Trekking in tropical forests has long attracted people, despite the stifling humidity and temperature and the increased likelihood of being bitten, infected, scratched by spines (from plants or caterpillars) or getting completely lost in the disorienting landscape.
On a bad day I get claustrophobic and exhausted; on a good day the forest is one of the most incredible places on earth. The smells, sounds and cooling shade under a true tropical canopy is an experience never to forget. Sadly, it is an experience with dwindling possibilities. I am in Borneo writing this article after having spent two months collecting data with the SAFE (Stability of Altered Forest Ecosystems) Project.
The project, the largest ecology experiment in the world and open to all scientists, is set up in 7000 hectares of logged forest between two of the most important conservation sites in South East Asia, Maliau Basin and Danum Valley. Incredibly, in Sabah, the Malaysian province covering the north of Borneo, there is no longer any unmodified tropical forest that isnt protected as a reserve. The rest of the landscape is either Oil Palm plantation or logged forest. Trekking through the SAFE Project sites to collect data is rarely like the stunning tropical forest scene that many people will have in their minds. Logging opens up the ground to light and a profusion of plants shoot up to around two metres above the ground. Monotonous ginger, rattan with its spines perfectly placed to rip your skin, and thick grass which cuts like a paper-cut is everywhere. I had, perhaps foolishly imagined selectively logged forest this has been pretty much clear felled except for a few token trees. Saying that, biodiversity in logged forest doesnt suffer as much as you would expect.
Most groups so far studied maintain relatively high abundance, and ground flora increase in diversity as well as abundance. So far so good, but logged forest such as this doesnt remain so. Everything except for the fragments of forest SAFE will be monitoring will be converted to Oil Palm plantation over the next year or two. The last forest connecting Maliau and Danum will pass into history. And if the diversity of species in logged forest is an encouragement, the diversity of species in Oil Palm is a nosedive. I probably dont need to explain what damage an endless monoculture of an imported species does to an ecosystem. The encouraging results that SAFE will no doubt produce over the next ten years will tell us how much forest you need to conserve a certain amount of biodiversity.
This will hopefully be adopted in a similar way that hedgerows as corridors have been in the UK. Indeed, Malaysian law already stipulates that 30 metres of forest has to be left on either side of a waterway. Sadly, most that I've seen here appear to be logged forest. Before I finally left the forest (logged and unlogged) I climbed the highest mountain in the area with a friend. At 930m its no giant, but there are no paths or proper maps and we ascended at around 750 metres/hour with a trusty GPS, hacking our way through dense patches. Above 850m the forest changed completely from lowland dipterocarp forest to elfin woodland and finally to heath forest, where gnarled shrubs and giant clumps of moss are the order of the day. None of the other scientists at the camp knew about this.
This tiny island of heath forest must have been separated by a similar ecosystem by tens of miles. I have no idea where the nearest example is. That it survives and sustains is fantastic. But that it shows something of the resilience of nature is also true. Tropical forest is something not to lose. That there is only 700km2 left in Sabah (as opposed to 14,000km2 of Oil Palm plantation) is sad. But take a step into what is left, to see the majesty of those giant trees, and at least we can be grateful that large swathes are protected.
Any traveller or explorer, or human for that matter has to content themselves amidst landscapes that have been modified permanently by us. Many have lost much of their beauty, diversity and attraction for adventurers. That the products of this modification support the modern lifestyle, including travel, is also true.
Sometimes when travelling we think about all that has been lost in the transition to the world today. SAFE will be a heartbreaking process, giving us the raw data as a landscape is transformed and species such as the eight hornbill species go locally extinct. Looking back in 10 years time and expanding these 7000 hectares outwards, we will have a poignant reminder of what has been lost."