Picking up the pieces: studying forest fragmentation in Borneo

forest frag - kinabalu

SSCP-DTP student Phil Chapman writes about why fragmentation is threatening tropical forests, how researchers are learning more about the problem and what it’s really like to live and work in a jungle for four months.

I am now two months into my second field season in the lovely, but oh-so-very far away land of Borneo, to be precise the Malaysian state of Sabah.

Full details of my adventures can be found on my personal blog, thejungleisreallyquitelarge, but with this post I aim to give you a flavour of my research, why it’s needed and what it’s really like doing fieldwork in the jungle.

My PhD project is part of a much larger field experiment, the Stability of Altered Forest Ecosystems (SAFE) project. The whole idea is to get an idea of what happens when you take tropical forest at a large scale and turn it into a predominantly agricultural landscape. In particular, what happens to the forest and its inhabitants if it is fragmented into lots of small pieces surrounded by monoculture cash crops?

Forests under threat

This is exactly what is happening with astonishing speed to tropical forests all over south-east Asia, and the world more generally. Basically, the story goes like this:

    1. There is very little of your “David Attenborough-style” intact virgin forest left in south-east Asia. What’s left of this pristine forest has already been protected for the most part in various nature reserve
    2. The remaining, ‘unprotected’ forests have been selectively logged. This involves cutting down just the biggest, most valuable timber trees, dragging them out and leaving vegetation in the area to regenerate, before coming back in 30 to 50 years and repeating the operation.
    3. Selectively logged forest may look horrible, but research shows that it is generally still nearly as valuable for biodiversity as virgin forest. In some cases, numbers of critically endangered species (such as everyone’s favourite ginger ape, the orangutan) . Unfortunately, it provides arubbish financial return for the loggers beyond the first couple of goes, and generally has preventing land owners from clearing the remaining trees.
    4. Cash crops are much more lucrative, especially palm oil, the world’s highest-energy-producing food crop. So the selectively logged forest gets swept aside and replaced with oil palm.
    5. Oil palm plantations are very poor for wildlife, so biodiversity suffers. These harmful effects are further exacerbated if the remaining forest exists in small, isolated patches – a phenomenon known as fragmentation (which often happens by chance as awkward-to clear patches are left until last).

(You can read more about how land use change threatens south-east Asia’s tropical forests in my previous blog)

Piecing together our understanding of forest fragmentation

forest frag - oil palm
Oil palm. In this case there are no bits of forest left at all. Lovely. Credit: Phil Chapman

To better understand the effects of forest fragmentation, SAFE is experimentally fragmenting an area of forest, covering several thousand hectares, that is already due to be cleared for oil palm. By clearing some of the land, the project simulates the process of fragmentation going on in plantations elsewhere, and recreates a similar, yet more scientifically controllable, pattern of fragments to that seen across surrounding landscapes.

Although this sounds monumentally destructive, this experiment can provide scientists with invaluable insights into how forests react to fragmentation. Firstly, most science done on fragments only happens after forests have already been broken up, which means you totally miss any changes going on during the process of fragmentation. Secondly, by planning the whole operation ourselves, we can chose the sizes, shapes and locations of the fragments, and create a repeated, standardised design. This is the ideal situation for a scientific experiment, and it’s what SAFE is doing, starting in 2010 and running until 2020 at least.

What about me?

I’m focussing my PhD research on mammals, and much of my work involves surveying their population density to see what happens during the fragmentation process. I do get to put lots of fancy automatic cameras out and take pretty pictures of large animals like leopards and monkeys, but most of this work involves catching small mammals such as rats, squirrels, and treeshrews. After an incredibly ‘Victorian’ anaesthesis using ether, I mark them with a unique identification tag (similar to a microchip in your pet cat), take various biometric measures and samples (covering tissue, faeces, parasites etc), and let the wee beasties go.

I can calculate rough estimates of population size based on how often I re-capture them. This involves a mix of mud, sweat, thorns, and hilarity, and I’m hugely lucky to have taken on the methods, sampling sites and back data of previous PhD student Ollie Wearn. I don’t think I could have planned or pulled off anything quite as audacious as he did to start the whole thing up.

This is a treeshrew. Not dead, just off its little head on ether fumes. Credit: Phil Chapman

Jungle life

The rest of my time is spent birdwatching, wildlife watching, playing badminton, reading classic literature, listening to 1970s funk music, drinking intensely mediocre beer and generally socialising with a diverse and interesting bunch of people.

Of course one misses things, such as dairy foods, sausages (Malaysia is a Muslim nation so no pork for us!) and beer that isn’t intensely mediocre. On the whole though, funny food, and other hardships such as creepy crawlies, thin mattresses and sticky heat are all part of the fun. The one thing I do miss is my family, partner and friends back home, but it’s all the better when you do see them at the end of a 12-hour flight, tanned and beardy after four months in the forest.

If this post has whet your appetite,  visit my blog about my work in Borneo, thejungleisreallyquitelarge, which I update (reasonably) regularly. This field season promises new experiments, extra background on how the forest as a whole works, some different angles on life in a remote field station, and maybe (don’t hold your breath) a handful of new, dismal jokes.

Find out more about Phil’s research project

One thought on “Picking up the pieces: studying forest fragmentation in Borneo

  1. Thanks for this Phil. I am in Siberia a long way from home and talking to students about what the renewables revolution means for their generation as future global citizens. Happy researching and may you find good beer. Steve

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