Battle for the heart of Borneo

Scientists have discovered many new species in the rainforests but illegal logging could condemn even well-known animals such as the orang-utan to extinction. Kathy Marks reports
Click to follow
The Independent Online

The mighty rainforests of Borneo teem with rare wildlife such as the famed orang-utan, the focus of energetic environmental campaigns. Scientists have discovered hundreds of other species deep in the wilds of the jungle, including tiny crabs and a gigantic cockroach, believed to be the largest in the world.

The mighty rainforests of Borneo teem with rare wildlife such as the famed orang-utan, the focus of energetic environmental campaigns. Scientists have discovered hundreds of other species deep in the wilds of the jungle, including tiny crabs and a gigantic cockroach, believed to be the largest in the world.

But their elation is tempered by the knowledge that these newly documented creatures are living in a land under threat. The forests of Kalimantan, the Indonesian portion of the island, are being logged at an alarming rate, habitats are being destroyed and endangered wildlife is being driven to the brink of extinction.

The discovery of 361 previously unknown species of insects, fish, frogs and lizards - detailed in a report today by the conservation organisation WWF - has given added urgency to calls for a crackdown on deforestation and illegal logging.

In Indonesia, two million hectares of forest, an area almost the size of Belgium, are cleared every year for urban expansion and to feed international demand for timber, rubber, palm-oil and paper. Even the government estimates that 70 per cent of logging is illegal, and environmentalists warn that if it continues at the present rate, most of the rainforests will disappear over the next two decades.

The new species, some of them found in limestone caverns in a remote corner of the tropical rainforest, have come to light over the past 10 years. They include 260 insects, 50 plants, 30 freshwater fish, seven types of frog, six lizards, five crabs, two snakes and a toad. The WWF suggests thousands more undiscovered species may exist on Borneo, particularly in the largest and most pristine remaining forests in the heart of the island, which is relatively inaccessible.

More than a dozen undocumented creatures were unearthed during a five-week expedition last year by a team of international scientists exploring a cave system deep inside remote east Kalimantan. The organisers, a US group called Nature Conservancy, believe others may be awaiting discovery among the far-flung cliffs, caves and waterfalls.

"In just five weeks, the expedition team discovered numerous new species previously unknown to science," the group's programme manager, Scott Stanley, said. "Who knows what else is out there? If something is not done soon to protect these areas, dozens of species could disappear before anyone knew they ever existed."

Indonesia contains one-tenth of the world's remaining tropical forests, with more than 70 per cent of its original forest cover already lost. It also has the greatest number of threatened species of any country, including the orang-utan, Sumatran tiger, clouded leopard, sun bear and Asian elephant.

But environmentalists are fighting a losing battle in Indonesia, where illegal logging is fuelled by poverty and the lure of huge profits, protected by corrupt security forces and local officials. The government acknowledges the severity of the problem, but successive administrations have failed to fulfil their promises to curb the trade.

Last year, Greenpeace activists staged a covert operation in central Kalimantan and documented what they called a "huge trade" in unauthorised timber felling and smuggling. A local group, Forest Watch Indonesia, believes the forests are being cleared at a rate of 3.8 million hectares a year, twice the government's estimate.

Forest Watch's director, Togu Manurung, said most of the timber went to regional markets such as Japan, China, Vietnam and Malaysia. But he believes a substantial amount of wood products end up in the European Union and the United States.

There was "no proper enforcement, no real strong political will from the government to solve the problem", Mr Togu said. "We're facing total forest destruction." Another group, the Telapak Indonesian Foundation, called on the government to "act seriously" in enforcing the law, saying the evidence was "right in front of them".

The timber poachers operate with virtual impunity, paying off local soldiers and politicians, and using violence to intimidate or eliminate opponents. The trade is highly organised, involving criminal syndicates of businessmen, shippers and loggers, in alliance with the military and forestry officials. At the bottom of the chain are impoverished villagers prepared to do the dirty work for a couple of dollars a day. An estimated 60 million Indonesians depend on the forests for their livelihoods, both legal and illegal.

Despite international entreaties, the government, absorbed by more pressing problems such as Islamic terrorism, a flagging economy and separatist wars, lacks the political will to tackle illegal logging.

In February, environmental activists uncovered what they described as the world's biggest timber-smuggling operation. They filmed secretly in the Indonesia province of West Papua, where they said 30,000 cubic metres of logs were being shipped to China every month, the equivalent of a shipload a day.

As well as destroying wildlife habitats, logging is blamed for landslides that have engulfed villages in remote areas. In Sumatra, tigers have killed 40 people in the past five years, including 18 last year alone, as the animals have been forced into ever-dwindling areas of forest and increasingly brought into contact with humans.

