly from the mouths of hunting birds.

Most species had only low levels of mercury typical of land animals.  But one—the invasive Red Imported Fire Ant—had mercury contents similar to aquatic insects living in contaminated reservoirs.  The males had especially high concentrations and contained 50% more mercury than queens.

Fire ants (Solenopsis invicta), especially the males, contain more mercury than other ant species eaten by Purple Martins.  Species with different letters above them have different mercury contents.

We don’t know why fire ants contain more mercury than other species.  It may be because they tend to nest in wet areas like lakeshores, marshes, and watered lawns, and are thus more likely to feed on aquatic prey.  The results are unsettling regardless.

Fire ant queens and males can fly several kilometers away from their birth colonies and are major prey for flying predators.  Purple Martins alone eat billions of fire ants a year.  Fire ants may thus be major vehicles for the transfer of mercury among food webs.  Colonies concentrate mercury from throughout their territories and pack it into winged queens and males that disperse into the atmosphere.  There they are eaten by predators, passing their mercury burdens onto other species.

More work is needed to determine whether the mercury concentrations are high enough to harm birds or other predators, and to figure out exactly how the mercury gets into fire ant colonies.

For now, the results provide just another example of how much we still have to learn about ants and what they do in the skies above our heads.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Darjeeling fog

After our stay in Goa, Sara and I left India so I could renew my visa.  We spent a couple weeks in Singapore and Indonesia, and then returned to India.  We flew to Kolkata in the state of West Bengal in India’s northeast.  From there we made our way north to the Himalayas.

We would spend the final week of our honeymoon in Darjeeling near the edge of India.  It’s a mountain town sandwiched between Nepal to the west, Bhutan to the east, Tibet and the former Buddhist kingdom of Sikkim to the north, and Bangladesh and the rest of India to the south.

Darjeeling sits about 7,000 feet up in the Himalayas

On clear days the world’s third highest mountain, Kangchenjunga (28,169 feet), is visible about 50 miles to the north

Not surprisingly, Darjeeling is a culturally diverse area.  Most people speak Nepali but understand Hindi or Bengali.  Buddhism and Hinduism are practiced side by side.   Tibetan refugees make their home on the hillsides around town.  Restaurants serve a mix of Tibetan, Chinese and Indian food.  And there’s tea.  Locally grown, organic Darjeeling tea for cheap.

During decades of unregulated tea production, however, most of Darjeeling’s hillsides were cleared of their original vegetation.  Today, remnant forest patches persist among a denuded landscape of tea gardens, bamboo and cedar plantations, and hillside towns and farms.  The forests that remain are home to thousands of species that live nowhere else, qualifying the eastern Himalayas as one of the world’s thirty-something biodiversity hotspots.

The dark moist forests of the lower Himalayas are both diverse and highly threatened

This forest—one of the last patches of Darjeeling’s original land cover—is protected by the local zoo

Many of those species are closely related to ones found in North America.  After a month and a half of tropical Asian species, it was refreshing to see oaks, rhododendrons, magnolias, and maples, and familiar birds like thrushes, woodpeckers, and nuthatches.  At times it seemed like we could have been in the Appalachians instead of southern Asia.  But then we would see a sunbird or walk through a patch of bamboo or remember the red pandas that call the forests home, and we would be back in the Himalayas.

Because northern Asia and North America have often been connected, many of their species are closely related.  The forests in Singalila National Park, for example, contain rhododendrons similar to those in the eastern US…

…as well as oaks...

...and woodpeckers like the Greater Yellownape (Chyrsophlegma flavinucha)

Other areas, however, were covered in tall bamboo…

…and occupied by land leeches

The region is also home to distinctly Asian cultures

We were in Darjeeling during the monsoon season, and a constant dense fog obscured the mountain views.  But the mist also gave the forests an otherworldly feel, and we enjoyed being there when there were few other tourists.

To experience some higher altitudes, and get a better view of the natural vegetation, we hired a Nepali guide, Robin, to take us on a short trek along Singalila Ridge.  Our route passed through Singalila National Park, ascended to an altitude of around 10,200 feet, and occasionally crossed the border into Nepal.

Sara and I hiked through the foggy forests of Singalila Ridge with a local Nepali guide named Robin

Singalila National Park is bordered by semi-natural cow pastures and wooded groves

It was cold and rainy the entire time, but was still one of the best days of our trip.  We stopped to warm up and drink tea at mountain guest houses run by Nepali families, and ate local home cooked meals.  And every once in a while the fog parted to give us brief but breathtaking views.

Our hike along the Nepalese border was cold and wet, but we dried our clothes by a wood stove in a local guest house…

…and stopped for tea at another guest house before driving back to Darjeeling

We walked through Nepal for part of the trek, and occasionally got to see into the valleys below

We enjoyed Darjeeling more than many other parts of India.  It was cool, welcoming, and both exotic and familiar.  But after a week we had to leave.  We drove down from the mountains into the Indian plains below, caught a flight to Delhi, and made our long way back to the US.

We had been traveling for two months through four countries, and it was time to go home.  The trip was full of surprises, challenges, disappointments, and discoveries.  We couldn’t have asked for a better honeymoon.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Leaving India

Sara and I had a week left in India after leaving Bhagwan Mahaveer Wildlife Sanctuary.  I had only a temporary 30-day visa that would have to be renewed outside the country.  So we spent our last week exploring the beaches and rainforests near Palolem in far southern Goa.

Palolem Beach gets crowded at times, but most of the tourist operations are shuttered during the monsoon season.  So we could explore the area in relative peace.

Palolem Beach, nestled between the Western Ghats and the Arabian Sea, was a perfect place to spend a week of our honeymoon

Sara and I waded across an estuary at low tide to explore some of the more remote sections of beach

Natural areas can be difficult to find in India, and unrestrained tourism development often obliterates the vegetation along scenic coastlines.  To some extent, that’s also true of Palolem.  But many nearby hills contained patches of forest, sometimes even extending to the sea.  We traveled to one of those areas, in Cotigao Wildlife Sanctuary, for one last forest excursion.

Just a short drive inland from Palolem, Cotigao Wildlife Sanctuary protects another outpost of Western Ghats rainforest

Weaver ants (Oecophylla smaragdina) were common along the trail, occasionally carting large chunks of insect prey back to their nest


Termite-hunting Leptogenys processionalis were the most conspicuous animal species along the trails here and elsewhere in Goa

Sara found a large pill millipede crawling through the leaf litter after a rain

Finally, with my 30-day visa expired, we left the country and flew to Singapore so I could apply for a second entry.  We hadn’t known at the outset how we would spend our first month in India, but we’re pleased with the results.

India threw us some curve balls, but we slowly adjusted.  In our long southward journey, we traveled overland across over 1,000 miles of India.  We experienced the teeming metropolises of Delhi and Mumbai, traveled around the Thar Desert, hiked through tropical dry forests of Rajasthan and Maharashtra, and explored the beaches and rainforests of Goa and the Western Ghats.

But we still experienced only a tiny sliver of what India has to offer.  After I renew my visa, we’ll be back for round two.