Orangutan, Forestry, Oil palm and expanding economies

Few species have had as much international conservation focus as Orangutans. They certainly are stunning animals and there is no doubt when you see them in the wild it is an uplifting and amazing experience. I have seen both Bornean and Sumatran Orangutan in the wild, and I will admit that my heart races every time I see them. We need to remember, however, that the plight of the orangutan is representative of the broader plight of much of the (less charismatic) tropical biodiversity of south east Asia. With the decline of Orangutan we actually see an even more pronounced decline of species far less sensitive to changes in primary jungle. In effect Orangutan are just the poster children for the wide spread decline of numerous less sexy creatures.


The extensive and rapid transformation of the landscape of Borneo and Sumatra from primary jungle to secondary jungle (broad scale selective logging) or, even more extreme, removal of the jungle all together to be replaced by other land-uses (primarily oil palm plantations) has received extensive international focus. This focus has primarily been associated with the decline of orang-utan due to deforestation for oil palm plantations.


Needless to say, the exploitation of these jungles has also allowed the nations involved to expand and modify their economies.  And yes, some individuals have become extremely wealthy along the way. The issues associated with biodiversity conservation and rapidly expanding economies in southeast Asia (largely based on natural resources and agriculture) are complex.  It is hard to ask nations not to clear their forests for agriculture when much of world has already done the same. In fact the state of forest cover in Victoria, Australia (my home) is not a great deal better, and we have certainly converted enormous areas of land to agricultural pursuits. I am not going to provide any solutions here to the problems; all I will say is that it is complex and as such solutions will need to be multifaceted. If we, and I mean we as a global society, want Borneo to remain a global biodiversity hotspot, “we” need to provide a mechanism that allows the governments of Malaysia and Indonesia to make more money out of jungles than timber or oil palm. And then their is the Amazon and…….

hornbill 2

It is the complex nature of conservation, land-use change and economics in Borneo that draws me to this region. For the last 3 years I have taken a team of Deakin Environmental Science staff and students to Malaysian Borneo to investigate the issues for ourselves. Our undergraduate study tour unit (SLE353) takes students to Borneo, meeting the indigenous communities, into jungles, experiencing wildlife and of course the people involved in conservation as well as oil palm. It is challenging but at the same time life changing. It is critical to look at issues from a wide range of perspectives before even trying to think about solutions.


They paved paradise and put up a parking lot!

The title comes from the song “Big Yellow Taxi” first sung by Joni Mitchell in 1970, and variously recorded by many others since. The song has a strong environmental message and amongst other things effectively was a comment on urbanization (albeit originally written about Hawaii). Ok, this song was written 45 years ago, what does it mean now? The reality is, as human populations continue to grow, urbanized areas are expanding at a rapid rate and becoming a dominant land-use in many areas.

Does it matter? Certainly, biodiversity is impacted by intensification of urbanization as native vegetation is removed and replaced with houses, roads and paths (generally referred to as impervious surfaces). Much of the remaining area is converted to managed grass (lawns) and gardens often dominated by plant species exotic to the area. Many native species demonstrate strong negative responses to impervious surfaces and lawns.  Effectively these new ‘habitats’ do not provide the resources many native species need, and as such we see significant contractions in the number of species found in cities.

How bad is the situation? I provide the following image of Melbourne (Melbourne is towards the centre of the left hand side). The image is generated from satellites and then classified based on spectral reflectance. Ultimately, we can simplify the city down to impervious surfaces, grass (both lawns and agriculture), tree cover and a couple of categories of water.  Using this approach it becomes clear that the city centre and much of the suburban area of Melbourne are now dominated by impervious surfaces and lawns with most of the tree cover removed. More worryingly, Melbourne is expanding and more areas are being converted to urban areas. Cities all around the World exhibit similar characteristics, and are having significant detrimental impacts on biodiversity. Interestingly, there is also strong evidence that the reduced interaction of people with nature that occurs in modern cities is impacting negatively on peoples mental and physical health.

Melbourne from Space

One of the biggest challenges of the future is going to be around how we make our urban areas less hostile to nature. This is going to require governments, planners and other groups of great vision to re-imagine how cities are designed and how they cater for more people. Continually expanding our cities can not be a sustainable strategy, yet on face value it may be the easiest political solution.  It will be interesting to observe if things change. Maybe in 45 years we will have a song that refers to “ripping up the car park and putting in an urban woodland”. Then again, maybe I am just dreaming 🙂

Why Borneo?

bronze back tree snake

Ok, this post is from a more personal point of view. I am one of the group that teaches the Wildlife and Conservation Biology degree at Deakin Uni. I am often asked why you got into what you did, what inspired you, and why on do take students to Borneo?

So here goes, I am going to try and explain why 🙂 In a strange way they are all interlinked.  As a kid I just loved animals, I found them fascinating and was amazed by the diversity of them. Naturally I was told you need to be a vet. In reality this was the only obvious career path, from my parents perspective, that involved animals. So as a kid I spent my holidays working with the local vet, only to discover it was not for me.  I will say it was devastating when I made this discovery.  What was I going to do with my life?

