The 12 days of Christmas (through the medium of camera-trapping)

It’s about time I shared some more of the many thousands of camera trap images  (682,566 and counting…) we’ve accumulated over the course of the last few years’ fieldwork. And given the festive timing, I thought it appropriate to hijack a traditional Christmas song for the purposes. This has just appeared on Twitter as well, and was a big hit! I predict big things for this Borneo/xmas mashup.

In a way, this song is dedicated to everyone, past and present, who has been a part of the project. I especially thank Leah Findlay, Jeremy Cusack, Faye Thompson, Matt Holmes, Robin Loveridge, Jess Haysom and Jack Thorley for their tireless mammal-chasing and inexhaustible energy (well, except when Seraya, F1 and/or Gravity is involved). Ta very much for all your blood, sweat and tears (especially when clouded leopards are involved)!

On the first day of Christmas
Team Mammal brought to me
A partridge by a durian tree

Chestnut-necklaced hill partridge by a durian tree

On the second day of Christmas
Team Mammal brought to me
2 Emerald doves
and a partridge by a durian tree

Emerald dove

On the third day of Christmas
Team Mammal brought to me
3 Bulwer’s hens
2 Emerald doves
and a partridge by a durian tree

Bulwer's pheasant

 On the fourth day of Christmas
Team Mammal brought to me
4 calling argus
3 Bulwer’s hens
2 Emerald doves
and a partridge by a durian tree

Great argus

On the fifth day of Christmas
Team Mammal brought to me
5 gooollllddddd(ish) cats!!
4 calling argus
3 Bulwer’s hens
2 Emerald doves
and a partridge by a durian tree

Bay cats galore

On the sixth day of Christmas
Team Mammal brought to me
6 orangutans-a-playing
5 gooollllddddd(ish) cats!!
4 calling argus
3 Bulwer’s hens
2 Emerald doves
and a partridge by a durian tree

Orangutan playing

On the seventh day of Christmas
Team Mammal brought to me
7 civets-a-sauntering
6 orangutans-a-playing
5 gooollllddddd(ish) cats!!
4 calling argus
3 Bulwer’s hens
2 Emerald doves
and a partridge by a durian tree

Banded civet

On the eighth day of Christmas
Team Mammal brought to me
8 muntjacs-a-milking
7 civets-a-sauntering
6 orangutans-a-playing
5 gooollllddddd(ish) cats!!
4 calling argus
3 Bulwer’s hens
2 Emerald doves
and a partridge by a durian tree

Yellow muntjac female with fawn

On the ninth day of Christmas
Team Mammal brought to me
9 sun bears dancing
8 muntjacs-a-milking
7 civets-a-sauntering
6 orangutans-a-playing
5 gooollllddddd(ish) cats!!
4 calling argus
3 Bulwer’s hens
2 Emerald doves
and a partridge by a durian tree

Dancing sun bear

On the tenth day of Christmas
Team Mammal brought to me
10 tarsiers-a-leaping
9 sun bears dancing
8 muntjacs-a-milking
7 civets-a-sauntering
6 orangutans-a-playing
5 gooollllddddd(ish) cats!!
4 calling argus
3 Bulwer’s hens
2 Emerald doves
and a partridge by a durian tree

Crouching tarsier

On the eleventh day of Christmas
Team Mammal brought to me
11 porcupines prickling
10 tarsiers-a-leaping
9 sun bears dancing
8 muntjacs-a-milking
7 civets-a-sauntering
6 orangutans-a-playing
5 gooollllddddd(ish) cats!!
4 calling argus
3 Bulwer’s hens
2 Emerald doves
and a partridge by a durian tree

Malay porcupine

On the twelfth day of Christmas
Team Mammal brought to me
12 scientists drinking
11 porcupines prickling
10 tarsiers-a-leaping
9 sun bears dancing
8 muntjacs-a-milking
7 civets-a-sauntering
6 orangutans-a-playing
5 gooollllddddd(ish) cats!!
4 calling argus
3 Bulwer’s hens
2 Emerald doves
and a partridge by a durian tree

Sweet nectar

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“The oldest rainforest in the world” and other tall tales

My PhD fieldwork in Borneo has come full circle, though not through design. My first few months included Christmas in Singapore and New Year’s at the top of a granite slab they call Kinabalu. Since then, I’ve managed to get home for Christmas and celebrate with friends and family. On the final trip of my PhD, I find myself waylaid in the jungle for Christmas/NY once again: this time in the one-of-a-kind Danum Valley, a veritable mecca for tropical ecologists and one of the most important study sites in this respect in Southeast Asia.

Danum’s a place I’ve heard a great deal about over the last few years. Indeed, to a first approximation, if you’re an ecologist in Borneo, you work in Danum. Most of these scientists seem to put Danum on a special pedestal, and suggest it has no rainforest equal on the island. I’ve long thought they might just be right. After all, amongst the tales told to me, it’s the place where you might meet a sun bear, otherwise incredibly elusive, peering into your fridge when you come down for your cornflakes (Eleanor Slade, a reliable source, told me that one), or you might come across two, yes TWO, clouded leopards feasting on a mousedeer right in front of your eyes (thanks Jen Sheridan for taunting me with that one). It is also one of the last remaining patches of truly undisturbed, lowland (with significant areas < 300m elevation) rainforest in Southeast Asia, and has most likely been subject to very low levels of human activity throughout its long history stretching back into the Quarternary period and perhaps beyond. But having never been there and, perhaps more importantly, having a special attachment to the Maliau Basin, I’ve usually argued that the improbable wildlife sightings and the record-breaking species lists are just an artefact of the vast numbers of people that have visited or studied the place.

So far, though, it seems to be very much living up to the hype. I’ve seen scores of bird species I’ve never seen before (racket-tailed drongo, the Siberian blue robin, two new species of Malkoha, trogon and pitta, and many more), as well as my best ever sightings of maroon langur and the busy little short-tailed mongoose. Night surveys have yielded an array of frogs, giant tarantulas and centipedes, more sightings of the rare Ranee mouse than I’ve come across before, as well as civets (Malay, common palm and banded) and flying foxes. Whilst here, we’ll be doing night surveys every night that the rain holds off, so stay tuned for more…

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Trying to find one of the rarest cats in existence

I remember my first wild cat capture. It was early 2011 and I’d already been camera-trapping for a couple of months in various sites by this point. I’d just had a tough few days collecting in cameras and was perched on the edge of my hammock with a bunch of memory cards to flick through, freshly pulled from the field. It was just before dinner, the “six o’clock” cicadas had started their nightly ritual of piercing, staccato calls, and the steady hum of the camp generator could be heard in the background. I was pretty tired, not to mention hungry, at this point and was more-or-less absent-mindedly flicking through picture after picture of bearded pigs and mousedeer.

Just then, something suddenly made me jolt to a stop, before I’d even comprehended what I’d seen. Flicking back quickly, there it appeared: the magnificent sight of a clouded leopard male’s head in the bottom corner of the image. Then, like a ghostly apparition, it promptly disappeared. This was totally unexpected to me and, to put it mildly, I was overjoyed (like this perhaps). It was an exhilarating and satisfying experience to have camera-trapped this most rare and mysterious of top predators. But it also had much wider implications, since this was evidence that clouded leopards were hanging on despite the intense logging. I ran down to the dinner table still in shock at what I’d seen and promptly showed everyone, half wanting confirmation I hadn’t just imagined it!

We’d had reasonable expectations of capturing the leopard cat, an adaptable species across its large distribution in Southeast Asia, but had not really expected to pick up any of the other wild cat species in such a disturbed area of forest. No sightings, not even of pug marks, of the clouded leopard had been reported during the SAFE project’s setup phase, which had been going on for some 12 months at that point. I’d assumed, sadly, that the forest had just been pushed too far. After the clouded leopard, other species started appearing in the cameras, like the marbled cat and orangutan, and I soon began to realize it was all still there, just exceedingly good at avoiding us! Today, we have nearly 60 species of mammal recorded from this most disturbed of forests!

In this context, some months after this, a strange animal entered the scene of one particular camera trap I was going through. Again, I flicked back and watched carefully as the video-like sequence advanced slowly. But my brain was drawing a blank. Masked palm civet – no. Flat-headed cat – no. Fossa – no, that’s in Madagascar! I’d dismissed all notion of ever getting the bay cat in my study sites, but all the evidence pointed to me having just seen one! No, no, no, surely not. Cue more swearing, frantic comparisons with other cat species I’d camera-trapped, and then the strange, unbelievable conclusion that I was holding a camera trap in my hand that had been within a whisker’s breadth of a live, wild bay cat. I had just not imagined in my wildest dreams that bay cats, as well as the other wild cats I’d picked up, were living on in these highly-disturbed forests.

I knew almost nothing about the bay cat at this point and, frustratingly, we don’t know too much more about it now. This most elusive of species has been called “the world’s least known” cat species. It was only known from a few specimens collected in the 19th Century and early 20th Century, and was thought to be extinct, until a live individual was caught by hunters in 1992 and brought to a museum on the point of death. This confirmed it was still in existence and indeed was a valid species in its own right. It took until 2003 until a photograph of it in the wild was captured. We don’t know what they eat, how long they live or how big an area they need to survive. All we know is that they are primarily terrestrial, and occur in two colour phases: a grey form and a red form (we’ve only found the red form in our study area). 

