Biodiversity in Borneo: People, places and research


I was a daydreaming eighth grader, wishing for bigger world experience, when I was first introduced to the island of Borneo. It was just another day in science class, and our assignment—pay attention, take notes, and watch the documentary—was borrr-ing. The lights clicked off, the screen flickered on, and there it was: an island of green forests surrounded by a lapping and swirling patchwork of blue. Home to an astonishing array of uniquely adapted creatures, from flying snakes (gliding, really) and raucous hornbills to the world’s largest pitcher plant, largest moth, and largest flower, Borneo is an exciting place to imagine from any perspective. Of course, there are interesting mammals as well: Asian elephants, Sumatran rhinos, clouded leopards and orangutans, to name a few—and that eighth grader, doodling in her notebook, feigning lack of interest, was hooked.

It’s taken me a few years, 17 to be exact, to see for myself what I first encountered in those flickering films—and it has been well worth the work and the wait. Borneo is an island with as much diversity in its people as its wildlife. In my recent research trip to the state of Sabah, Malaysia, in Northeast Borneo (Borneo is divided among the countries of Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei), I was as impressed by the people as by the animals. I strongly believe that engaging local people in decisionmaking about threatened habitats is essential for long-term conservation, and was committed to working with locals—from researchers to school children—throughout my research.

I had stepped off the plane in the capital city of Kota Kinabalu planning to spend three consecutive field seasons in Sabah trapping, collaring, and following clouded leopards and smaller, little-understood cats. Each species is thought to have different habitat requirements and varying sensitivity to human impacts, primarily deforestation and conversion of forest to oil palm agriculture. My goal: to better understand these habitat requirements and help manage the landscape in a way that connects forest patches and improves the odds of survival for these cats.

To launch this project, which will be the focus of my graduate research in conservation biology at the University of Minnesota, I spent three weeks, along with my advisor Jim Perry, getting acquainted with the landscapes of Sabah. It’s a privilege to share some of the sights, sounds, and observations from this amazing place.

Kota Kinabalu
Sabah is struggling to build an infrastructure that supports the economy while preserving large tracts of pristine forest. It is at a crossroads of modern globalization and traditional subsistence activity. Signs of this juncture are evident even at the fish market, where women dressed in t-shirts and sarongs tend to the daily harvest from the sea while dialing their cell phones and scheduling the rest of their lives, much as we do here in the United States. In my travels around the world, I have never felt so warmly welcomed into a new place. This was especially true in Tanjung Aru, a community built on stilts over the city’s tidal zone. I strolled the network of elevated slat-board walkways that connect homes to one another. With the water lapping below and the sun shining warm in the tropical climate, just being in this colorful place was an experience not to be missed. Smiling faces and peeking children made this poor, potentially dangerous place (according to my taxi driver) feel welcome and comfortable. Only after walking for much of the morning and greeting curious residents did I find out that this entire community will be bulldozed in the coming year and replaced with strip malls and affluent housing, moving the current residents to places unknown and changing the fabric of their lives.

Kinabalu National Park
Driving from the capital city to Kinabalu National Park, the air feels lighter as the breezes pick up and the temperature drops due to the increasing elevation. The craggy peaks of the mountains are in sight. Agriculture is more abundant, featuring rice fields as well as temperate crops such as lettuce and onions. This causes pressure at the park borders, as agriculture butts up against the edge and presses for just a little more space. On the way to the park, we pass a roadside sign advertising a rare event: a blooming Rafflesia, the largest flower in the world at nearly three feet in diameter. We stop the van, approach a family sitting under a flimsy tent, and pay 10 ringgit (about $2.25) each for a glimpse of the unusual plant, which has evolved to attract flies for pollination, shunning sweet perfumes and instead producing the smell of rotting carrion. Families fortunate enough to have Rafflesia blooming on their property can make a little extra money by exhibiting it, which encourages them to preserve the land in its wild state rather than converting it to small garden plots. We arrive at the park and begin our climb on the mountain. The trail is a step-work of rocks and roots, with soil packing the spaces—a path so steep it feels like climbing a ladder.

The scenery is incredible. The rain mists our faces and keeps us cool as our lungs struggle with the exertion of the climb. Orchids bloom, tiny and less showy than ones in stores at home, but fragile and beautiful in their understated manner. Our guide is a member of the indigenous Land Dayak who trains us to recognize the Coelogyne kinabaluensis orchid, which is found only on this mountain. As we climb, we spot spectacular pitcher plants blooming in the undergrowth. The trees become stubby and bonsai-like in appearance, birds and mammals are increasingly scarce. We could keep hiking, but with many things to accomplish, reaching the summit isn’t one of our goals.

Sepilok Rehabilitation Centre
Awake before 5 a.m., we took a boat on the Kinabatangan River to reach Sepilok, a place where orphaned orangs, as well as some who have been kept illegally as pets and confiscated by authorities, are helped to return slowly to the wild. Orangs are severely affected by deforestation, as they are adapted to life in the trees and vulnerable when forced to come to the ground. Only about 30,000 remain in the world, so a chance to see these animals is cherished. At the feeding station, rehabilitation staff provide the orangs with a diet of sugar cane and bananas, a menu bland enough to encourage their return to wild fruit. Pig-tailed macaques have caught on to the routine and enter the scene, squabbling as they stake out their positions to wait for food. Soon, there is a rustling in the distance. We crowd around and stare at the leaves. Here comes a juvenile male orang, arm over arm, looping his way through the branches to the food. Then another, and another … and another! In all, we count 18 orangs of all ages, even an infant clinging to Mom. The macaques pile on after the orangs have left, and the day feels like such a reward.

Danum Valley Conservation Area
It takes a heck of a lot of time to get here. After 20 hours of air travel from the United States, we drive another three hours on rocky old logging roads to reach the field station. We are thrilled to finally meet Wong, our fellow researcher who has spent the past 10 years working and studying in the forest. He is now trapping sun bears to fit them with radio collars, and we accompany him checking his trap lines. His seven live traps are baited with chicken entrails. As Wong says, “Bears just love chicken guts!” We drive on the windy roads, hike into the forest, battling the opportunistic leeches, slip in the mud, and finally reach the traps.

During 10 months in the field, Wong has collared only two bears. Adrenaline spikes as we close in on a trap, and we are astonished to hear a bear’s clipped, rough bark. Wong is disappointed that it turns out to be a bear he has already collared. Better luck tomorrow. This is a constant feature of field research: hard work and dedication with days of frustration.

When the rewards come, they are well earned. Having witnessed Wong’s difficulties, we talk over dinner about how best to conduct field research on leopards and other cats. Instead of placing live traps right away, we decide to begin by placing a variety of baits at camera traps, both on the ground and in the trees, in order to learn how and where to best capture cats for radio collaring. In doing so, we’ll learn a lot about the area’s biodiversity and how it is responding to the way land is used for managed forestry and oil palm agriculture. Our goal will be to find ways to connect the landscape and provide better habitat for cats and other animals that rely on intact canopy structure for their survival. In this way, we begin our long-term commitment to conservation in Sabah.

Talk about conservation programs in our “Environment forum”: