If the current rate of deforestation continues, Borneo - the world's third largest island - could lose most of its lowland forests in less than ten years, according to a new WWF report. This would seriously jeopardise the long-term survival of pygmy elephants and orang-utans, as well as the island's future economic potential. By 2020, the remaining populations of orang-utans may be too small to be genetically viable due to fragmentation of their habitat, WWF says.

The report Treasure island at risk supports a 2001 World Bank report that predicted all lowland rainforests in Kalimantan - the Indonesian part of Borneo - would disappear by 2010, and predicts an uncertain future for the island's remaining forests. Today, only half of Borneo's forest cover remains, down from 75 per cent in the mid 1980s. With a current deforestation rate of 1.3 million hectares per year - an area equivalent to about one third of the size of Switzerland - only peat and montane forests would survive in the coming years. According to the report, forest fires, the conversion of forests to plantations, and rampant logging are driving the destruction of Borneo's forests.

"The consequences of this scale of deforestation will not only result in a major loss of species but also disrupt water supplies and reduce future economic opportunities, such as tourism, and subsistence for local communities," said Dr Chris Elliott, Director of WWF Global Forest Programme.

The report shows that there are about 2.5 million hectares of oil palm plantation in Borneo, and that is on the increase. It also reveals that, although banned, logging is still frequent in the national parks of Kalimantan.

WWF aims to assist Borneo's three nations (Brunei, Indonesia and Malaysia) to conserve more than 22 million hectares of rainforest in an area known as the 'Heart of Borneo' - a quarter of the island's land. This will help to sustain what is the last large block of forest remaining in the mountainous interior of Borneo and ensure that the forest will provide benefits to the people living in and downstream of this area. It is hoped that the adoption of this initiative by all stakeholders will save the island from the ultimate threat of deforestation and increased impacts from droughts and fires.

A first positive result was achieved with the recent closure of one of the unofficial timber crossing points from Indonesia into Malaysia. This effectively cut off the illegal timber trade flow from Betung Kerihun in Indonesia.

"It has become clear that without cooperation between Borneo's three nations, the fate of even the remotest parts of Borneo is uncertain," said Stuart Chapman, International coordinator of the Heart of Borneo Initiative. "In the Heart of Borneo we can still achieve conservation on a big scale and win before we are left with small, fragmented forest patches. This opportunity has to be seized and action taken quickly."

More than 210 mammals, including 44 which are found nowhere else in the world, live on Borneo. Between 1994 and 2004 at least 361 new species were discovered and new ones are constantly being found.


Subscribe to IEMA's newsletters to receive timely articles, expert opinions, event announcements, and much more, directly in your inbox.