Carla Isati Octama
In February 2007, the three countries that share Borneo, the world’s third-largest island, signed on to a conservation and sustainable forest development program initiated by the World Wildlife Fund to protect a vast swath of forest.
Fives years on, officials concede that the Heart of Borneo program faces daunting challenges. In its latest status report on the area, the environmental organization notes that lowland forest in the 220,000-square-kilometer zone stretching across the island is under threat and needs immediate rescuing.
What makes the situation dire is that this type of forest is prime habitat for endangered species such as pygmy elephants, orangutans and rhinos.
In 2008, the Heart of Borneo report said lowland forests in the area were in good condition.
Stephan Wulffraat, forest and species conversation ecologist at WWF, attributed the decline to increased illegal logging and forest fires.
“The result showed 63 percent of remaining historic lowland rainforest is classified as good, but this is misleading because it’s now quickly becoming rare due to logging and forest fires,” he said.
He added that of the many types of tropical forest in the Heart of Borneo, however, the most threatened were heath forests. In the 2008 report, their condition was classified as fair. Now, very few swaths remain in Central and East Kalimantan.
“Even these are not pristine condition, as several areas have been burned in the past 25 years,” Wulffraat said.
“Their restoration is extremely difficult. Existing heath forest is 48 percent of historic levels compared with the proposed viable extent of about 60 percent.”
In 2000, WWF Germany made a dire prediction for Borneo’s forests. That year, 75 percent of the island was forested, and the group projected that by 2010 the forest cover would halve.
“Fortunately, the projection for 2010 didn’t happen,” said Adam Tomasek, the leader of the Heart of Borneo program.
However, he said huge areas of forested land were still lost, leading to the decline in the number of endemic species.
“In the last decade, at least 1.2 million hectares of Indonesia’s forests have been lost to large-scale logging activities and forest conversation,” he said.
While the populations of Bornean elephants and orangutans were categorized as fair in the new report, pygmy elephants are on the wane.
Their dwindling habitat means these endangered animals can now only be found in East Kalimantan and Malaysia’s Sabah and Sarawak states, according to the report.
“We found one pygmy elephant population in the northern part of East Kalimantan, where the population is still healthy,” Wulffraat said.
He added that particular population numbered between 30 and 80 individuals, far fewer than the estimated 1,500 pygmy elephants in Sabah.
Wulffraat said that based on the results of a recent survey in the Heart of Borneo area, he was optimistic that lowland forest cover could increase.
“Now the existence of the lowland rainforests is around 15 to 35 percent of the historical baseline [of 89,900 square kilometers], its presence is expected to rise to a good level of about 36 to 50 percent,” he said.
He added that the survey found some points of primary lowland forest.
“Within the Heart of Borneo the lowland forest [cover] is expected to increase. We try to target as realistically as possible,” he said.
Tomasek said that given the area’s key functions as forest cover, biodiversity habitat, water catchment and carbon sink, it was important that the management of the area should involve various stakeholders, including from the industrial and economic sectors.
“Fourteen of the 20 main rivers [in Borneo] are in the Heart of Borneo. Those rivers cover 70 percent of the island and are responsible for most of the fresh water on the island,” he said.
“Look at the deep impact to the economy without fresh water. Brunei, for instance, is dependent on fresh water from those rivers. Once you impact Borneo, there’s a high cost to the economic sector.”
He suggested applying green economic ideas to protect the Bornean forests as an alternative to more expensive orthodox economic principles.
Besides the government and the private sector, he said other stakeholders who should be more deeply involved in conservation efforts were nongovernmental organizations and the general public.
“We need to conserve Borneo for the welfare of present and future generations,” he said.
“If we want future generations to see Borneo and all its richness, we should protect it.”