The near empty forest that proves conservation is failing

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.

Rhinoceros Hornbill


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.

10 thoughts on “The near empty forest that proves conservation is failing

  1. perhaps a large part of the answer lies in looking at ways to decrease human population growth in less western countries. As I understand it, nature can bounce back.. given time to do so without mounting anthropogenic pressures

    • Hi Andy, the population density in Sarawak (and the rest of Malaysia) is actually not very high, nor is population growth. It is the high consumption in Western countries (with their massive demand for palm oil that goes into hundreds of supermarket products, and for tropical timber, plywood and pulp for paper) that has encouraged countries like Malaysia to strip their forests and leave so little high-diversity habitat left. Had that not happened, I imagine the wildlife populations would be much more resilient to the hunting pressure from local people.

    • Curtailing the so-called “population boom” in “less Western” countries is so often fronted as the causal factor for many of the world’s problems. I guess we can compare the consumption of resources in the “less Western” areas of the world that have high “human population growth” with consumption in the “more Western” world in order to throw some light on who is responsible for the depletion of resources.

      A lot of the deforestation that happens in Africa, for example, is to fuel habits in the more “Western world”, including the consumption of coffee, tea, cacao, the use of jewellery, etc.

  2. This sounds all too familiar from the forests I work in as well. In mainland South-East Asia an increasing amount of the hunting is commercial, and often international in origin. In a reserve where I work in peninsular Malaysia the locals say that they come across teams of hunters in the forest that they don’t recognise and who can’t even speak Malay; they suspect them to be Thai, contract hunters brought down to meet demand from the north. With not much forest left, the remaining patches are becoming very crowded.

  3. Thanks for writing up Sarawak. As one who calls it his birth place, I mourn the loss of the place I called home. I railed against the rape of Sarawak for years, sitting in the comfort of my adopted home, Canada, and one day realised things were no different in Canada. We have lost most of our forests to progress and development. Even as I write today, countless species are threatened by the ongoing development. It’s not so much a need to wipe out Western populations that drive the need for goods, its a need for a change of lifestyles here.

  4. Dear Mike,

    Thank you for replying to my comment on Andy Revkin’s DotEarth blog.

    I had pointed out that the small size of the protected area and the poverty of the people made it very difficult, if not impossible, for the park to effectively protect the flora and fauna — particularly the eatable fauna (which as you clearly state is nearly everything that walks, flies, or crawls).

    I visited your own post on the topic at your [this] blog, Under the Banyan, and must say, not to be contentious, that is not clear that the local people hunt out of custom and lack of restraint, rather than hunger.

    But, you’ve been there, and I have not. And if it is simply a matter of custom and restraint, then it is down to local politics — the worst type of problem to be faced with. As always, it comes down to: Its their forest, their country, their society, their moral values, etc. Their political will [or total lack of] to change things.

    The park size problem is a real physical thing though — for instance, if the park were five times the size (and not criss-crossed with roads) then the local people would not easily be roaming the whole of it while poaching — they’d poach the easily accessible edges but the core would remain relatively safe. Small parks and preserves work best when either naturally (by geography) or artificially protected (gun toting ‘green police’ works best).

    This argument is being used in the US to define forest sizes and defend roadless wilderness areas. Fragmented forest tracts have too many edges….much of the fauna needs deep (not edgy) areas.

    So yes, I agree, small size alone does not condemn the park to ineffectiveness but when combined with the local custom of hunting freely and eating any and all local wildlife, along with lack of enforcement of anti-hunting laws, it is doomed.

    I am not familiar with the economic conditions in Sarawak…I had assumed that they were generally poor, that employment for cash money was scarce, that meat was a small part of the daily diet for the poor because of costs. If that is not the case, then I am happy for them, I’ve known too many for whom these are major issues of daily life.

    My wife and I worked as humanitarian missionaries for years in the Dominican Republic on the island of Hispanola in the Caribbean, where the people have literally eaten all the native mammals over the last 500 years. We were friends of the long-term director of the national zoo, who carefully explained this to us…there are only two native mammalian species left, both obscure little rat-like things, so rare, that the zoo’s collection was returned to the wild. They are now busy destroying (continuing to destroy) all coastal fish populations by continuing to fish the reefs within a mile or so of the coasts, taking all the breeding-size fish of any type. The poor buy the increasingly small fish and stew them. It is the same in Haiti. Anyway, there the poor will catch and eat anything…..except dogs. (My grandparents ate dog with the Lakota Souix in South Dakota but Dominican’s won’t eat them).

    I’d love to hear a little more about the conditions under which the people live there in Sarawak.

    Thank you for sharing your insights with me,

    Kip Hansen

  5. I have been a regular in Lambir for many years and was delighted to be accompanied by a family of gibbons on my way to Bukit Lambir this Feb. They have probably turned to lambir as most forest in the greater area has been logged and part of it replaced by Palm Oil. Fortunately nearby Belait District in Brunei still has plenty of most gorgeous forest and a lot of wildlife. Worthwhile a visit.

  6. These studies tell a strong, yet sad, story of what happens to the flora when faunal diversity declines, highlighting the importance of solid forest monitoring studies. Does anyone know of complimentary efforts to look at the economic and social impacts of these same forest changes? It would help tell a very important and compelling story.

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