The WWF report says the illegal trade in exotic animals is on the increase, as logging trails and cleared forests open up access to more remote areas. Orang-utans, found only on Borneo and in the jungles of Indonesia's Sumatra island, are coveted by wealthy collectors in the United States and other Western countries. Hundreds of the orange-haired apes, usually babies, are smuggled out each year and can fetch up to £16,000 apiece.

Like other endangered primates in Indonesia, orang-utans are supposed to be protected under the Convention on International Trade on Endangered Species (Cites), to which Jakarta is a signatory. Scientists estimate there are only 60,000 left in the wild, about half of the population that existed a decade ago.

The orang-utans are trapped by traders who cut down the trees in which they live. Often, the babies fall to the ground, clinging to their mothers. The adults are killed, and the young packed in cardboard boxes for transportation. Smugglers usually ship five babies together, sedated, to ensure at least one survives the journey. The results of the trade can be seen at Jakarta's Pramuka market, where supposedly protected animals such as the siamang gibbon - a large ape - are displayed in filthy cages in back alleys. Pramuka, which covers an area the size of a football field, is said by wildlife campaigners to be Asia's largest black market for rare species. They say the trade in endangered creatures is rampant, and worth many millions of dollars a year. Demand is high, with the animals sold as pets or collectors' items, as well as for use in food or medicine.

There is little outrage about such activities in Indonesia, where illegal goods made from rare species are openly marketed. Department stores display jewellery and ornaments made from giant turtles and elephant tusks, and hawkers approach motorists in traffic jams, offering creatures such as the cuscus, a small marsupial.

Newspaper adverts and websites offer endangered animals, in various states, as "collectors' items". A stuffed Sumatran tiger can be had for about £1,300; tiger's penises are sold as aphrodisiacs, and their bones, claws and teeth powdered for use in traditional Chinese remedies for rheumatism and arthritis.

WWF Indonesia says about 30 Sumatran tigers are killed every year, and warns that the species could be extinct by 2010. The Javan rhino, once found in large numbers across south-east Asia, is critically endangered. It is slaughtered for its horn, which is also used as an ingredient in Chinese medicine.

Although the orang-utan is the best-known inhabitant of the Borneo jungle, the forests are also home to threatened species such as the clouded leopard and sun bear. Tessa Robertson, head of the forest programme at WWF's UK office, describes Borneo as "undoubtedly one of the most important centres for wildlife in the world".

That importance has been underscored by the discovery of the new species, which include a previously unknown catfish found in 2003. During last year's expedition in Kalimantan's Sangkulirang limestone peninsula, scientists swung on ropes to gain access to caves, where they found the huge cockroach, a giant millipede and a micro-crab. Louis DeHarveng, a French entomologist on the team, said Sangkulirang appeared to have some of the world's most diverse cave species. He said that nearly all of the insects collected were new to science.

Scott Stanley, of Nature Conservancy, said: "The team's discovery of such a wide variety of plants and animals, and particularly the high number of rare species found nowhere else on earth, shows the critical need to protect this area."

The WWF plans to work with the three countries that own chunks of Borneo - Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei - on an initiative aimed at conserving the "heart" of the island. It wants the governments to co-operate on safeguarding 220,000sq km of jungle by setting up a network of protected areas and sustainably managing the forest.

Ms Robertson said: "The forests of Borneo are crucial not just for the protection of wildlife, but also to safeguard water resources necessary for the prosperity of the island. Losing the heart of Borneo would be an unacceptable tragedy, not only for Borneo but also for all of Asia and the rest of the globe. It is really now or never."

Found, but almost lost

By Geneviève Roberts


The Borneo 'pygmy elephant' is a new subspecies of Asian elephant, discovered by the Sabah Wildlife Department. They are relatively tame and mild-tempered compared with other Asian elephants, and smaller. The DNA evidence shows Borneo's elephants were isolated 300,000 years ago from their cousins on mainland Asia and Sumatra. During that time, they grew smaller, with relatively larger ears, longer tails and straighter tusks. Their genetic distinctiveness makes them one of the highest-priority populations for conservation.


At 10cm (4ins) long, a newly discovered giant cockroach is believed to be the largest in the world. The monster was discovered last year in hard-to-reach caves deep in the jungles of the Sangkulirang peninsula, a 9,000-hectare limestone forest in Borneo.


In 1999, a dwarf, red-eyed tree frog from the prolific wildlife area of Sabah in Borneo was discovered. Named Philautus erythrophthalmus, it lives in oak forests 1,550m above sea level and has a golden-yellow colouration on the inner thighs and small rounded disks at the end of each finger. Unusually, its eggs hatch directly into froglets, skipping the tadpole stage.


The microeca crab is among the smallest of crustaceans. Found by scientists in the caves of the karst systems in the Sangkulirang peninsula of east Kalimantan, the orange-pink creatures have soft shells. Three more species of crab from the Parathlphusa group were found in 1995 and 1996. The species are in Sumatra, Borneo and peninsular Malaysia.