Oil Palm Plantation, Sabah, Borneo, March 2015. Alex Latour photo.

Malaysian Borneo’s Threatened Biodiversity

You’ve arrived in Kota Kinabalu, jumping-off point for Sabah tourism.

It’s midnight, it’s taken you more than a day of travel to reach Borneo, and you’re finally stumbling through customs. What’s heavier — bags or eyelids?

Heat and humidity oppress; fusion of raw sewage and fish markets overwhelm. You’ve been fantasizing about jungle adventures since this trip was conceived. But now that it’s actually happening, you dream instead about a cool pillow and a warm shower. Those jungle adventures loom just around the corner, but Malaysian Borneo’s landscape will remain a mystery until the next day.

Danum Valley Conservation Area, Sabah, Borneo. March 2015. Alison Vilag photo.

The next morning you’re still tired, but your excitement has been rejuvenated. A one-hour flight is all that stands between you and the town of Lahad Datu, gateway to Danum Valley Conservation Area — your first stop in a two-week tour of the region’s wildlife and beautiful places.

Protected from logging and poaching and filled with huge trees and abundant wildlife, Danum is a remarkable tract of rainforest. It’s a natural destination for someone wanting to experience the island’s natural treasures. The plane lifts off the shimmering runway and you look down, eagerly awaiting an aerial introduction to this place host to so many unique organisms, ecosystems, cultures.

Is it a shock when your first daylight hour in Borneo is spent suspended not over thick jungle, but rather over a homogeneity of oil palm plantations? So much for diversity. How about when instead of wild rivers, tributaries of logging roads trace vegetation-stripped hills, leading from plantation to refinery? To me, it was shocking. I hope that every visitor to Sabah who sees this view is equally sickened.
Oil palm plantation near Telupid (?), March 2015. Alex Latour photo.

Sabah, for all its beautiful places holding incredible biodiversity, has been plagued by oil palm plantations.

Palm oil is an innocuous-sounding ingredient commonly used in processed foods and cosmetics. Your chocolate, your margarine, your lipstick — there’s a good chance that palm oil lurks in the ingredient list. This is bad.

Oil palm plantations are inhospitable to most of Borneo’s charismatic wildlife. In fact, only 15 percent of species found in tropical rainforest can also live in the plantations (Trends in Ecology and Evolution, 2008).

Borneo is one of the most biodiverse areas on the planet. Interestingly, regions with high biodiversity often have high poverty, too.

Sabah, Borneo, March 2015. Alex Latour photo.

In Indonesia, one of the countries sharing Borneo (and another huge palm oil source), nearly 40 percent of the population live at or below the poverty line — a whopping $22.6/person/month. There, the oil palm industry employs 0.4 people per hectare.

Oil palm seems like a savior to economic problems. The tree has an incredibly high yield, able to be harvested two times per month. And in Sabah, the average annual yield of palm oil is 4.3 tons/hectare.

Each year, millions of people come to Borneo in hopes of connecting with its charismatic fauna — orangutans. Slow loris. Asian pygmy elephants. You try to get anywhere in Sabah and you’ll be driving for hours through plantations, or stuck for what feels like an eternity of hairpin turns behind a diesel-belching truck transporting the fruit through the mountains at 5 kilometers per hour. You can’t get away from it.

How many people, though, realize that the very species that they are there to observe and photograph are imperiled by oil palm? I worry that few see the connection.
Malaysia’s national bird, Rhinoceros Hornbill. Sabah, Borneo, March 2015. Alex Latour photo.

It’s easy to do. Your guides are paid to find you the animals, not show you the places no longer conducive to hosting them. Your priorities are things like clouded leopards and hornbills — not facing the repercussions of your consumption.

For a few years, I’ve “known” in my head that oil palm is bad. Someone on the internet would post a photo of a sad orangutan; I’d overhear conversation about the atrocities of oil palm plantations in Southeast Asia. Yet, this surface knowledge did not permeate my being. There was no lasting impact. The thoughts had no permanency.

Sure, I “knew” that oil palm was bad, but it did no wrongs to me.

After having spent more than a month of 2015 in Borneo, I know palm oil is inexcusable from a pro-biodiversity perspective. At the same time, I acknowledge that it’s not fair that I judge all this from my comfortable American privilege. I can’t understand what it’s like to be struggling as a country toward economic stability.

Is there a way to use Borneo’s forests for economic gain while maintaining their biodiversity and integrity? In the next installment, look for a hopeful solution I also experienced while traveling in Borneo.

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