Conservation news

Borneo’s disappearing forests

Borneo’s forests disappear while 361 animal species discovered in past decade

Borneo’s disappearing forests
361 new species discovered in past decade
But remote jungles still fall
Rhett Butler,
April 26, 2005

Borneo, the third largest island in the world, was once covered with dense rainforests. With swampy coastal areas fringed with mangrove forests and a mountainous interior, much of the terrain was virtually impassable and unexplored. Headhunters ruled the remote parts of the island until a century ago.

Rainforest in Borneo

In the 1980s and 1990s Borneo underwent a remarkable transition. Its forests were leveled at a rate unparalleled in human history. Borneo’s rainforests went to industrialized countries like Japan and the United States in the form of garden furniture, paper pulp and chopsticks. Initially most of the timber was taken from the Malaysian part of the island in the northern states of Sabah and Sarawak. Later forests in the southern part of Borneo, an area belonging to Indonesia and known as Kalimantan, became the primary source for tropical timber. Today the forests of Borneo are but a shadow of those of legend.

Rainforest destruction

Yesterday the World Wildlife Fund released “Borneo’s Lost World: Newly Discovered Species on Borneo,” a report showing that at least 361 new species have been identified and described on the Asian island between 1994 and 2004: 260 insects, 50 plants, 30 freshwater fish, 7 frogs, 6 lizards, 5 crabs, 2 snakes and a toad. Much of the island’s wildlife species — even the largest mammals — have yet to be closely studied by scientists. For example, WWF and other scientists just discovered in 2003 that Borneo’s pygmy elephants — isolated from mainland Asian elephants when Borneo was cut off from the mainland around 18,000 years ago — are genetically distinct from other Asian elephants and are likely a new subspecies.

Despite these discoveries, Borneo’s forests continue to be destroyed at an alarming pace. Recent research by Dr. Lisa Curran suggests that in Indonesia’s Western Kalimantan “protected” lowland forests decreased by more than 56 percent between 1984 to 2001. Parks supposedly off limits to loggers have fallen as laws are ignored by timber barons with political connections, while large areas of forest in Borneo have been cleared for palm oil and rubber tree plantations that, in many cases, have yet to be planted. While logging has today been banned over much of the island, timber smuggling is rampant. Further, fires set for land clearing periodically burn thousands of hectares of forest and surrounding areas casting a “haze” over much of the region.

Fires on Borneo and Sumatra
NASA image created by Jesse Allen, Earth Observatory,
using data obtained from the MODIS Rapid Response team

The destruction of Borneo’s rainforests and other ecosystems, like its peat lands, has put many of the island’s species at risk. Threatened species in Borneo include orangutans, elephants, rhinos, clouded leopards, sun bears and Bornean gibbons. According to the WWF report, the island is also home to at least “10 primate species, more than 350 bird species, 150 reptiles and amphibians and 15,000 plants.”

Orangutan. Photo by Jen Caldwell

“Borneo is undoubtedly one of the most important centers of biodiversity in the world,” says Tom Dillon, director of species conservation at WWF. “Losing the heart of Borneo would be an unacceptable tragedy not only for Borneo and its people, but also for the world. It is really now or never.”

It is not too late to save Borneo’s remaining forests. WWF has launched an effort with the three countries that share the island to “conserve the area known as the ‘Heart of Borneo’ — a total of 137,000 square miles of equatorial rain forest — through a network of protected areas and sustainably managed forest.” Doing so will require international cooperation led by the governments of Borneo and supported by a global effort that includes contributions from western countries.

This report used information contained in the “Borneo’s Lost World: Newly Discovered Species on Borneo” press release from WWF and earlier articles on

Related reading:

  • Borneo’s peat lands going up in smoke April 21, 2005
  • Kalimantan at the Crossroads: Dipterocarp Forests and the Future of Indonesian Borneo April 13, 2005