One of the earliest, and most striking, results from my work in the Kalabakan Forest Reserve (SAFE project area) was just the sheer number of times we were picking up the bay cat. This led to me quickly drafting a paper quantifying just how exceptional, given past camera-trapping efforts for this species by other researchers, our result was. The answer was, it was very exceptional: about a 10 times higher trapping rate. We went on to show that this effect, yes, was partly the unusual abundance seemingly present at SAFE, but mostly it was due to the way I’d placed my cameras. 

We used random locations for our cameras in this study, something which has only been done in one other study so far, on the other side of the world, in Panama. Researchers almost always use roads, salt-licks, water points, established walking paths and other easy-to-access areas. In sampling theory, we might call this “convenience sampling”, and it’s looked upon with disdain in almost all areas of science! The reason is obvious: if you put your camera at a location which some species actively seek out, and others actively avoid, you aren’t going to get an accurate picture of the relative abundance of the different species, and may miss some (like the bay cat) altogether.

Using random sampling meant putting cameras in areas our camera-trapping instincts were screaming at us not to waste our time with: rock faces, landslides, the middle of an ant-infested vine tangle, you name it. Invariably, something always cropped up and, anecdotally, some of our most exciting rarities (such as banded linsang, Malay weasel and female clouded leopards with cubs) were found in areas we might have bunked off, had I not been such a methodology pedant. For the bay cat’s part, it seemed to avoid the “convenient” locations, with 7 out of 8 of our captures occurring well away from trails. Even the one capture “on-trail” was an individual quickly crossing an overgrown logging road, not walking along its length like a clouded leopard might.

Using random locations we may have solved another mystery – where are all the female clouded leopards? We would expect a more-or-less equal sex ratio in clouded leopard populations, but camera trap studies usually record lots more males. Our data showed that this was because females actively avoid the trails and roads commonly used by camera-trappers in the past. We’d expect this to be especially the case if they have cubs (which one of our females did), to reduce the risk of infanticide from the large males which do commonly use these access routes.

In light of what we found, we think that random locations in camera-trapping should be much more widely used than they are now, and the technological barriers towards this are just now on the verge of being overcome. For example, just 10 years back, scientists were still widely using 35mm film cameras in camera-trapping, which meant they needed to keep visiting cameras to change the film roll! Now we have tiny memory cards which can store tens of thousands of images, and even solar-powered cameras which can run indefinitely. This means we can take bigger risks when we’re placing cameras. We can start going off trail and put cameras in areas which might not record that many images of the big charismatic species, like tigers, but which might pick up real rarities, like the bay cat.

Besides the bay cat and the clouded leopard, we also found three other species of wild felid: the leopard cat, marbled cat and flat-headed cat (which has been directly observed in the area). As a result, the Kalabakan Forest Reserve is now one of only four forest areas in the whole of Borneo – the third largest island in the world – where we know all five species of Bornean wild felid co-exist.  And it’s the most disturbed of the forest areas on this list so far (the others being: Danum Valley Conservation Area – renowned for its pristine state; Deramakot Forest Reserve – renowned for being Southeast Asia’s first FSC certified rainforest, and Tabin Wildlife Reserve – not logged at all in recent decades, and renowned for being one of only two confirmed homes of the Sumatran rhino in Borneo).

So what is the significance of finding all five cat species in the Kalabakan Forest Reserve, and does it mean we can just go on logging until the cows come home?

Pristine forests are rare now in Southeast Asia, and most of Malaysia’s remaining primary forest has already been gazetted in protected areas. Logged forests, on the other hand, are extensive (see here) and under intense threat from the expansion of agricultural land in the region, mainly for oil palm. They are also generally undervalued for their biodiversity. Our findings for wild cats, as well as those of other recent studies on small mammals, birds and insects, suggest that logged forests retain most of the biodiversity that the original primary forest contained. Greater emphasis, therefore, needs to go into conserving these areas and shifting the burden of agricultural expansion onto non-forest areas which have already been cleared and are sitting idle. However, logged forests are not suitable for conserving all biodiversity, and many species which are dependent on tall, old-growth trees may disappear with logging. We’re also not sure of the long-term viability of species in logged forest. Effects may take time to materialise, so it would always be best to take a precautionary approach and conserve primary forests wherever they remain. So, in short, no we should not log until the cows come home.

Specifically for the bay cat, there are two other reasons: 1) we found the bay cat in relatively more intact pockets of the overall highly-disturbed concession, and 2) within that, the bay cat appeared to avoid the skid-trails (used by tractors to pull out logs) and main logging roads, suggesting it is intolerant of these more open areas. Most likely, the bay cat does not necessarily benefit from logging (in the same way that some herbivore species do, due to an increased quantity of browse at the ground level) and only tolerates logging up to a threshold level (which would need to be determined by future work).

