Written by Mark E. Harrison (BNF’s Co-Director)
Borneo Nature Foundation aims to support conservation of biodiversity and ecosystems in Kalimantan. In line with this, an important component of our research is conducting surveys to assess the presence and abundance of flora and fauna species in forest areas. This is particularly important for species that are threatened and for which the scientific community knows relatively little, and in areas that have not been the subject of previous scientific study. Without such information and the ability to share this with the conservation community, we cannot identify where threatened species live, which forests/populations are most important for their conservation and the threats that they face. This, in turn, compromises our ability to justify conservation efforts in priority forest areas and thus to conserve species.
One example of this is our discovery back in the mid 1990’s that Sabangau is home to the world’s largest orangutan population, which was published in Biological Conservation in 2003. At that time, the Sabangau Forest was unprotected and subject to intense logging disturbance. While orangutans were known at the time to inhabit this area, our discovery that Sabangau was home to such a large population was one of the key pieces of evidence that led to Sabangau’s current heightened protection, including the establishment of Sebangau National Park in 2004. The forest remains threatened, but we believe less so than if we had not published this information. Further orangutan surveys by our team members at sites across Kalimantan have also generated data that has been/is being used to support arguments for increased forest protection.
On the flip side, there is of course the risk that revealing the location of a new population of a species could place it at increased risk, particularly if the species is a target of hunters or collectors, and forest protection is not strong. We are very conscious of the fact that examples exist in the conservation literature of this and any decision to publish the location of a newly discovered population is therefore considered carefully. Depending on the circumstances and informed where relevant by conversations with conservation authorities, this may lead to a decision to publish the exact location of a new discovery, a broad location or not to publish at all.
We recently published the broad location of a new population of the bay cat in Borneo, published in Cat News in 2017 (the journal of the IUCN Species Survival Commission Cat Specialist Group) and subsequently picked up by some media outlets. In this case, not only was the species found in a new area, but also in a new habitat type that is typically considered relatively unimportant for wildlife conservation and covers extensive areas across southern Borneo (mosaic heath/peat-swamp forest mosaic). The area in question is not currently formally protected and is at risk of conversion, but we are working to secure protected status for the forest and implement conservation efforts in this forest. The discovery of such a unique threatened species in the general area is important evidence in our argument to protect the forest and to obtain the popular, political and financial support needed to do this, as recognised by the IUCN in their assessment of the bay cat (see here). That is particularly so given the legally protected status of the species in Indonesia.
The decision on whether to publish the location of new species discoveries is an important but difficult one, with risks and potential benefits associated with decisions to both publish and not publish. We take such decisions incredibly seriously and bases these purely on consideration of the balance of risk vs. benefit for the species and its forest home. In so doing, we hope that such discoveries will continue to further our mission to conserve biodiversity and ecosystems in Kalimantan.