SAFE Project revisited

For most of the last two years I have lived and worked in the rainforest in Sabah, Malaysia, helping to set up the Stability of Altered Forest Ecosystems (SAFE) Project.

A small area of rainforest left on a steep hilltop, surrounded by newly planted oil palm.

The SAFE Project takes advantage of an 8000-hectare area of logged forest, earmarked for conversion to oil palm plantation in the coming year, to study the impacts of habitat change on biodiversity. By working closely with the company involved, the SAFE team has established and mapped a network of forest areas of varying sizes (1, 10 and 100 hectares), which will not be cleared when the rest of the logging takes place, and will therefore become forest fragments within a matrix of oil palm.

At the start of the project, we established sampling points throughout the conversion area, as well as in control areas of primary forest (at Maliau Basin Conservation Area), logged forest that will not be cleared, and established oil palm plantation. At each sample point, we collected a whole range of data that reflect the state of biodiversity before clearance. This included marking out and measuring nearly 200 individual vegetation plots to monitor tree diversity and biomass, and establishing over 500 individual insect collection points. This month I travelled out to help with the latest round of insect collections.

Menggaris trees left standing in oil palm plantation on the road from Tawau. Before logging these would have been surrounded by forest of a similar height.

To get to SAFE, you fly to Tawau town before taking a four-wheel drive to the campsite. The project base is about two hours from town, just beyond the expanding boundary of oil palm plantation and still in forest. People visiting Borneo for the first time often expect to see towering rainforest crowding up to the roadside, but this isn’t the case. Most of the drive from Tawau to the SAFE campsite is through oil palm plantation; row upon regular row of the palms stretching away, almost as far as the eye can see. Only on hill tops are there scrubby patches of forest left, often more vines and wild ginger than trees. As you drive, you occasionally see the massive pale trunk of a Menggaris tree emerging out of a green fuzz of palms at its base; a silent reminder of the forest that has so recently been cleared. Menggaris are among the tallest trees in the forest, but they have soft wood and often contain bee nests (which are harvested for honey) and therefore escape logging. Driving through oil palm plantations with the windows down, you can feel the baking heat outside. Oil palm plantations also have a distinctive sweet and slightly sickly smell that comes from the partly decomposed oil palm bunches which are piled around the base of the palms as mulch. Keep the window of your car down as you cross the boundary into forest and you can feel the temperature drop. Even logged forest is cooler than oil palm and smells of rich, damp leaf litter.

The cooking area at the SAFE campsite.

The SAFE campsite has grown organically since the start of the project. Originally there were only fifteen of us living there; all of the blue canvas shelters close to the river and each with its complement of fixed hammocks supported on a wooden frame. Now there are often more than forty people staying at the camp so the shelters have expanded away from the river and look like a miniature shanty town. Over time staff have brought their families and built their own canvas-covered houses. There is a central eating area with a big wooden table, a kitchen, a toilet (with a real flush) and even a TV area with a satellite dish (originally built for the World Cup). As we arrived this trip, I could see a large group of scientists sitting around the central table, busy at their laptops. Several of the research assistants were watching television (inevitably a sitcom) and others were cooking, so the smell of the forest mingled with frying fish. Just below the camp is a rapid, sparkly little river that provides the drinking water as well as somewhere to wash away the sweat and mud after a day of fieldwork. If you’re late back and it’s already getting dark, you can lie in the stream and watch fireflies flitting up and down the riverbank, occasionally resting on the overhanging leaves and flashing their semaphore to each other.  

As well as nearly thirty full-time staff working on the project to collect core data and help visiting researchers, there are now over 100 collaborative scientists working in association with SAFE. These are from both Malaysian and international institutions and study a broad diversity of different taxa and subjects. SAFE has researchers working on trees, invasive plants, ants, termites, aquatic insects, frogs, birds, bats, rats and large mammals. By taking advantage of the clearance already scheduled to take place in the area, SAFE represents a rare opportunity to investigate the impacts of rainforest conversion to oil palm and to find out how landscapes can be managed to produce crops, but still support biodiversity. Such information is essential if we are to learn how best to manage tropical ecosystems. With an ever expanding global population, growth of tropical agriculture is essential but generally comes at a cost to biodiversity.

Despite the importance of agriculture in the area and the value of the project, it’s hard not to find the thought of forest clearance at SAFE saddening. Over the last two years we have met a wide range of species living in the area including Orang Utans, gibbons, elephants, Clouded Leopards, and Flat-headed cats. In all likelihood, most if not all of these species will disappear following clearance and the area will never again support a rainforest ecosystem. The river at the camp will become muddy with erosion from the plantations and not be good to wash in. But conservationists have to be realists: the world’s population needs oil palm for food and this comes at a cost. The important thing is to discover how to save as much of this tropical biodiversity as possible. 

If you are interested in learning more about global conservation issues, why not come along to the Madingley Lecture being given by Professor Andrew Balmford on the 8th of October: Nature’s Glass: half full or half empty? This talk promises to be a fascinating look at the state of global biodiversity today.

We are also running a new weekend course on practical conservation in Madingley on the 7th of September. See Conservation: from theory to practice for more details.

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