“Boleh makan… Boleh… Boleh.” As I turned the pages of my copy of Mammals of Borneo to reveal more images of wildlife, Siba anak Aji said the same thing each time. “Can eat… Can… Can.”
It was 1998 and I was doing ecological research in Lambir Hills National Park in Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo. Siba, my research assistant, was explaining which of the wild species his Iban community would consider eating. The list was long.
The only animal off the menu was the moonrat. Little wonder — this weird white creature, which is not a rat but a cousin of the hedgehog, stinks of ammonia. Everything else, said Siba, was fair game.
Hunting was of course banned in Lambir Hills and for Siba and many other members of his community the park was a source of jobs not meat.
But for others the forest was a larder.
At night on the road that ran through the park I often saw hunting parties from the nearby town of Miri. They used powerful torches or spotlights mounted on trucks to catch the eyes of deer and other creatures to shoot.
I would hear shotguns at night in the forest and a couple of times I found snares or camps that poachers had used.
Lambir is the world’s most botanically diverse forest. In just a 52-hectare patch of it, researchers have identified 1,178 tree species. That’s more species than in all of the temperate forests of the northern hemisphere.
For a while, Lambir’s animal life was impressive too but by the time I arrived there in 1997 the bigger species were hard to find.
In 2002, Igor Debski and I published a paper on the wildlife seen in the park between 1984 and 1999 (Appendix 1 here). Excluding fish, the list ran to an impressive 367 species, including 237 birds and 64 mammals.
We noted though that despite spending thousands of hours in the forest we had only heard the distinctive calls of gibbons twice in two years, and had never seen the distinctive scratch marks a sun bear will leave on a tree trunk. We saw other large species such as monkeys, deer and hornbills only very rarely.
The fact that throughout the 1990s nobody had recorded three large and conspicuous species — the banded langur, helmeted hornbill and great slaty woodpecker — led us to conclude they might have gone locally extinct.
Now my friend and colleague Rhett Harrison has published a paper that paints a far worse picture.
It describes how surveys in 2003–2007 failed to find 20 percent of the park’s resident bird species and 22 percent of its mammal species. The losses include half of the park’s primate species and six out of seven hornbill species, all important dispersers of rainforest seeds.
When I worked in Lambir, I was often able to find 25 to 30 species of birds and mammals feeding on the figs of a single Ficus tree over the course of about three days. Rhett reports that the same Ficus species can only attract half as many animal species today. Many of their figs fall uneaten, their seeds are not spread.
Rhett told me that during nine daytime surveys of 4.5 kilometres of trails in the forest he did not see a single vertebrate that weighed more than a kilogram. This would have been unthinkable just ten years ago.
So, as Rhett asks in his paper, where have all the animals gone? The experience of two Malaysian scientists whose research he cites is telling.
In 2004, Mohd Azlan and Engkamat Lading set camera traps throughout the forest for a total of 1127 camera-days. In that time they photographed only one bearded pig, one of the commonest large mammals in Borneo, but got four separate images of poachers with either shotguns or parangs (long machete-like knives). Three of the cameras were sabotaged – smashed or thrown away.
It’s a story few conservationists want to admit — that parks protected on paper are often happy hunting grounds. But it seems clear from Rhett’s paper that in Lambir and in many other protected areas of tropical forest, conservation is failing. He writes:
“The speed and extent of Lambir’s defaunation is difficult to overstate. In less than 20 years, hunting has deprived Lambir of almost all of its more charismatic animals and has, in the process, substantially altered the ecology of the forest. How did such a fate befall the world’s most diverse forest? Unfortunately, Lambir is typical of many—particularly smaller—reserves that through biogeographic and historical happenstance do not harbor glamorous A-list species, such as orangutans or rhinos, and, as a result, are bypassed by all the attention and funding. The focus of conservation efforts on such a tiny proportion of species, usually at larger and more remote sites, is condemning many reserves and a large proportion of tropical biodiversity to a fate similar to Lambir’s.”
It doesn’t need to be this way. Rhett points out that Lambir’s missing species seem to be doing okay in Sungai Wain, a similarly sized but far more degraded forest in the Indonesian part of Borneo where local hunting has been controlled.
But in Lambir, the decline in numbers of large fruit eating animals — the gibbons and monkeys and big birds such as hornbills — spells trouble for the species whose seeds they disperse. [Update – March 2013 — Rhett has published a new paper that shows what the loss of big seed dispersers means for the trees in the forest]
Of all Lambir’s missing animals, the rhinoceros hornbill holds a special place in my heart. This species is the state bird of Sarawak and in Iban mythology a symbol and messenger of the war god. They are the royalty of Bornean skies, sleek black swan-sized birds with colourful beaks and wings that beat loud and let the world know they are on their way.
Last month, before I had heard about Rhett’s new paper, I bumped into someone who used to work for the Sarawak National Parks and Wildlife Office. I told him ten years had passed since I had been in Sarawak and I asked him how the hornbills were doing.
“Who cares?” he said with a smile and shake of his head. He cared of course, and he knew I did too. He meant it was already too late to care because no-one else did.
Harrison, R. D. 2011. Emptying the Forest: Hunting and the Extirpation of Wildlife from Tropical Nature Reserves. Bioscience. 61: 919-924. [Abstract]
Azlan MJ, Engkamat L. 2006. Camera trapping and conservation in Lambir Hills National Park, Sarawak. Raffles Bulletin of Zoology 54: 469–475. [PDF]
Shanahan, M. & Debski, I. 2002. Vertebrates of Lambir Hills National Park, Sarawak, Malayan Nature Journal 56: 103-118.