You can read the science behind all this in a paper we published in the open access (free to access!) PLOS ONE journal:
http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0077598

Our findings got quite a bit of press coverage (see below), which has led to this paper being read nearly 2,000 times and linked to (e.g. on Facebook and Twitter) 8,600 times in just the first couple of weeks of it being up (as of 18/11/13).

Here’s a short video presenting the images of the bay cat in question (including terrible narration by me, during a thunderstorm at the Maliau Basin field centre)

Cheers
Ollie

PS Take a look at the following links for some of the media coverage. Note that this coverage mostly did not reflect the content of the actual paper, and focused on the bay cat “re-discovery” angle. Some of the articles mistakenly report us finding flat-headed cats with our cameras – this isn’t true, for the reasons given in the paper.

http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2013/nov/04/borneo-bay-cat-heavily-logged (The Guardian)
http://news.discovery.com/animals/endangered-species/least-known-cat-caught-on-camera-131104.htm (Discovery Channel)
http://newswatch.nationalgeographic.com/2013/11/06/rare-cat-captured-in-camera-trap/ (National Geographic)
http://www.nbcnews.com/science/elusive-rare-cats-caught-camera-lurking-logged-forest-8C11528963 (NBC News)
http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2013/11/06/rare-elusive-wild-bay-cat-borneo-forest-pictures-video_n_4224334.html?utm_hp_ref=uk&ir=UK (Huffington Post)
http://www.foxnews.com/science/2013/11/05/spotted-rare-cat-species-captured-on-camera-in-borneo/ (Fox News)
And my personal fave (in Spanish unfortunately)
http://www.elmundo.es/ciencia/2013/11/05/527915bb0ab740a05d8b456a.html (El Mundo)

Posted in Conservation, Field work, Logging, Rainforest Fauna, Scientific Research | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Go forth and have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moves upon the earth

So the forest clearance looks set to begin. A huge area has been cleared in the south of the Obah Suluk estate within Kalabakan Forest Reserve, the logging camp has been built, the saw mill is finished and a veritable army of diggers, tractors, skidders and lorries are arriving on a daily basis from the coast. A whole new guild of species have invaded the reserve, with frequent sightings daily!

© OroVerde

During the summer, lots of new roads suddenly appeared on the hillsides – it was truly awesome how fast these emerged out of the apparently impenetrable, dense jungle. This was mostly the opening up of old roads, so did not involve the clearance of many trees, but I had assumed that the steepness of the terrain and the thickness of the mud might present some sort of challenge to the loggers. No such luck. As I was leaving in September, the main road cutting north into the project area had been hammered for logs along the first kilometre or so and many of the roads I used to jog along have been transformed. Previously sleepy, overgrown logging roads are now wide, scorched thoroughfares with logs piled up along their lengths, sleeping tractors parked up in side roads, abandoned petrol drums everywhere and, most obviously, smashed forest stretching for 50m on both sides. Gone are the days when I used to see hornbills, woodpeckers, orangutans, mongooses, masked palm civets and yellow-throated martens, amongst others, on my jogs. On one night drive we did, however, see a leopard cat Prionailurus bengalensis hunting amongst the dumped oil drums beside the road – this incredibly adaptable species, at least, may well prosper in the years to come.

This moment has been subject to so many delays that many of us have been happily able to live in a state of denial that it was ever going to happen. Having got to know the area as my backyard over the last 2 years, I would happily trade in my PhD if the area was turned into a Class I forest reserve over night (not a Class II “forest reserve”, which it currently is and patently does not guarantee that it remains forest). Of course, this choice has yet to be presented to me (disappointing). Instead, I have to make the most of the opportunity to document what really happens as oil palm plantations are established. Too much has been said about the assumed impact on mammals, and we need to confront these assumptions with the cold, hard data.

It will be interesting to see the emotional reactions to this huge clearance event from the various parties involved in the SAFE project. Though the clearance is yet to really gain pace, the diverse reactions are already becoming apparent. Whilst the emotions of the scientists working at the SAFE project are mostly of despair, some who have come to the work at the site have been apparently ambivalent or, worse, entirely unconcerned about the loss of so much forest. I am sure we have all had quiet moments working in the dense, spiny, slippery forests at SAFE where we have wished, just for once, that the forest would part like the Red Sea and let us reach our sampling point. But I cannot feel anything but remorse that, globally, we are allowing these habitats to be irrevocably destroyed to grow a palm tree.

Other parties have had more predictable feelings about the clearance. I had the unfortunate experience of over-hearing a conversation between a Sabah Forestry Department ranger and the boss of the road contractors for Benta Wawasan (responsible for keeping the roads in the SAFE project open) – it went something along the lines of (in Malay): “So did you hear they’ve finished the saw mill at last?”, shifty chain-smoking road contractor says to Forestry Dept employee. “Yeah, this place [referring to our camp] will soon be burnt to the ground!” says the ranger. “You know what they do at Malua [another heavily-logged forest reserve to the north] with the orangutans? They give them ropes to cross the trees!”, he adds. The road contractor replies, “Well they’ll be walking on the bare earth here!”

