No choice but to better manage altered forests

With more modified then virgin forests cloaking its lands, Sabah is left with no choice but to better manage the altered habitats so that they still host biodiversity.

ALOGGED over forest is far from dead, said Dr Glen Reynolds, director of the Royal Society’s South East Asia Rainforest Research Programme (SEARRP). Based in the world renowned Danum Valley Field Centre, located near Lahad Datu in Sabah, SEARRP ( has been researching the effects of logging for the past 25 years.

The work of SEARRP, established in 1985 by Britain’s 351-year-old Royal Society, on logged forests has yielded interesting results as far as biodiversity is concerned (see accompanying story).

Two striking finds: selective logging has relatively minimal impact on biodiversity (across a range of taxa), and even heavily degraded logged forest retains high biodiversity value. Another conclusion is that the greatest threat to rainforests is actually fire, with degraded and fragmented forest being highly vulnerable.

Reynolds, who briefed the media at the official opening of the Maliau Basin Studies Centre late last month, said that SEARRP, together with Britain’s Imperial College and Yayasan Sabah, will conduct more biodiversity-based studies in Sabah, which is characterised by lots of logged and fragmented forests, otherwise known as modified forests. The project called Stability of Altered Forest Ecosystems (SAFE) is possibly the world’s largest ever forest ecosystem research.

SEARRP aims to facilitate research in close collaboration with key local organisations including the Sabah Forestry Department and Universiti Malaysia Sabah. SEARRP’s Danum Valley base is widely recognised as one of the top three tropical forest research centres in the world.

Cash crop

Oil palm and Sabah are now virtually inseparable. The state has close to 1.5 million ha (15,000sqkm) of oil palm plantation, much of it planted in the past 10 to 15 years. Expanding oil palm cultivation is often cited as a major threat to tropical biodiversity. This is because oil palm is grown in tropical lowlands, places which also happen to host some of the most biodiverse regions on the planet: the tropical rainforests.

Dr Edgar Turner of the Insect Ecology Group, University Museum of Zoology of Cambridge, found in a joint study with Jake Snaddon, Tom Fayle, and William Foster that while research on oil palm has expanded over the years, especially with the focus on biofuels (palm diesel), there is still a yawning gap in knowledge about oil palm plantations and biodiversity.

“Less than 1% of publications are related to biodiversity and species conservation. These publications, even when they try to look at biodiversity and species conservation, have tended to focus on large animals and birds, otherwise known as the iconic animals (think orang utan, rhinoceros, leopard cat).

“Although these larger animals are important flagships for the state of the tropical environment, they are not good indicators of oil palm biodiversity,’’ said Turner in his research paper Oil Palm Research In Context: Identifying The Need For Biodiversity Assessment published in 2008 in PLoS One (

For the scientists who have been toiling in Sabah for the past 25 years, they are now confronted with so many pointers that insects and other small creatures are the ones that execute the bulk of the ecosystem function.

Said Turner: “Understanding the impacts of oil palm expansion on invertebrates and other taxa is vital given the projected increase in oil palm area. Not only will such information allow us to make informed judgments as to the genuine status of biodiversity in oil palm plantations, it will also allow us to begin to quantify how well these managed ecosystems are functioning. By understanding how different taxa and guilds are affected by oil palm expansion, we can begin to see how management can be manipulated to enhance beneficial ecosystem functions with minimum detrimental effects on productivity.”

Reynold is aware that he may upset some conservation groups, but said matter-of-factly: “I do not mean to be controversial, but it seems that you can remove one or two large mammals from the system, and the ecosystem function is pretty much unaffected. However, if you take away all the insects and fungi, the ecosystem will most likely collapse in a short time,’’ he said.

Reynolds argued that the time is ripe for researchers to move on from merely cataloguing biodiversity impacts from logging. “For the first 15 to 20 years of the Royal Society’s programme at Danum Valley, much of the focus was on the effects of timber harvesting on biodiversity. In recent years, the focus of SEARRP has shifted, to reflect the major land use changes in South-East Asia, with plantations replacing and fragmenting natural forests.”

As painful as it may sound, Reynolds maintains that the “battle” to conserve primary forest in Malaysia is now effectively over. “Most of the areas of pristine forest that could or should be protected have already been protected,’’ he said, while pointing out that Sabah had pronounced Maliau Basin, Imbak Canyon, Danum Valley, and Tabin, just to name some, as being off-limits to logging.

“The way forward is to see effects of land clearing (of previously logged over land) for plantations, and the effects of forest fragmentation. Given that large tracts of land are being cleared all across South-East Asia, especially in Indonesia, the science in Sabah is relevant for it addresses real world concerns. For example, it is the degraded forest, and patches of forest embedded within agricultural plantations, that now supports much of Borneo’s biodiversity,’’ said Reynolds.

Thorough study

For sure, the researchers will not have anything to do with the orang utan, currently the rallying point of the anti-palm oil lobby. “We need to understand how all aspects of ecosystem services are affected by agricultural expansion. Much more research must be carried out to determine the impact of habitat conversion on insect biodiversity. For example, ants, while not terribly charismatic, have an important role to play. And the same goes for the decomposers, pollinators and so on,’’ said Reynolds

The SAFE researchers contend that the concept of a “natural ecosystem” is fast disappearing as humans modify the world at an ever-accelerating rate. This means much of the world’s biodiversity must now persist in human-modified landscapes. “It may not be readily evident, but most of the biodiversity of South-East Asia are now residing within these patches of degraded and fragmented forests, and we have found a remarkable resilience in biodiversity towards disturbance, and much biodiversity still being supported within these degraded forests,’’ said Reynolds.

