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Borneo’s rainforest contains rich ecosystems and rare species, such as orang-utan, pygmy elephants and Sumatran rhino. But human activity has reduced this rainforest, endangering its wildlife. Swathes of forest have been cleared to make way for palm oil plantations. Heavy logging has also taken its toll.

Using science to understand nature

Borneo’s rainforest

Borneo’s rainforest is home to rare species such as orang-utan

Researchers are working to understand the impact of this forest degradation and fragmentation, and how best to manage the patches of remaining rainforest. Dr Glen Reynolds heads up a team at the Danum Valley Field Centre in the Sabah region of the island, supported by environmental charity Earthwatch. They examine all areas of the island’s varied landscape, from undisturbed forest to heavily logged sections and palm oil plantations.

“Our role is to investigate how forests respond to different levels of disturbance,” says Glen. “Through long-standing relationships with partners in Malaysia and across the region, we will deliver the results to policy makers, land-use planners, and forestry and plantation companies.”

Early findings show that laying down palm fronds and other organic waste on exposed soil in plantations can significantly reduce soil erosion, one of the major impacts of forest clearance. In degraded forests, equally simple measures can help the rainforest’s ecosystem to recover from the impact of logging activities. Climbers tend to spread in areas cleared by logging. Removing them lets in light for new seedlings to grow.

The research also suggests that tiny patches of forest that exist within plantations are especially vulnerable to the changing climate and may not survive in the future. Planting native tree species may help improve their resilience as environmental conditions change.

A helping hand

Dr Glen Reynolds leads the research team

Dr Glen Reynolds leads the research team

The permanent team of three project scientists relies on support from visiting volunteers, including those from Shell as part of the Project Better World partnership with Earthwatch. Shell volunteers spend two weeks working in forested areas, collecting soil samples for testing.

“We did simple tasks,” says Martin Doring, an operator at Shell’s Moerdijk refinery in the Netherlands who joined nine volunteers on the project in November 2011. “But this saved the research team weeks.”

Shell donates money to Earthwatch to support its volunteers and the research programme. In 2013 the company is donating around £600,000. “Without this funding, there would be no research programme,” says Glen.

The project has been running since 2010 and the first official findings – in the form of several PhD theses – are expected in late 2013. Ongoing observations are also published as they are made and shared with project partners.