Borneo is the largest island in Asia and the third largest in the world. Home to around 10,000 species of plant (that’s more than the entire continent of Africa), 380 species of bird and dozens of vulnerable and endangered animals, Borneo represents an ecological diversity rarely seen.
Sadly, in recent years, the habitats of the island have come under threat from logging and commercial land use. Borneo’s rainforests are some of the oldest in the world but in recent decades these have been stripped for rubber, timber and to clear space for palm oil plantations. A report by the World Wildlife Federation in 2001 predicted: “If the current trend of habitat destruction continues, lowland forests in Borneo may be lost.”
Loss of these habitats would be disastrous for some of the most vulnerable creatures living on the island.
One of the most endangered animals on the planet, there are fewer than 100 Sumatran rhinos left in the wild. They’re a unique creature – more closely related to the extinct Woolly Mammoth than any other rhino, the course hair covering their bodies echoing back to prehistoric times.
A herbivore and living in lowland rainforest, the Sumatran rhino is an unusually solitary animal. Encounters between rhinos, in particular the more strongly territorial females, often results in fighting and injury. For this reason, deforestation is a particular threat to these animals, destroying not only their vital food sources but also forcing animals into territories that are far too small for them. According to the International Rhino Foundation, populations have declined by 70% in the past 20 years.
Probably Borneo’s most iconic animal, the Borneo orangutan is also seriously threatened by habitat loss. Early in 2016, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUNC) changed the Borneo rangutans' status from endangered to critically endangered, with one of the authors of the report saying that Orangutan conservation is failing”.
In 2010 the IUNC found that although Borneo has made efforts to protect land for orangutans, only 56% of the available land was suitable for the primates to live in. In addition to habitat loss, orangutans are also threatened by hunting, with villages in rural areas killing hundreds of orangutans every year for meat. The dual problems of habitat loss and hunting are related, as University of Oxford wildlife ecologist Amy Dickman has pointed out: "People are very focused on habitat loss, which they need to be, but that often leads to a tipping point where the wildlife goes into human-dominated land, causes conflict, and gets killed very quickly."
Though clouded leopards are more wide spread than some of the other vulnerable species in Borneo, their status within Borneo differs from other areas where the cats can be found such as India. Because habitat loss is significantly worse in Borneo (down 75% since the 1980s according to the WWF) the leopards lose hunting ground and are frequently forced into confrontations with humans. Habitat loss on islands will always represent more significant impacts on the ecology of the area, since dispersal of species elsewhere is not possible.
Borneo is also a hot spot for illegal animal trade. In 2015, Javan authorities seized 2,700 birds being illegally smuggled out of Borneo. That same year, a worrying report suggested that declining tiger populations worldwide were having a knock on effect for clouded leopards, as poachers turned to them as an easier, and relatively more wide-spread, target.
Borneo Pygmy Elephant
Endemic to Borneo, these elephants are genetically different from larger Asian elephants on the mainland, making them a whole separate species, the result of having evolved separately on the island over hundreds of thousands of years.
There are fewer than 1500 of these elephants left in the wild. Their main threat is clearing of habitat for palm oil plantations. As with many other endangered species in Borneo, this often forces the animals closer to human settlements. Although illegal, many villages set traps for small game which are caught for meat, pygmy elephants, because of their relatively small size, have been known to become trapped in these snares and become badly injured.
Borneo pygmy elephants are one of the least understood species of elephant on earth, but are believed to be far more gentle and timid than their closest relative, the Asian elephant.
So what can you do to help?
Avoid palm oil products and only buy sustainable timber and rubber. Increasing demand for sustainable products and decreasing demand for destructive products like palm oil can help to slow down habitat loss.
Many charities and non-profit organisation in Borneo rely on donations to continue their work. Heart of Borneo have been operational since 2010 and support a range of conservation projects across the country, including in difficult to reach rural areas. They also run local education programmes to help people in rural areas understand the importance of the wildlife around them.
There are a number of voluntary projects in Borneo that require a yearly roster of tourist volunteers. For tourists visiting the region, you could consider helping out at one of the animal refuges set up to rehabilitate illegally trafficked animals, such as Tabin Wildlife. As well as vets and educational professionals, many of these projects need willing and able animal lovers to simply help out day to day feeding animals, cleaning enclosures and doing other tasks.
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