My journey to Borneo: A zookeeper’s dream of learning in the rainforest

Assistant carnivore supervisor Lisa Van Slett guest blogs on ZooHoo!

Lisa's fieldwork focused on dipterocarp trees, which create the iconic picture of the Bornean rainforest.

Lisa’s fieldwork focused on dipterocarp trees, which create the iconic picture of the Bornean rainforest.

Borneo is a place I’ve always dreamed of visiting, but I didn’t think it would ever become a reality. I had a college professor who used to share stories of doing research on orangutan vocalizations there. He told us about the dense peat swamp jungles, and how they’d wear waders to walk through the swamps while holding recording equipment up in the air, listening to the calls of the orangutans. Even though I didn’t want to get into that water, I knew it was a special island that I needed to add to my bucket list.

Since 2001, I’ve worked with primates, but I’ve always wanted to observe endangered orangutans in the wild. This past year, I was one of the lucky recipients of an Earthwatch Expedition Fellowship in Malaysian Borneo, where I worked on an important research project for eight days in the middle of the jungle.

Each year, the Dallas Zoo awards a few staff members an Earthwatch Expedition Fellowship. Earthwatch is an environmental charity that engages people worldwide in scientific field research to promote understanding and action for a sustainable environment. It’s pretty much the greatest experience for anyone who has ever had the childhood dream of doing fieldwork in the wild.

With her love of trees and primates, Lisa was a perfect fit for this Earthwatch expedition.

With her love of trees and primates, Lisa was a perfect fit for this Earthwatch expedition.

I was honored to be awarded the one fellowship I wanted so badly, which was being offered for the first time: “Climate and Landscape Change in Borneo’s Rainforest.”

The problem

Borneo’s the third-largest island in the world and is shared by Malaysia, Indonesia, and Brunei. It contains some of the oldest forests, dating back 130 million years. Borneo’s rainforest is one of the biodiversity hotspots of the world, containing 15,000 species of flowering plants, 3,000 species of trees, 221 species of mammals and 420 species of birds.

Several Earthwatch researchers are involved in various locations in Borneo, all with different focuses.  My group’s focus was on dipterocarp trees. Although the name isn’t well-known, the dipterocarp is the giant canopy tree that towers above all the rest. Dipterocarps create the iconic picture of the Bornean rainforest. Gibbon apes use the platform of this tree to make their territorial calls across the valleys as the sun rises on the misty, rainy mornings. These massive trees can grow upwards of 80 meters and live for 200 years.

The team trekked daily through the thick rainforest.

The team trekked daily through the dense tropical rainforests.

In 1996, logging and commercial activities were banned in Danum Valley, a dipterocarp forest in Sabah, Malaysia, when it received the status of Protection Forest Reserve. Until then, some areas were logged, making it an optimal area to study the theories on sustainable logging.

It’s logical to think that over time a forest will regenerate and correct itself, and part of this project’s goal was to see if that is true. Some logging companies planted new trees where they removed others, but they only planted a few types of trees. Different species can be affected by weather patterns, so if the conditions are not correct, they will lose most of the trees they planted.

Another big concern that is being analyzed is forest fragmentation. Even if a patch of land is untouched, depending on the size it can only sustain a certain amount of wildlife. If there are not corridors between the forest fragments, the wildlife cannot look for new breeding opportunities or forage for food.

It’s also important to consider fragment shape rather than just size. Scientists have shown that there is an important correlation between forest edge and center. For example, if a forested area is long and thin, there is more edge than protected center. Edges tend to be thinner in tree density and are often affected by whatever is boarding the forest. It gives people more access to the wildlife. There has been so much deforestation and fragmentation in Borneo that these researchers are trying to analyze each fragment to see if what is left is still sustainable.

Researchers measured the diameter of trees, described the surroundings, looked for evidence of wildlife, and placed markers for the next group.

Researchers measured the diameter of trees, described the surroundings, looked for evidence of wildlife, and placed markers for the next research group.

The crucial goals of our research were:

  • To assess baseline levels of plant diversity as a measure of overall diversity by visiting forests with different levels of disturbance.
  • To assess how reforestation of forests can be best achieved by monitoring survival and growth of planted tree seeding.
  • To assess degraded and fragmented forests’ ability to maintain ecosystem functioning by measuring decomposition.
  • Establish the susceptibility of forest to erosions by measuring soil moisture levels.

Adding to the problem: Palm Oil

One of the major issues in both Malaysia and Indonesia is palm oil. Companies are cutting down the trees that are worth money, then burning the rest of the land to clear it. That means anything in the way is lost. Most recently, one-third of Indonesia was on fire because of illegal slash-and-burns. Once the land is cleared, oil palms are planted.

Animals can’t live in the plantations, so once the land is converted, the only use is for people. This land is being cleared at a rate of 300 soccer fields per hour. It is thought that 98% of the forests will be gone by 2022. At these rates, orangutans and Sumatran tigers could be extinct within 5-10 years. The Sumatran rhino was just declared extinct in the wild in Malaysia.

Palm oil is in 40-50% of our products, and the demand for it is growing exponentially. It is just a type of vegetable oil, so it is easily masked into our daily lives. The problem isn’t with the oil itself, but with the process by which it is harvested. Many of the plantations are being farmed illegally on protected land. There is sustainable palm oil, but it accounts for only about 16% of the farms.

The expedition

Lisa pictured top row, second from left with her Earthwatch team.

Lisa pictured top row, second from left with her Earthwatch team.

Traveling to Borneo isn’t easy. First, I took a 16-hour flight to Hong Kong, where I had a 20-hour layover.  Next, I hopped on another plane for a three-hour flight to Kota Kinabalu, the main city in Sabah, Malaysia. I met up with the nine people in my group for a jungle safety class, then headed back to the airport to fly to the other side of the island. An hour later, we landed in Lahad Datu, then took a two-hour jeep ride into the jungle, where we arrived at the first field station in Danum Valley in Sabah. Whew.

My group was a mix of volunteers and Shell Oil employees. Some people had been on other Earthwatch expeditions, while others were retired from their normal jobs and wanted an adventure.

At our first field station, we got to see a true primary forest that hadn’t been logged or disturbed. That evening, we had a lecture from one of the scientists explaining the ecosystems of the area and discussing the risks of deforestation and forest fragmentation in this region.

On our first morning, we made the two-hour drive to our final destination: Malua, our field station in a fairly primitive forest.

Lisa planted dipterocarp saplings in the forest.

We had sheltered cabin areas with cots covered in mosquito nets. The showers and bathrooms were not completely enclosed, so we often had to share with local critters. A generator turned on for a few hours a day, but if you wanted to shower at any other time, you had to go down to the river. The river helped cool us down after long hikes. The temperatures were in the upper 90s with 90 percent humidity. Even when it was raining, it didn’t cool down much. When we were in the jungle, the air was thick and extremely muggy. Somehow it felt hotter than Texas!

We were lucky enough to have local women as our cooks. They had meals prepared for us three times a day and boiled the water so it was always safe to drink.

My first morning in Malua, I shot out of bed so abruptly I scared the woman next to me. I heard gibbons! Two different gibbons called out to each other in the morning rain. These apes can be heard almost a mile away.

I worked with gibbons at the Zoo for about eight years and was very excited at the chance to see one in the wild. Apparently that’s not very common since they are shy, and the guides laughed when I told them about my goal. At least I got to hear them each day!

Lisa learned jungle survival skills in the forest.

Lisa learned jungle survival skills in the forest.

Most of us got up early so we could walk up and down the road and look for wildlife. There was evidence that there had been Borneo pygmy elephants on the roads in recent weeks, although we did not run into any at this camp. (I did find some later in the trip along the Kinabatangan River.)

Each day we went to different parts of the forest for our research, typically on two-hour drives along windy, rocky dirt roads. We saw monkeys, bearded pigs, deer, and one long black cobra crossing the road! We measured the diameter of trees, described the surroundings, looked for evidence of wildlife, and placed markers for the next group. The hikes were not always on trails and there were several times we had to backtrack because even the guides got turned around.

At times there were so many vines, the guides used machetes to clear the paths. However, this wasn’t much of a problem on the days we hiked through the logged forests, because they were so clear. There were even paths made for the logging equipment. Some replanting had been done by the logging companies, but one issue was clear: they used limited tree species and the planted trees were in very structured lines. It no longer looked like a wild jungle. Different animals use different trees for a variety of reasons. When their options are removed, it can cause problems with nest building, foraging, and breeding.

In the afternoons, we built equipment for making plots in the field. We typically finished off our hard work with a swim in the clear river. It was the only time we really felt cool! We had a couple of hours of free time in the late afternoon and then different lectures after dinner.

An incredible end

Lisa conquers the suspension bridge over the Danum Valley.

Lisa conquers the suspension bridge over Danum Valley.

As a reward for all of our hard work, our guides took us to the Danum Valley Rainforest Lodge, the only public lodging in this part of the jungle. This lodge is famous for its suspension bridge over the Danum Valley. It’s 100 feet off the ground and .2 miles long. I am not a big fan of heights and had never done anything to this scale before, so I had to mentally prepare myself long before I arrived.

Going on this trip as a zookeeper, I have a different way of looking at my surroundings and know different signs of an animal’s presence. Several people already had crossed the bridge, but with my slow start I noticed some branches moving in a distance. I made everyone stop and wait just to see what it was. Patience paid off. We saw a female orangutan climbing through the trees!

She slowly made her way over toward us, went underneath the bridge, then climbed up into one of the trees next to us and had some snacks. I was so thrilled to see a wild orangutan in action that I forgot about all of my fear.

I spent an hour sitting on the bridge, hanging above the stream that runs through the valley below.  We were surrounded by true primary forest. There were hornbills flying in trees that were larger than life, and to top it off, that wild orangutan. It was one of the most memorable experiences of my life. The smile on my face could be seen from the ground.

The experience on that bridge truly sums up my feelings about the trip to Borneo. It was everything I hoped it would be, and more. Although I’ve done a lot of traveling, this is the first time I’ve traveled alone internationally. The people were friendly and welcoming everywhere I went. They went out of their way to set a good impression for their country.

Lisa spotted an orangutan climbing through the trees.

Lisa spotted an orangutan climbing through the trees.

I was able to help with a research project that couldn’t be done without dedicated volunteers. I saw several species of primates, bugs I would rather not see again, birds of all shapes and sizes, and the elusive pygmy elephant. On the clear nights, I saw more stars than I’ve seen before. I met some amazing people with similar interests who I hope to keep in contact with.

I would never have been able to go on this journey if it wasn’t for the Dallas Zoo’s Earthwatch program. I am so thankful to have been chosen. I’ve only just begun to spread the word about conflict palm oil and deforestation.

CLICK HERE for more information about Earthwatch.


Categories: Conservation, Zookeepers | Tags: , | 2 Comments

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2 thoughts on “My journey to Borneo: A zookeeper’s dream of learning in the rainforest

  1. Jim Webb

    Nice story. Thanks for sharing your trip with us.

  2. Suzette Shelmire

    What a special adventure!! It is one that as a 4 time Outward Bound student, I would just have Loved to have that experience. I never will, but your story is the next best thing to “being there”!

    Thank you for such a wonderful memoir. I loved it!

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