The word “Borneo” has always evoked Jungle Book-like images for me: an idyllic place free of human intervention, covered with endless tropical virgin jungles and majestic trees, inhabited by amazing creatures, especially the “people of the forest” or orang-utan.
When I visited Sabah, a Malaysian state in the northern part of Borneo, 20 years ago, the reality was shockingly different. Except for a few protected areas, the forest was highly disturbed and fragmented by human activities, and in many places it had been replaced by agriculture fields (mostly palm oil). The landscape was dissected by endless roads and human settlements. It was extremely difficult to find a peaceful spot in a forest without hearing chainsaws, lorries, boats or other signs of human activities.
But surprisingly, in the highly damaged forests of Kinabatangan, I was shocked to spot an orang-utan nest from a car along a highway and a wild individual a stone’s throw from a village. Indeed at this time, scientists thought that the species was extremely sensitive to forest degradation and exploitation. It was commonly accepted that the red ape was going to be extinct soon due to economic pressures to convert forests to agriculture (especially lucrative palm oil), unless vast patches of intact primary forests were protected.
But 20 years of research in Sabah by the Kinabatangan Orang-utan Conservation Programme (KOCP) under the French NGO HUTAN (which I head with Dr. Isabelle Lackman), and the Sabah Wildlife Department reveal a different picture. First, our observations indicate that selectively logged forests can maintain orang-utan populations; that orang-utans are dispersing within mature oil palm plantations, using the palms for nesting and feeding on young leaves and ripe fruits (which is a newly-learnt behavior); and that they are more terrestrial than previously thought. In other parts of their range, orang-utans are also surviving in acacia plantations or small-scale subsistence crops.
These findings illustrate that the species is actually more versatile than commonly acknowledged and can adjust to changes in ecological conditions due to natural or anthropogenic causes, specifically forest clearing for palm oil plantations. Similarly, studies in Africa show that great apes are shifting their way of survival following intense transformation of their original habitat by people. A new era has begun: the great apes in the anthropocene.
The possible presence of great apes in human-made landscapes doesn’t mean that they can survive in pure agro-industrial landscapes. But this implies that conservation should not be restricted to a network of fragmented protected forests but must also consider the highly modified human-transformed landscapes adjacent to natural forests. Today, approximately half of the current orang-utan range in Borneo falls within forest areas earmarked to be converted to agriculture (including palm oil) or other types of land use such as mining or industrial tree plantations. By 2030, scientists estimate that less than 10% and 1% respectively of the existing African and Asian great ape habitat will remain undisturbed. Better understanding how great apes (and many other species) can use human-modified landscapes is key to their long-term survival.
However, human societies have a tendency to categorize ideas and concepts in simple dichotomies; overall, society emphasizes the value of pristine habitats for biodiversity conservation and tends to neglect modified habitats. Thus, setting aside protected forests has been the cornerstone for biodiversity conservation till today.
This has led to increasingly degraded natural ecosystems inside protected areas and to the proliferation of man-made landscapes outside. The land-sparing strategy ignores valuable biodiversity and ecosystem services outside protected areas. A paradigm shift in biodiversity conservation is sorely needed.
We, the scientific community, must move away from a binary view of conservation versus development, away from the model that pristine environments are the only ones worth protecting. The numerous challenges created by modern development in newly human-transformed landscapes must be studied and new solutions devised. Apes in the anthropocene are exposed to a whole series of new risks including closer proximity to people; increased likelihood of crop-raiding and being hunted; increased exposure to new diseases; changes in behavior and social dynamic, etc. This raises exciting new research questions that could inform humans about our own evolution, about cognition and conservation.
Of course, research alone will not change this paradigm. There is an urgent need for scientific outcomes to reach stakeholders beyond our discipline and the usual academic circles. We must pro-actively engage conservation practitioners, local communities, NGOs, funders and advocates as well as government agencies, the media and the private sector to shift the focus from conserving specific sites and species to respecting landscapes. This is what the new “Borneo Futures” initiative intends to do and we need your help.
Ready to roll your sleeves up and change the world? Researching tropical forests and/or their habitants? Join the conversation on BORNEO FUTURES Facebook page and website, which is packed with relevant new papers and political developments in Borneo. You can also join the UCS Science Network, to engage in this dialogue and learn how to bring your research to bear on conservation planning and policy making.