The Sarawak state government in Malaysia commissioned the Planted Forests Project in an attempt to have it all: economic development, wildlife protection, and land use by local people.
Nearly 1,900 square miles have been allocated for the planted forests zone. Slightly less than half the land is earmarked for the logging of acacia trees—a fast-growing species that can be harvested for paper. More than 30 percent of the land will be set aside for conservation. Indigenous people will continue to live on the remainder.
Biologist Robert Stuebing, who set up the conservation department of Grand Perfect (the government’s timber contractor), says the project was inspired by a map of the region showing where the government planned to plant acacia.
Some areas would be used for the logging plantations, while others would be left alone. Stuebing realized that the network of undisturbed patches could serve as a haven for native plant and animal life. “Even if less than the whole habitat is protected,” he explains, “as long as you have enough bits and pieces and these are connected, you might be able to maintain a good sample of biodiversity.” Working with the loggers and the state forest department, he created corridors of land linking the forest conservation areas so wildlife can travel among them.
Other conservation and development projects are also using protected passageways as a way to save native species. The question for all these initiatives is whether the corridors will actually allow enough movement to preserve populations of wildlife.
Stuebing’s first priority was to begin an inventory of what was living in the forest zone. Researchers have counted bearded pigs, deer, small mammals, birds, frogs, fish, and dragonflies and are now in the process of surveying fungi.
The department keeps a log of every species identified, where it was sighted, whether it is endemic (exclusive to the region), and what its international and local protection status is. Despite previous logging and farming in the planted forests zone, more than 400 vertebrate species, including bears, civets, macaques, leopard cats, mongooses, pangolins, and porcupines, have been spotted there. Researchers have even discovered 18 snails that have never been seen anywhere else on Earth. “The beauty of the project was to see that there was such resilience and survivability of the fauna,” Stuebing says.
How the giant new acacia plantations will affect this diversity remains uncertain. Some carnivores, frogs, and squirrels seem to have taken to the planted areas more quickly than birds, bats, and snakes.
With a considerable financial stake in the logging project, the government is unlikely to give up on the acacia stands, even if monitoring shows that they are harming biodiversity. But in a part of the world where human livelihood depends on the forest, this experiment at integrating wildlife protection into the mix is a big step in the right direction, Stuebing says: “It looks sustainable, and biologically, I really think this model will work well.”
If he’s right, sustainable developers around the world may copy his strategy as they struggle to balance the needs of humans and wildlife.