The SAFE Project is practically one mega ecological experiment to understand the myriad ways in which logging, deforestation and forest fragmentation modify the functioning of tropical rainforests. Such impacts may range from the impairment of the forests’ ability to deliver ecosystem services and to support diversity.

“Maintenance of forest fragments in the plantation landscape is not only likely to increase biodiversity, but is also likely to reduce erosion and flooding if maintained around river margins. Maintaining biodiversity in a plantation context is also potentially important from recreational and educational points of view, as oil palm plantations have already become the countryside for a large number of people in the tropics. Without an awareness of biodiversity, future generations are less likely to value and protect it,’’ said Turner, who is also SAFE scientific coordinator.

In terms of project area, SAFE ( is likely to surpass another equally massive project that is performed in Brazil called the Biological Dynamics of Forest Fragments Project, described as the world’s largest-scale and longest-running study of habitat fragmentation done jointly by the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute and Brazil’s National Institute for Amazonian Research.

Several industry-driven groups (for example, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil) have formed in the last few years aiming to promote and investigate the potential of sustainable palm oil cultivation. Nevertheless, the value of research is enhanced if it is independent ecologists who provide the information on the biodiversity wealth of these plantations and investigate practices beneficial to biodiversity, the environment and the community, and the industry is left to adopt best practices derived from scientific research.

Focusing on climatology, hydrology, biogeochemistry, plant ecology and animal ecology, the SAFE research team is led by Dr Rob Ewers from Britain’s Imperial College and Reynolds (representing SEARRP). The team will include scientists from Oxford University, Stanford University, Zurich University as well as Universiti Malaysia Sabah. The Imperial College will provide the scientific direction and leadership to SAFE and coordinate the involvement of other major international universities and research institutes. As the custodian of Sabah’s forests, the state forestry department is also involved in the planning of the project.

Yayasan Sime Darby (YSD) is contributing RM30mil to the project. “We would like the scientists to show where we have done right, and where we have done wrong. They are absolutely free to publish their findings, even if the results are unfavourable to us,” said Tun Musa Hitam, chairman of the foundation that is supported by profits of the Sime Darby Group, which owns one of Malaysia’s largest oil palm company, Sime Darby Plantation.

YSD ( will bankroll eight doctoral students (half of the allocation reserved for Malaysians), six senior scientists (three Malaysians), salaries and training for a team of locally recruited research assistants, and development of extensive research infrastructure in Sabah (including the most advanced facilities for carbon measurement), as well as funding for project workshops, and public awareness campaigns.

“We do not mind if other players like those in Africa and Indonesia also benefit from the results of the study. We are serious about rectifying our shortcomings, and to make our operations sustainable,’’ Musa told the media at the Maliau Basin Studies Centre during the launch of the project.

Established in 1982, YSD broadened the scope of its activities in 2008, and is supporting conservation (direct and indirect) of nine endangered species: Malayan sun bear, orang utan, Bornean pygmy elephant, Bornean clouded leopard, hornbill, banteng, proboscis monkey, Sumatran rhinoceros and the Malayan tiger. Eight of these nine animals live in Sabah’s Tabin Wildlife Reserve, where YSD has contributed RM2.3mil. The support will end this April.

Making comparisons

Yayasan Sabah, acknowledging that logging can no longer sustain the state, is looking at oil palm as the future. It is currently establishing an 80,000ha oil palm plantation within its concession. The SAFE project will cover some 7,000ha within Yayasan Sabah’s Benta Wawasan plantation (Sime Darby plantations have no presence in Yayasan Sabah concession areas).

Its central element will be the creation of forest patches of one to 100ha within the plantation. Research plots will be established in old and new oil palm plantations, logged forest and undisturbed primary forest. The forest patches will form the sampling cores for the project. The bulk of the SAFE research plots are located within or at the edge of this concession, while the few that are located in the pristine Maliau Basin serve as control plots (as undisturbed forests). Yayasan Sabah will have to forgo a few hundred hectares of land for this experiment. Its concession area is sandwiched between the Kinabatangan and Kalabakan rivers in the southern-most part of Sabah, with the nearest town being Tawau.

The foundation is indeed in a powerful position to influence the outcome of Borneo biodiversity. With one million ha of forestry/plantation concession under its wing, it is in charge of the region’s largest and most important primary forest protected areas (Danum Valley, Imbak Canyon and Maliau Basin) and a number of forest restoration projects.

On suggestions that SAFE might amount to an attempt to greenwash, Dr Waidi Sinun, group manager for conservation and environmental management at Yayasan Sabah, said that he is ready to listen to dissenting parties on how things can be done better. “But what would you want a scientist like me to do? I cannot stop the logging or land conversion outside of the conservation areas. Does Sabah really have a choice?

“The focus now needs to be on the function of biological diversity in plantations. For example, we are interested in practices to increase biodiversity, and to integrate that with traditional management to get win-win outcomes for both plantations and the environment. We need knowledge on plantation management for the benefit of a wider range of species, and to increase the stability of ecosystem functions. All these will likely lead to greater sustainability in the future as ecosystem function is less tied to the fortunes of individual species.

“Sabah is already pledging more than 50% of its land as forested areas. This is more than most developed countries. Look at the vast tracts we have set aside, and do give constructive suggestions on how we can do things better,” said Waidi. He added that Yayasan Sabah’s matrix of logged forest, plantations and forest under restoration treatments forms the ideal site for studying effects of logging, land use change and the benefits of forest restoration.

“If I abandon what I am doing just because there is some logging or land use conversion outside the conservation area, would things end up better in the end? The question is whether sacrifices made in the quest for development are made blindly, or backed by scientific knowledge.”

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