Research assistants at the SAFE Project, Malaysian Borneo

Similarly, I’ve been somewhat dismayed, but probably not surprised, at the outbursts of feeling I’ve witnessed from some of our own research assistants, who are locals from the surrounding villages, mostly Orang Sungai (“river people”) with little cultural connection with forest. Upon driving past the skidders cutting roads into the forest, they shout to me in a jubilant and victorious tone, “Ollie, the forest will soon all be gone!” and, in case I happen to have forgotten that particular morning, they usually take it upon themselves to remind me, whilst laughing maniacally, that “all your animals will run far away from here and never come back!”. Others I’ve heard speak with anticipation, dollar signs in their eyes, of the riches that will come with expanding oil palm, talking to me at length about how many acres of oil palm they’ll need to plant in order to afford the monthly payments on that shiny new Proton to replace their moped. Some of the guys seem genuinely concerned that the forest is shrinking, but often this seems driven by a feeling that “the man” is increasingly dominating land in Sabah (i.e. the government or large multinationals), with little benefit for the average man in the village. This usually has some political or racial overtones, with many perceiving the government as not representing their interests or, worse, being open to bribery from outside interests, especially large China- or Peninsular-based companies.  Overall, I’d say that those who will miss the forest for its own sake – the plants, animals and experience that it provides – are few and far between, though many will express this sentiment to make me feel better!

Maroon langur monkeys in riparian forest at the SAFE Project with oil palm in the background

At some point during the height of the logging machinery arriving day-after-day on the main road into the area from Luasong we noticed a large male orang-utan sitting in an exposed tree overhanging this noisy road. This in itself was a strange sighting, but he stuck around in this tree for the entire day – he was there first thing in the morning and was still there when we passed in the evening. He looked despondent to me, lying on his front with his chin rested on his hand, looking out at the oil palm plantations in the distance. He had no doubt already witnessed multiple rounds of logging and was therefore hardened to the approaches of his ape cousin, but even he had no idea that the worst is yet to come.

Posted in Conservation, Development, Logging, Palm Oil, Rainforest Fauna | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

An idea for the Borneo Biodiversity Network

A message for the nascent Borneo Biodiversity Network:

I’ve been thinking for a while that we, as Borneo biodiversity investigators and promoters, need a platform. The BBN facebook page is an excellent start, which has kicked off lots of exciting connections already, but can we build on this?

I’m imagining (I’m sure many of you have already had this idea or similar) a collaborative website, built and maintained in large part by those who use it – a wiki would suit these purposes. This would have an active forum, of course, and could show recent BBN facebook activity on the home page. But it would also include pages for both 1) projects and 2) people. The projects sections would cover historical, current and proposed projects, and include details of outputs, such as links to grey literature. The people pages would detail the activities/interests of researchers, their outputs they want attention drawn to and, crucially, their contact details. Both project and people profiles would be “tagged” with categories (for example with “ITBC”, “SAFE Project”, “Kuching-based”, whatever springs to mind), forming natural groups of projects or people with something in common (which can be defined in any number of ways by search terms).

In addition, there would be a strong spatial element to the website. For example, a) all of the different projects would be mapped; b) there would be a section for providing informal sightings of rarities (with contact details of the observer should anyone want to seek verification), and c) there would be an opportunity to submit (anonymously, if needed) observations of hunting, illegal clearance or new threats to habitats that eyes and ears on the ground become aware of. This spatial data would be fully searchable, allowing us to find projects (or threats) that might be going on just down the road, or allowing us to map projects with certain tags (e.g. “Sabah” + “Camera-trapping”).

Finally, and most ambitiously, the website could provide a platform for data sharing and access. Details of datasets researchers have in their possession could be provided, including metadata such as dates, spatial locations, sampling methods, broad taxa included and, most importantly, access rights (ranging from “completely off-limits, pending publication”, to “open access”). The datasets could be provided for download if they are open access, or contact details for the owners could be provided in order to propose a collaboration. Some researchers out there have already put substantial effort into gathering together datasets and establishing access rights (for example, for the 1st Borneo Small Carnivore Symposium) – this should be capitalised upon and made available to the greatest number of people.

This kind of a platform would serve as a catalyst for better, more effective wildlife conservation in Borneo. This would be by way of:

  • facilitating collaborations
  • encouraging research that asks the right questions (by sharing the details of past and present research)
  • increasing the value of all of that past data which researchers are done with and is just sitting on hard drives gathering proverbial dust
  • making project outputs more easily available (especially for local stakeholders and policy-makers) and better advertised on a central platform
  • instantly getting the word out about threats.

