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Borneo rain forest on verge of total destruction

The trees on the island of Borneo in Indonesia synchronize their reproduction with the onset of El Niño.  

December 14, 1999
Web posted at: 3:22 p.m. EST (2022 GMT)

By Environmental News Network staff

A rare tropical rain forest, where reproduction of the trees is intricately linked to the arrival of the El Niño weather phenomenon, faces imminent death due to increased logging and human-intensified climate change.

The loss of the forest, located on the island of Borneo and regarded as a unique ecosystem, would put a huge dent in the global economy. Timber exports contribute $8 billion annually to the Indonesian economy and provide 80 percent of the plywood used in the United States home building industry.

Saving the environment

"Degradation of dipterocarp forests will have repercussions both in Bornean terrestrial ecosystems and in regional economies with global implications in as yet unforeseen ways," researchers, led by ecologist Lisa Curran at the University of Michigan, write in the Dec. 10 issue of Science.

Dipterocarps are the main family of rain forest canopy trees in Indonesian Borneo. The trees synchronize their reproduction, called masting, to the onset of the El Niño Southern Oscillation, which occurs about once every four years.

"Climatic conditions of an El Niño year trigger simultaneous fruiting in dipterocarps and are essential for regional seed production," she said. "It's like Thanksgiving in the forest."

El Niño-induced forest fires and logging have all but killed Borneo's rain forest.  

Wild boar, orangutans, parakeets, jungle fowl, partridges and other animals congregate to stuff themselves. Local villagers collect baskets of seeds called illipe nuts to sell as a cash crop. Yet, since so much seed is produced, there is still enough leftover to germinate and produce a carpet of new seedlings.

The problem, the researchers discovered, is that intensive logging on the island around the Gunung Palung National Park over the past decade has reduced seed production from 175 pounds per acre in 1991 to 16.5 pounds per acre in 1998, even though 1998 was a major El Niño year.

According to the research, logging appears to reduce the local density and biomass of mature trees, reduces the spatial extent of masting and alters the forest's response to El Niño by disrupting soil conditions or causing extended drought stress.

"Even though the park is supposedly off-limits to logging, the forest is losing the ability to regenerate itself," said Curran. Seed predators, who can not find food outside the park, move inside the park to eat the dipterocarp seeds before they germinate.

In 1998 the scenario worsened when massive forest fires on nearby logging plantations destroyed an area the size of Costa Rica, brought pollution and intensified El Niño's drought, killing the few remaining dipterocarp seedlings.

"It's very sad, but unless the Indonesian government implements sustainable forestry practices, creates financial incentives to harvest responsibly and prevents clearing and burning for industrial plantations, this ecosystem will be unable to recover," said Curran.

NASA's next El Niño-watcher to launch Friday
June 15, 1999
Scientists: El Niño may slow global warming
April 15, 1999

Forest fire smoke inhibits rainfall, study says
Orangutans stranded, starving after fires
Bushmeat: Logging's deadly 2nd harvest
Papua New Guinea logging criticized
Forest fragmentation creating genetic bottleneck

Rainforest Action Netork
World Wide Fund for Nature
Conservation International
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