It was not till some time later I was siting watching a National Geographic documentary on Borneo that I realised I actually wanted to work with wild animals. For many years I lived on a diet of National Geographic, David Attenborough and other documentaries and at school I immersed myself in biology. The strange thing about this all was this obsessive fascination with Borneo and tropical jungles.


I went to uni got a biology degree, then did a PhD in pest ecology working with rats. It was not until I got a job at Deakin teaching wildlife conservation that I suddenly had the opportunity to start working with wild animals. In more recent years I have been able to go to the jungles of Borneo and Sumatra. I was not disappointed, they are amazing. I now take a group of Deakin enviro students to Borneo each year as part of one of our undergraduate units (SLE353).

There was one night a couple of years back when we were in Borneo doing field surveys with the Universiti Malaysia (Sarawak) that will stick with me forever. We were on the top of a hill called Bung Bratak, which is part of the traditional lands of the Bidayuh people of Borneo.  We were helping to document species on Bung Bratak whilst living with a number of the Bidayuh people.  One night we were out doing frog surveys. It was raining lots, it was dark and I was standing knee deep in water with one of the Deakin enviro students.  We were both soaked to the skin and had been out doing surveys for hours.  I remember turning to her and saying “Isn’t this amazing! We are standing in a swamp in Borneo catching frogs. I have dreamed of this all my life.”  She was as excited as me, and I think both of us realised how privileged we were to be able to spend time in a Global Biodiversity hotspot.

lantern bug

It is a strange thing to think about how you end up where you are. From a passion for wildlife to standing in a swamp in Borneo catching frogs was a long trip. Now I get the joy of teaching students about wildlife, hopefully helping to foster their excitement as well.  My main message to you all is follow your passion what ever it is.

As  a footnote, a big thank you to National Geographic and David Attenborough for providing a good dose of science and inspiration.

Amazing animals: Wallace’s Flying Frog

wallace 2 wallace

Most animals really are amazing in their own right. They are a product of evolution and each has its own remarkable aspects.  But sometimes we see animals that have gone out on an extreme. One such ability is the capacity to fly, or at least glide, for non avian (AKA birds) species. In terrestrial species gliding is utilized as a way of moving around forest ecosystems, and can be observed in a few mammals, some reptiles and also amphibians.

It kind of makes sense that gliding would evolve as a movement strategy in some animals living in tall forest ecosystems, particularly if the tree canopies are not always connected. It is probably much easier to get up high and glide to the next tree rather than walk all the way down the tree and then amble along the ground to the next tree (Assuming you have the capacity to do so).  Evolution is a funny thing, but often leads to interesting solutions to common problems, albeit over extremely long periods of time. Keep in mind that gliding as an end point was probably not the driver for evolution of particular characteristics, but a consequence resulting from some other adaptation (e.g. webbed feet for swimming).

One such species which we encountered last year whilst in Borneo on our study tour for SLE353 was Wallace’s flying frog (Rhacophorus nigropalmatus). This species is named after its discoverer Alfred Russel Wallace the famous 19th century biologist who spent considerable time in Borneo and south east Asia investigating ideas around what drives species distributions and how species evolve. Wallace and Darwin actually came to similar conclusions around the ideas of evolution and co-authored a paper on the topic. Unfortunately for Wallace, history shows the fame went to Darwin, but the work of Wallace is still influential in describing global species distributions and patterns. You have to feel sorry for Wallace, in a different World we may have been talking about Wallacean evolution!

So, back to our amazing animal! Wallace’s flying frog is a large frog and is distributed in Borneo and peninsula Malaysia. Whilst its common name would suggest it is capable of flying, in reality, it glides by spreading the membranes out between the toes on all four feet (see pictures above). By spreading all legs out it is able to glide between trees or from the canopy down to water holes for breeding. Another name for the species is a parachute frog which probably is more realistic of their flying capabilities. Not only is it an interesting frog because it can glide, it is a very lovely looking frog which seemed happy enough to pose for photos for us.

Grampians Fire, Climate and Biodiversity research highlighted in new Wild Melbourne Science Short


A few weeks back, while we were in the Grampians for our undergraduate field program, the team from Wild Melbourne came and visited us for a couple of days. They were out to film for their upcoming documentary on environmental issues in Victoria. As such they spent time talking with me and PhD student Susannah Hale about our long-term fire, climate and biodiversity research in the Grampians.

It was a really good Science Communication exercise having to discuss research concepts and outcomes in a way that has relevance to a broad sector of society. As part of the exercise the Wild Melbourne team have produced a Science Short about the research. You can check it out here https://youtu.be/qpo8S6HHAd8

So who is Wild Melbourne? They are a non-profit organisation dedicated to the protection of our environment and to teaching people the importance and majesty of native species and landscapes. From Port Phillip Bay to the high country, Wild Melbourne focuses on the nature around our city. If you are into nature and the wonders of Victoria I encourage you to get on board with Wild Melbourne for the amazing ride they are taking people on.

Their website is at http://wildmelbourne.org/

Like them on FaceBook at https://www.facebook.com/WildMelbourne

Follow them on Twitter https://twitter.com/WildMelbourne

If you want to stay up to date on what is happening in our Grampians research check out https://twitter.com/Wild_Gramps

Small mammals, fire and climate: Join our long-term Grampians research team for your honours.

trap in burn AA krisitin pygmy poss Heath mouse psuedomys shortridgeii

How will our southern Australian ecosystems respond to climate change? How will small mammals cope under hyper-variable rainfall conditions and increased fire activity? Do these questions sound like you? Read on 🙂

My team has been conducting critically important long-term ecological research in the Grampians landscape of Victoria, Australia, since 2008. The only way we can really understand how systems will respond to changes in climate is to conduct long-term research under variable climatic conditions, and this is one of the few long-term small mammal research projects in southern Australia.

In 2016, we have two honours research projects for the right students. Come and be a significant part of the Nancy Millis Science in Parks Award winning team (2015), and learn great field and research skills along the way.

If you are interested in either of these projects (see below), please contact me on john.white@deakin.edu.au. It would be useful to have a small resume indicating your skills and expertise and marks in your undergraduate degree.  The honours information for our school is available here

The Grampians landscape and our long-term small mammal monitoring sites

The Grampians landscape and our long-term small mammal monitoring sites.

Project 1: How do small mammals respond to climate, fire and vegetation productivity? The Grampians long-term climate, fire and small mammal diversity project.

 Principal Supervisor: Associate Professor John White

Principal Supervisor contact details: john.white@deakin.edu.au

Associate Supervisors: Dr Raylene Cooke raylene.cooke@deakin.edu.au

Start date: February 2016

Project description:

This is an extremely exciting opportunity to be part of a long-term ecological research program in Victoria. Long-term data sets are extremely rare, but the value of such data for investigating aspects such as fire and climate change are unsurpassed, and the experience you would gain on such a project are enormous.

In early 2006 the Grampians suffered an extreme fire event where almost 50% of the Grampians landscape was burnt in a high intensity landscape-scale fire. In 2008, Parks Victoria and Deakin University established 36 long-term small mammal monitoring sites to investigate the recovery of wildlife after major fire events. These sites have been monitored for the last eight years by different honours students.

In 2013, a 35,000ha wildfire affected the Grampians, and again in 2014 a 55,000ha burnt much of the remaining unburnt vegetation. Over 90% of the Grampians landscape is now less than 10 years post-burn.

Since 2012 we have also genetically sampled every small mammal that is captured with the aim of eventually investigating the landscape genetics of populations in response to fire and climate conditions.

As part of your honours project, you will collect the 2016 small mammal data in the field, and analyze the long-term trends in small mammals (9 years of data). The project aims to understand

  1. the rate of recovery of mammals in response to time since fire,
  2. the relative role of rainfall in modifying the rate and intensity of recovery, and
  3. the influence of vegetation productivity (previously developed from satellite imagery) on the rate and intensity of recovery.

Requirements: A manual drivers license, and experience driving a manual vehicle (Our 4WD fleet are manual). A willingness to do a 4WD training course and a first aid certificate as part of your honours (Costs will be covered as part of your honours by Deakin University, and will provide an additional boost to your resume).

A commitment to spending as much as 9 weeks in the field in an intense 3 month period. An ability to work in a team environment with other students and Parks Victoria rangers. Desirable: Experience in trapping and handling small mammals.

The Wannon fan in the southern Grampians.  Dots are the proposed camera grid, against a background of NDVI.  NDVI is a measure of vegetation productivity and relates to soil moisture.

The Wannon fan in the southern Grampians. Dots are the proposed camera grid, against a background of NDVI.  NDVI is a measure of vegetation productivity and relates to soil moisture.


Project #2: Using camera traps to investigate the small scale impacts of winter fuel reduction burns in extremely long unburnt heath ecosystems.

Principal Supervisor: Associate Professor John White

Principal Supervisor contact details: john.white@deakin.edu.au 9251 7625

Associate Supervisors: Dr Raylene Cooke

Start date: February 2016

Project description:

This project aims to investigate how small mammals utilize a patchy mosaic of burnt and unburnt heath in the Wannon fan in the southern Grampians. Using camera trapping we will be sampling mammals at 150 fixed points that have been established across the Wannon fan area. Each camera is located in the middle of a 4ha grid cell, with the total grid covering an area of 600ha. The area has been subjected to experimental winter burns to try to reduce the risk of large high intensity wildfires. In this research we aim to establish what small mammal species use the Wannon heaths and how they respond to different vegetation and fire recovery conditions. This project will be critical in establishing a long-term fine scale monitoring approach to fire management actions.

This information is critical to informing how heath based systems can be burnt at lower intensities under variable climatic conditions. This is an exciting project with considerable real World application.

Requirements: A manual drivers license, and experience driving a manual vehicle. A willingness to do a 4WD training course and a first aid certificate as part of your honours (Costs will be covered as part of your honours by Deakin University).

A commitment to spending as much as 9 weeks in the field in an intense 3 month period. An ability to work in a team environment with other students and Parks Victoria rangers.

Desirable: Some experience with GIS (i.e an undergraduate GIS unit). Previous experience with camera traps.