The question is, is anyone out there able to pick up this challenge?

Parts of this are achievable without having to re-invent the wheel. Wikis are well-established now, as is the integration of mapping into these (e.g. via Google Earth). A little research has revealed that other ideas here have been implemented in part (e.g. Observado.org for submitting observations, Protectedplanet.net for submitting threats to protected areas). These tools could potentially be coerced for our purposes here.

If you have any other ideas or opinions, submit them below, or on the BBN facebook post which links to this. If there is already an example where this kind of thing has been done before, I for one would be very keen to hear about it.

Posted in Conservation, Scientific Research | Tagged , , | 5 Comments

City-wallah

Over the last couple of months I’ve been based in the UK, putting my jungle-wallah ways on pause. It’s been a really productive period: I’ve been sorting equipment (broken cameras!), catching up on meetings (including giving my PhD upgrade presentation!), writing papers and analysing data (spurred on by the novelty of round-the-clock electricity and internet).

The important thing, though, is that I’ve gone through and processed ~75,000 images or so from the cameras. Of course, I’ve been taking sneaky peaks at the data all along (shhhh), but this first proper analysis of a whole block of data has provided me with a clear picture of how my sampling is progressing and the first real hints at what the key findings might be. Stay tuned for more….

In the meantime, here is another highlight from the cameras so far. It’s a stunning capture sequence of a clouded leopard that I had in the early days of sampling. It also happens to be the first record of the species in the area, and for Kalabakan Forest Reserve! This is where camera-traps really come into their own – giving you jaw-dropping images of a species you’d easily go your whole life never seeing in the forest with your own two eyes!


Posted in Field work, Rainforest Fauna, Scientific Research | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

There’s no wow in Tawau

It’s been quite a few months since my last post – my apologies. I always said I’d blog when I had that rare combination of internet access + time (+ inspiration) and the first half of 2011 has been busier than I could have imagined.

So I’m currently lying up in glamorous Tawau with suspected malaria, awaiting test results. Which, for the first time, has forced me to push aside the work for a bit. It first hit me in the field, and I felt weak and disorientated. It quickly progressed to a fever, a hammering headache and shivering. It was a rough night in my hammock, with little sleep. All I wanted to do was put on all the clothes I had with me – a dangerous move when your temperature is already 3 degrees above normal. As it was, I resisted, popping painkillers to try to control the fever and just lay there listening, for once, to the sounds of the forest in the dead of night. I was taken to Tawau the next morning.

Two sleepless nights later, Avatar is on the TV (great film) and, right now, Colonel Quaritch’s words seem applicable to Borneo as for Pandora: “You are not in Kansas anymore. You are on Borneo, ladies and gentlemen. Respect that fact every second of every day. If there is a Hell, you might wanna go there for some R & R after a tour on Borneo. Out there, beyond that fence, every living thing that crawls, flies, or squats in the mud wants to kill you and eat your eyes for jujubes.” Don’t ask me what a jujube is, but Borneo certainly has all manner of diseases, as well as a trillion leeches, ants, wasps, bees, poisonous caterpillars, centipedes, assassin bugs, mosquitoes, deer flies, horse flies, black flies and ticks, all waiting to become acquainted with you. Not to mention king cobras, crocodiles, gargantuan reticulated pythons and charging elephants.

Recent illness aside, the months since my last post have been very productive on the mammal side of things. Mindful of the desperately short amount of time we have at our disposal before the ‘dozers arrive, every day is precious and can offer a new species, a new finding or a new insight. We’ve been running both live-trapping and camera-trapping concurrently, with the result that days off have been few and far between for my team (sorry, guys). But we now have an excellent foundation of sampling effort under our belts: >5,000 equivalent camera-trap nights and >6,000 equivalent live-trapping nights.

Data collection is continuing, but it is now up to me to begin to apply mathematical models which will help to make sense of all of these data in one (more-or-less) coherent framework. Ultimately, I am aiming to understand the system to the point where it is possible to make robust, defensible recommendations for conservation strategies. Scientists often prevaricate on communicating the results of their work to decision-makers for fear of making “biased inferences” (i.e. incorrect conclusions, caused by a lack of sufficient data). I’ve always strongly seen conservation biology as a science with a deadline: more than most scientific endeavours, it is constantly being challenged and pushed on by the day-to-day pace of human activity. Michael Soulé called it a “crisis discipline” in which “one must act before knowing all the facts”. What this means is that, whilst the mathematical models are essential for gaining insights from your data, we cannot be afraid to go that extra step and make clear, brave inferences beyond what the statistics may allow.

