Humanity is exalted not because we are so far above other living creatures, but because knowing them well elevates the very concept of life. E.O. Wilson, 1984

30 Jan 2016

Bornean Correspondence: Ghost Forests

Below is an article I was asked to submit to the Eden Project Magazine. It is part of the 2016 Spring Edition.

24 Jan 2016

Borneo Correspondence: The Wealth of Danum Valley

Danum Valley Field Centre
“Science is a great protector of natural rainforest” Glen Reynolds, Chief Scientist at SEARRP

Whilst the threat of deforestation in South East Asia remains high, the state of Sabah has been blessed with just enough forward thinking politicians, eager eco-tourists and devoted scientists, who have stayed the hand of those seeking a quick buck at the expense of the rainforest. Before logging could sweep across the territory, land was set aside for conservation and in 1980 this included the then unexplored Danum Valley.

The Danum Valley Conservation Area (DVCA) consists of 43,800 ha of primary rainforest, managed by Yayasan Sabah (Sabah Foundation) who fund this area through the commercial management of an adjacent 929,004 ha forestry concession. Whilst granting such a large area of forest protection alone is of merit, it was the opening of the Danum Valley Field Centre in 1986 which has secured this place in the hearts and minds of scientists and tourists alike across the world. For 30 years, the field centre has hosted an international array of scientists whilst continually championing local researchers. As a result, a wealth of knowledge and passion has been built, helping to ensure that the understanding and management of future forests is built on more solid foundations.

The South East Asia Rainforest Research Programme (SEARRP) has been a driving force behind much of the work conducted here. Initially run by the prestigious Royal Society, the world’s first scientific body, today SEARRP operates with the support of its participating universities. SEARRP’s director and chief scientist Datuk Professor Glen Reynolds MBE to give him his full title, has remained at the helm of Danum since starting his PhD here 20 years ago, and has foreseen the transition of the programme from supporting scientists with their own projects to the implementation of large scale collaborative ventures which seek to answer big questions on habitat change and forest functioning.

The incredibly talented botanist Mike Bernardus
As a scientist working here, I can safely say that the biological wealth of the forest is matched by the immeasurable talent, dedication and passion of personnel based here. It takes a certain person to work in a tropical forest, but such demands are increased tenfold when choosing to live and work here permanently. For the past 6 years, a team of Danum researchers have been undertaking the mammoth task of plotting the position and identifying every tree in a plot of 50 hectares. That is roughly 50 football pitches. That is approximately 250,000 trees, likely to be of well over 500 species. Day in, day out they dedicate themselves to the monotonous task of data collection, the fruit of this collective endeavour an incredible resource for field biologists. Once complete, this plot will be one of a global network across tropical regions, allowing for a greater understanding of how diversity is shaped and governed across the globe. Given the huge task of recording this mass of life, it is shocking to note an equivalent area of forest is lost to deforestation globally every minute according to WWF.

Danum Research Staff
The people of Danum, some born and raised, some migrants from neighbouring Indonesia, work alongside scientists to illuminate and unlock nature’s secrets. Their knowledge is staggering, gained not through formal scientific education, but by getting their hands dirty. It is they who make conducting research here such a humbling experience, as much as the forest’s breath-taking natural beauty. 

16 Jan 2016

Borneo Correspondence: PhD Insecurity

Although tropical fieldwork is physically demanding, I find the mental exertions of thesis writing much more challenging to deal with. Data analysis and its interpretation are bad enough, but a common pang experienced  by PhD students is an inferiority complex. Reading the work of your contemporaries and constantly challenging your own interpretation after months of work is tough to bare. This is not helped when working at a research institute such as the Danum Valley Field Centre, where I am following in the footsteps of a long line of dedicated, passionate and often brilliant scientists.

This morning, the straw that broke the camel's back was when I made the mistake of sitting down to read Alfred Russel Wallace's monumental 'The Malay Archipelago'. His towering achievements are nothing short of astounding (I will let Wikipedia do the talking), and I could not help but question my own worth. Of course it is ridiculous to measure yourself against the greats, in particular given that science today is a different ball game, a team sport rather than a solo event. Instead, my gains in research should be considered grains of sand, adding to a collective castle of scientific knowledge. Wallace achieved so much alone, but science today is made of the might of many, and I am proud to contribute whatever I can.