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.


  1. Fascinating read. I loved how you improvised some of your tools. Kind of gives you a MacGyver flavor. I am looking forward to reading more.


  2. Thanks a lot Sheila! I'm glad you enjoyed it. I guess the day comes in every person's life when they have to whip out the gum and become MacGyver.