I’m reminded of the need for pragmatics on a daily basis: from the endless oil palm plantations I have to drive through to get to study sites or, whilst setting up a camera-trap, the rumble of a fully-laden logging truck winding along a distant road.

Anyway, see below for some highlights from the cameras so far…

Written September 2011

Posted in Conservation, Field work, Rainforest Fauna, Scientific Research | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

What does a logging truck mean?

Worryingly, I just passed 9 logging trucks on the road to the Maliau Basin. In fact, I hear that the trucks have been coming thick and fast along this road for the last 6 months. It’s very difficult to get concrete information on the timings, location and intensity of logging in Sabah (as elsewhere in Malaysia), but this seems to indicate a dramatic rise in the rate of logging around Maliau.

To convert these 9 logging trucks into something tangible, we can carry out a quick back-of-the-envelope calculation into what this might mean for the forests in this area. It goes something like this:

I counted between 12 and 30 logs on each truck: we’ll take a conservative average of around 20 logs per truck. I was observing the road for 2 hours, but I was travelling at around 60 kph for that time. So this is equivalent to sampling ~120 km of road. Given that a logging truck probably does around 50 kph, it would take about 2.4 hours for it to do the same journey. So, if I had remained stationary at the beginning of the road, it would have taken 2 + 2.4 hours to observe all 9 trucks. From this, we have a rough rate of about (9 / 4.4 = ) 2 trucks per hour coming out of the area. Assuming trucks only emerge during a 10-hour working day (which we know to be a fallacy, at least, in other areas), we can therefore say that 20 trucks came out that day, or (20 x 20 =) 400 trees.

Is this a big number? We can take a further leap of faith, using a figure for the number of logs (principally dipterocarp trees) that logging operations usually remove per hectare: around 15 (Curran et al. 1999, Science 286: 2184). This means that the 400 trees we calculated coming out in a single day represented 27 hectares of trashed forest. And this doesn’t include the forest destroyed to access, fell and transport these logs (skid trails, secondary roads, crash sites, logging camps etc). For the forest directly disturbed to access these logs, we can probably add an additional 15% onto our 27 hectares if we are being conservative, so 31 ha. Converting this to the standard SI unit of forest loss, this equates to about 50 football pitches! Obviously we should take this figure with a generous pinch of salt, but we’re probably in the right ball-park.

Maybe it’s just me, but this sounds like a lot of forest. What do you think?

The image of the lumbering logging truck, groaning under the weight of rainforest logs, is so often used that it’s easy to become desensitized to it. Regardless whether this calculation is worth the blog it’s written on, it still serves to remind me what a logging truck really represents.

Written May 2011

UPDATE: Some commentators have linked recent logging rushes (particularly horrific in the northern Ulu Segama area, decimating orangutan populations) with the Sabah Forestry Department’s widely-publicised aim to have all of its Forest Management Units FSC- certified as sustainable by 2014. Now, I would never entertain such thoughts (for one thing, my research permission depends on it), but some quarters have suggested that we could be seeing a last-ditch attempt to pull as many logs out of Sabah before the door is bolted.

The Forest Management Plan for the Maliau Basin is also up for review this year. There is talk of plans to re-log the buffer area. This area was logged as recently as the mid-1990s, giving it just 15-20 years to recover. A second round of logging could put pressure on one of the last remaining herds of Tembadau (a species of wild forest cattle currently assessed as Endangered on the IUCN Red List) in the region, and currently a common sight along the Maliau access road.

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We can’t palm off the basic questions

I’ve recently been trapping in the oil-palm plantations beyond our forested experimental area. Much as the Maliau Basin has set the bar for me on what we should expect from a piece of forested land, the oil palm plantations have helped to define what Malaysia (and SE Asia) envisions as their agricultural landscape. It has also offered me a vision of the future for much of the forested area we are working in, due to be turned into an oil palm monoculture from the beginning of 2012.

I should re-iterate that this forest clearance (of around 6000 ha, or 60 sq km) is emphatically not being done for scientific reasons, and has been pre-destined (and decreed by the Government of Malaysia) for more than two decades prior. Rather, the SAFE Project is attempting to capitalise on fore-warning of the clearance, in order to document and study, in a robust, scientific and defensible way, the exact impacts of oil palm plantation expansion on SE Asia’s rain forests. As results from the SAFE Project emerge, they will feed into the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) guidelines for oil palm producers. It is certainly not an “experiment” anyone in the project wishes to see repeated.

Oil palm plantations have been called many things and, try as I might, I do not think they are a vision of hell on earth, as Greenpeace would have you believe. Yes, the rivers are polluted, they are rat-infested, crawling with snakes, and hot (hellishly so, even). The associated soil disturbance also causes frequent landslides, and we don’t need to mention the big one: increased carbon emissions. But they are not part of some global conspiracy, mostly run by HSBC, to ruin us all. They are a (mostly) logical outcome of the way current economic markets value commodities: palm oil is going for 1000RM (£200) a tonne or thereabouts, whilst a piece of primary forest real estate currently has a near negligible marketable value. Acre-for-acre, the odds are stacked against wild nature. Everyone here aspires to settle down with a few acres of land and grow themselves rich with oil palm.

