If mention of Borneo still conjures up images of endless steamy rainforests in your imagination, a reality check may be in order. New analysis of satellite data, reported today in Science, shows that deforestation on the island is hurtling on faster even than a pessimistic projection made by the World Bank 2 years ago.
The lowland rainforests of Borneo are among the biologically richest habitats in the world, so the fact that the island has been producing more timber over the past 2 decades than Latin America and Africa combined is worrisome. Most official timber concessions are already depleted, exposing the network of nature reserves to illegal logging, says tropical ecologist Lisa Curran of Yale University. To gauge the fate of the island's protected areas, a team led by Curran analyzed satellite images of Indonesian Borneo (Kalimantan) from the past 20 years. They checked the satellite data by flying over and walking through some areas.
"The hemorrhaging of wood is much, much worse" than had been thought, says Curran. Between 1985 and 1999, for example, most of the 10-kilometer-wide buffer zone around the 1000-square-kilometer Gunung Palung National Park was felled. Since then, forest within the park itself has been disappearing at a rate of 10% per year despite its protected status. The same hollowing-out of supposedly protected areas takes place throughout Kalimantan, where more than half of the forest cover has been lost from them since 1985, some 3 million hectares in all.
Most logging cartels are now raiding protected areas, and almost all of the illegal timber goes to international markets, says Curran, who spent over a decade doing fieldwork from logging camps. She thinks the dire situation is the result of the high commercial value of many of Borneo's tree species, years of overexploitation, forest fires, the growth of oil palm plantations, and the lack of government control because of vested interests in the logging and palm industries.
"This is a real wake-up call," says tropical forest ecologist Dan Nepstad of Woods Hole Research Center in Massachusetts. He thinks one of the ways in which the flow of illegal logs may still be stemmed is a system of marking sustainably harvested timber all the way from the stand to the end-consumer.
Illegal logging operations described by Telapak Indonesia, an environmental group
Monthly images of forest fire hotspots in Sumatra and Borneo on a site operated by Indonesia's Ministry of Forest and Estate Crops and the Japan International Cooperation Agency