Thanks to thousands of generous donations, this week World Land Trust (WLT) has announced that £300,000 has been raised for the Saving Kinabatangan appeal. These funds will purchase and protect five critical areas of rainforest around the border of the Pangi Virgin Jungle Reserve. WLT explains why protecting ‘buffer habitat’ is so important in the fragmented rainforest habitat of Kinabatangan.
Habitat fragmentation happens when a wild landscape is split into pieces by different, often non-native, habitats such as town developments or plantations. The pieces of original habitat remain home to native wildlife, but there are many costs associated with fragmentation which endanger plant and animal species.
Changes in a fragmented forest
Forest fragments are subject to several major changes in climate as a result of losing the surrounding natural forest, including differences in water, wind and frequency of fires. The edges of these fragments are particularly vulnerable to these changes, and can cause the loss of plant and animal species that cannot adapt.
A large forest establishes a complex water cycle managed by the retention of rain in the plants and soil. When large portions of the forest are lost, so are these stores of water. The habitat becomes drier and the edges are exposed to hot, dry winds, increasing wildfire risk. These factors also affect the quality of the soil, which can become eroded by the wind and rain at fragment edges, affecting the resources available for plants, insects and microorganisms.
Fragmented habitats are often more accessible to humans, so bird and mammal species become vulnerable to poachers. If they stray into agricultural lands surrounding the fragments for food, they are regarded as pests and in danger of being killed to protect crops and livestock. Many of these species, such as elephants, big cats and primates, are ‘keystone species’ due to their key role in ecosystem function (such as a big cat’s role in regulating herbivore populations, hence protecting plants from overgrazing).
The benefits of a buffer
The negative effects discussed above are strongest at the edge of fragmented habitats, and usually decrease further into the protected area. This is why purchasing and protecting even small parcels of land on the edge of nature reserves can create important buffers protecting the core habitat.
Buffer habitats, such as the Saving Kinabatangan Appeal properties, take the brunt of these negative ‘edge effects’ away from core habitat, such as the Pangi Virgin Jungle Reserve.
Malaysia’s Virgin Jungle Reserves (VJRs) are a network of small protected areas of forest which were set aside in the 1940s. They are used for non-destructive scientific research and as sources of native wildlife to repopulate surrounding selectively logged forest. In many places throughout Peninsular Malaysia and Malaysian Borneo, VJRs are critical refuges for native wildlife with no habitat alternatives.
The role of VJRs as habitat lifelines can be bolstered if exposure to wind and human disturbances is reduced by a ‘buffer habitat’. Once established and extended, these buffers can become ‘stepping stones’ between habitats and eventually corridors, linking vital pockets of protected forest (VJRs or nature reserves) together.
Corridors are a powerful tool for habitat conservation, as they enable the movement of animals (and hence plants through seed dispersal) between patches in a fragmented habitat, so population have access to additional food resources and mates from other populations (reducing inbreeding through gene flow).
The Saving Kinabatangan Appeal
In early 2017, WLT’s partner Hutan identified several properties available for purchase and protection on the border of Pangi Virgin Jungle Reserve. The tropical rainforests of Borneo are internationally recognised for their biodiversity, and every year thousands of tourists come to Kinabatangan to take boat safaris down the Kinabatangan River and watch the illustrious wildlife.
These same tourists also see how fragmented the habitat is beyond the river, taken over by Oil Palm plantations. Many of the donors to the Saving Kinabatangan Appeal had seen this damage first-hand, and the memory of Kinabatangan’s charismatic wildlife (among others, it is home to ten species of primate) inspired them to take action. One supporter, Dr John Pike, former canopy specialist in Kinabatangan, mobilised the community of canopy climbers around the world to sleep in trees on the night of June 24 to raise awareness and donations for the appeal.
Thanks to this support, Hutan is now able to move forward in purchase agreements to secure this buffer habitat, which has the potential of creating a corridor from Pangi down the bank of the Kinabatangan River in the future.
Laidlaw, R. K. (1998). Virgin Jungle Reserves of Peninsular Malaysia: small protected areas in logged forest. The Commonwealth Forestry Review, 83-90.
Benítez-Malvido, J., & Arroyo-Rodríguez, V. (2008). Habitat fragmentation, edge effects and biological corridors in tropical ecosystems.