The figures speak for themselves but, spending some time in the plantations, you also start to warm to the oil palm habitat. It cannot compete with the beauty of lofty, emerald-green natural forest, but it can certainly be quite pleasant: the birds chirping, the sun shining, the workers chatting away, and grand views of rolling starbursts in every direction. As I am finding out, oil palm harbours some interesting wildlife too – like the short-tailed mongoose. I had a great experience following one for more than ten minutes, watching it whimper for its mate, re-unite and even have a skirmish with an angry Sumatran cobra.

If we are to retain more than the adaptable mongooses of this world – things like clouded leopards, sun bears and orangutans – then we need to try and work with the oil palm plantations to better design their landscapes. But we also need to work at a higher planning unit – we need to divert new plantations away from forested land (e.g. to the vast areas of natural and man-made grassland that exists in Borneo). In order to establish where the balance between these two approaches of extensification (designing heterogeneous landscapes of forest and oil palm) and intensification (stopping clearing of any forest whatsoever and focussing on increasing yields in existing plantations) should be, we need more information on what exactly can survive in the oil palm landscape, including the isolated remnants of forest (that’s where the SAFE project comes in). Surprisingly, given the intense media coverage given to the oil palm “issue”, very little primary research has actually been done on biodiversity in oil palm landscapes. Most of the literature, as Ed Turner and colleagues have recently shown, consists of people re-hashing the same, limited data (i.e. conducting meta-analyses). It also seems likely that the number of species thought to live in oil palm habitat has been routinely overestimated. This is because researchers often work at the oil palm / forest boundary (hey, we want to stay in rainforest lodges, not dengue-infested oil palm housing), so are recording species which may only rarely venture into oil palm (this problem repeatedly surfaced in a recent conference attempting to assess the prognosis for Borneo’s threatened small carnivores). A simple solution would be to always record the distance from the nearest forest edge with any species occurrence record, though this is rarely done.

My own project will hopefully shed light on all this from the mammal perspective. Even though mammals are a charismatic group, which often draws relatively more of the conservation budget, frustratingly the most basic questions still haven’t been answered when it comes to forest loss and oil palm plantations. These questions should be the bread-and-butter for conservation: for example, how much mammalian biodiversity is retained in fragments of different sizes and connectivity, and how many (and which) species simply drop out of the landscape all together? How important is intensively logged forest (the type of forest which is typically lost to oil palm) for mammals anyway? Are we better off focussing attention on the few areas of untouched old-growth forest remaining in Borneo? And what impact will changes in the composition and structure of mammalian communities have on key processes, such as the recruitment of canopy tree species, which together make for a functioning ecosystem in the long-term?

As a final quandary from my time in the oil palm landscape, on the morning of my last sampling day I heard a single gibbon (Hylobates muelleri, most likely a male) calling from one of the small riparian margins down in the valley. Hearing a gibbon in one of these remnant forest patches was notable enough, but the fact that it was a lone individual made it all the more poignant. Gibbons typically duet with their monogamous partners, so it made me wonder whether it had a mate and, if so, why it too wasn’t singing. Perhaps it was indeed alone, now cast adrift in an ocean of oil palm, i.e. the ecological equivalent of the living dead. As if to drive this point home, it was soon joined by, and then promptly drowned out by, the sound of a high-powered chainsaw coming from a neighbouring valley.

Written April 2011

Posted in Palm Oil, Scientific Research | Tagged , | 3 Comments

Sea gypsies and forest pygmies

If you want to be amazed by the world for 5 minutes, check this out: http://timothyallen.blogs.bbcearth.com/

Interestingly, they’ve done some shooting here in Sabah with the Bajau sea-gypsies. I visited one of their water villages down in Indonesia once – an experience I’ll never forget. This culture, just existing on stilts and plank walkways in the middle of the sea, reminded me of the film Waterworld so much.

Incidentally, the BaAka pygmy who features in two of the top 40 images is an old friend of mine. That’s Mongonje, notorious elephant-hunter turned game keeper. A gentle, quiet man – you would never know he fearlessly scales giant trees in his spare time! Goodness knows how much they paid him. Absolutely awesome shots though.

Here are my two-pennies worth. In 2008 I was lucky enough to go out on a honey-gathering trip with some BaAka in the Central African Republic. It happened to be just after I had a bad dose of malaria, and lost a lot of weight, so the plan was to fill me up with as much of the honey medicine as I could eat!

Posted in Misc, Travel | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment