Danau Girang Field Centre, Borneo


Led by its director, Dr. Benoit Goossens, a charismatic Belgian with a background in conservation genetics, Danau Girang attracts eco-minded students and scientists from Malaysia and around the world. The Culture Center sent our colleague, Dawn M. Rebecky, to witness this work first hand and this is her account.

Expedition Borneo: A Visit to the Front Lines of Rainforest Conservation

By Dawn M. Rebecky

When John Robertson, Cardiff University’s Director of Development and Alumni Relations, invited me to visit the Danau Girang Field Centre with a small group of New Yorkers, I thrilled at the thought of watching orangutans cut ginger swaths through the jungle, but politely declined. I was an armchair traveler: dazzled by books about wildlife, scenery, culture, but fearful of foreign tap water and live vaccines. A jungle adventure in Southeast Asia, even with the guidance of distinguished conservationists, seemed a path to personal ruin, or at least malaria.

John did his worst to persuade me. When I said, “Talk to me about leeches and mosquitoes,” he replied, “Let me tell you about the man-eating crocodiles first. If you’re on the river, you’re on the menu.”

But serendipity happens. The signs that I should seriously consider the trip – ranging from chance meetings with others who had traveled to Borneo to funding by The Culture Center to the choicest imaginable care for my ailing dog – were undeniable. “If I die in Borneo,” I affirmed, “then I was meant to die in Borneo.”

Within 24 hours of my arrival, I had been star-struck by elephants swimming across the river on their migration to the floodplains, crocodiles basking in thick mud (and paying very close attention to our boat), hornbills flying, proboscis monkeys and macaques leaping and posturing high in the trees. The orangutans were elusive. I knew they were shy, but learned they were more reluctant to reveal themselves because of the thundering elephants in close proximity.

It took 20 hours of air travel, eight hours of driving and one hour on a boat to reach this almost 70,000 acres of literal sanctuary. Despite the untamed and remote atmosphere, I felt soothed by mist rising from the Kinabatangan River, sheltered by the canopy of trees. For a spell, I forgot the urgency of conservation. I forgot that we were surrounded by the greatest threat to rainforest in this part of the world: approximately 1,500,000 acres of palm oil plantations.

Palm oil, a common ingredient found in everything from lip gloss to popcorn, is Malaysia’s main export and crucial to its economy. As demand for this vegetable oil increases – it now serves a higher purpose than snack food and is being used to create bio-fuels – the plantations expand, sometimes without regulations, or by defying them. Recent studies have shown that the rainforest in Malaysian Borneo is shrinking by almost 400,000 acres yearly. As a result, its inhabitants are increasingly isolated in small areas of remaining forest and left without enough food, nesting and mating options.

Palm oil trees are too short and sparsely planted to provide ample protection for most species. Primates wander onto plantations where they are considered a nuisance. They are often shot, starved or, without proper camouflage, succumb to natural predators. It has been estimated that only five different types of birds can survive in this homogenized landscape, an even more pitiful number when measured against the more than 300 types of birds, including all eight species of hornbills, at home in the Bornean rainforest.

There is hope in an international community of men and women wearing Tilley hats and mosquito repellant, allied with supportive government officials, including Dr. Laurentius Ambu, Director of the Sabah Wildlife Department, which owns the field centre. Dr. Ambu’s schedule is vigorous, and so is his generosity. He took time to dine with our small group and eagerly sought our impressions. This spirit of openness has enabled students and scientists at the field centre to help the Malaysian government develop official policies to minimize habitat fragmentation and re-establish a “wildlife corridor” along the Kinabatangan River. They have participated in colloquia with palm oil owners to explore sustainable farming and have invited them to the field centre to experience the vitality of a thriving rainforest.

Day-to-day, Danau Girang sets the scene for biodiversity assessment of all flora and fauna in the jungle. Animal tracking is done using collars and magnetic transmitters. GPS-based radio telemetry estimates home range and sleeping sites. Camera traps, purchased with funds raised by Cardiff University at The Culture Center in 2009, illuminate patterns of animal traffic and behavior that might otherwise go undocumented. Orangutans, native only to Borneo, have become the endangered mascot of the rainforest, but proboscis monkeys, sun bears, clouded leopards, bearded pigs, and samba deer are all unique to the area, and they are all threatened.

Some solutions are ingenious for how simple they are. Danau Girang has helped build rope bridges for animals stranded without trees for crossing rivers and other obstacles. By bridging gaps between isolated areas, Danau Girang hopes to restore gene flow through orangutan populations in particular, fundamental for their survival since they are the slowest breeding mammal and produce a single young once every six-to-eight years. Primatologists estimate there are 11,000 orangutans left, and though that figure may seem robust compared to the estimated 500 Sumatran tigers struggling for survival, persistent habitat loss and a slow reproduction rate make orangutans vulnerable to extinction within 10 years.

When I share my Borneo experience, people agree it is terrible that orangutans are struggling, but point out so too are polar bears and mustangs. Yes, the rainforest is worth fighting for, they say, but what about Haiti, New Orleans… a neighbor in need? How does a person choose where and how to help? At The Culture Center we wrestle with the same questions, but one fact remains clear: being informed has an extraordinary ripple effect.