When you think of nature, what is it that comes to mind? For most westerners it could be epic, unspoilt, wild beauty. For those of a slightly more pessimistic mindset it may be something less idyllic, perhaps mother earth being slowly devoured by her ungrateful children.
The fact is that in the west we tend to view nature in a very binary way. Natural vs unnatural; pristine vs the rest. Its this viewpoint which tends to make us assume that a true wilderness cannot have people in it, even though for example most of the Amazon rainforest has been inhabited by people for up to 39,000 years. It’s this viewpoint that caused conservationists in a less enlightened time to evict tribes from national parks, because a park cannot be natural if people live there, only if they travel through in jeeps.
My research has recently led to me studying deforestation in Borneo. Deforestation is a tricky issue: so long as there is demand for wood and land there will nearly always be a supply, deforestation is mostly occurring in developing countries where money can mean the difference between a life in poverty or one with a significantly higher life expectancy, and whilst we’re at it let us not forget that the earths population is booming, with three times as many mouths to feed in 2050 than we had a century before. Trying to halt the tide of deforestation feels virtually impossible.
My work focuses on the equatorial island of Borneo, where despite being a biodiversity hotspot over half of the rainforest has been lost since 1940. Currently 10% of Borneo is classed as palm oil plantation and forestry concession, with 62% of the remaining rainforest classified as ‘degraded’ or ‘seriously degraded’. 271,819 km of roads were created on the island in the last 40 years, enough to encircle the earth almost seven times. Borneo is a particularly severe case, but it is also very useful to our understanding of tropical deforestation as a whole.
It’s tempting to view this situation as purely catastrophic, the irredeemable destruction of our natural resources, but the truth is inevitably a bit more nuanced than that. As one letter to the journal Nature angrily put it ‘A logged forest in Borneo is better than none at all’. Focusing on everyones favourite Bornean animal: the Orang-Utan for a moment, while some studies have shown that Orang Utans require primary forest, some have shown that they can withstand substantial habitat modification and may even benefit from low-level deforestation and the conditions caused in regenerating forest. Whether partial deforestation impacts their numbers or not, 75% of wild Orang Utans currently live in timber concessions. Clearly understanding the impact of the felling that will soon be occurring in these areas is vital. Perhaps there is some way that we can then use this knowledge to reduce the damage that the logging will cause, whether through encouraging selective logging, the protection of small tracts of forest within the wider logged landscape, or the creation of protected ‘corridors’ allowing animals to move through what remains of the forest. Mitigation can be a whole lot better than nothing, and can be the difference between a species going extinct or not. There can be a whole lot of life clinging on in the margins and this needs protecting.
This is the direction that my research will be taking me on, looking at the utility of rainforest fragments for bats, small terrestrial mammals and their prey. How large does a fragment have to be to support a valuable community? How isolated can it be? How vulnerable are these small communities to subsequent ecological collapse? Southeast Asia is going through an unprecedented level of conversion from forest to oil palm plantation, a habitat that is particularly harsh to many species of mammal, but some species such as bats that fly long distances are able to tolerate its presence as long as there is enough viable habitat remaining in the wider landscape so long as some areas of forest remain to support their prey. Understanding the impacts of factors such as these is crucial to conservation in the future.
The purpose of this isn’t to encourage deforestation but to at least allow some damage control. If we don’t understand and act to protect these damaged areas, we may lose them too. Conservation is changing, and we now have to work with businesses that have previously been thought of as ‘the bad guys’. But if this leads to a more biodiverse future than by playing on our own, then lets do it, and lets do it well.