Surreal shrimps and pangolin pie

Save habitat and you save species. It’s pretty simple really, and its the basic message of the World Land Trust and why I have supported them with my PLR’s for years. There are however, little wrinkles and knots in the smooth skin of that argument that sometimes make the job of ‘saving habitat’ more complicated and difficult than it already is, and others that get in the way of that direct link between habitat and species.

I am really supposed to be starting my bears book today – I can hold it off for a little while, but not long enough to come up with an elegant set of links to string these examples together so they’re gonna be pretty free standing…

 Fish and Forests

You wouldn’t expect fishermen to be an enemy of forest conservation, but when the riparian forests of Kinabtangan in Sabah, Borneo (where I was the other week) were given legal protection, it was fisherman who were to be found in the forest felling trees illegally to make into their traditional cylindrical fish traps. When the forest extended over most of Sabah, a few trees made into fish traps didn’t matter, but when all that’s left was a ribbon on the river banks, every tree began to matter. Nobody wanted to make the fisherman into criminals, or wanted them to give up their livelihood, but a solution had to be found.  Dr Isabelle Lackman, co director of the wonderful conservation organisation HUTAN told me the story of how fishermen found a new material to make fish traps: worn out lino. Word spread up and down the river, helped by HUTAN community workers, that you didn’t have to go to the trouble of chopping down trees any more – just use the old lino off the kitchen floor. Soon all fishermen were using these traps, and we saw them in action, in one case catching a Giant Surreal Prawn, the size of a whole packet of fish fingers and with long bright blue front claws.


Seeds of BIG Trees

Pretty much all the forest I saw in Kinabatangan was secondary rain forest, forest that had been logged in the past and left to regenerate. Secondary rainforest, contrary to conservation received wisdom of thirty years ago, is actually pretty good for wildlife, especially orang utans ( there are lots of fruiting lianas in secondary forest so loads of food for them). But it’s very different from primary rain forest – the sort of forest you get where trees have been left to do their own thing for hundreds if not thousands of years. When you walk into secondary forest it’s a chaos of climbers and smaller vegetation; primary rainforest is like a cathedral, with the closed canopy shutting out light so there’s not much at all below the tree tops. That matters for a very good practical reason – secondary forest with its tangle of combustable material is much more susceptible to the destructive power of forest fires. Primary forest is more robust.

Primary forest is also simply more awesomely amazing, especially in Borneo where the combination of heat, soil, rainfall and tree species has created the tallest primary forest in the world. I didn’t get to visit any primary forest in Borneo, (although I heard about it from my father who travelled in Sarawak in the late 40s) but on my last night in Sabah I had a glimpse of it in a restaurant in Kota Kinabalu. I sat next to Glen Reynolds the director of the Royal Society’s South East Asian Rainforest Programme, at the Danum Valley (recently visited by Wills and Kate). The canopy height of the Danum Valley forest is 70 m and the tallest trees, the emergents, that pop out above the canopy to lord it over the forest, top 89m. OK just figures right? Well a British oak tree is about 25 meters tall and the very tallest tree in the UK is a Norway maple at 36 meters. The top of the average roof is about 10m. So picture a forest, seven times the height of your rooftop, and then put another two houses on top of that to give you the tallest trees in Danum.

Gottit now?

That’s quite something isn’t it (I’m going back there to SEE it the VERY VERY first chance I get).

I asked Glen if secondary forest, given time, would just turn into Primary, and that’s when I heard about the wrinkle. The biggest trees species belong to a group of trees called Dipterocarps (I leant about these as a student and they filled my heart with longing to see them, like wanting to see dragons or unicorns). They are the trees that the loggers took first, so there are few left in secondary forest. Which means, if you want to remake 70m canopy you have to replant ‘em. And here comes the major wrinkle: dipterocarp seed doesn’t keep. What’s more, dipterocarps don’t start to make seed until they are very, very grown up indeed…you could pass your whole career as a botanist and still not live long enough to see it. AND when they do start making seeds they are erratic…some years tons, some years sweet FA.

The wonderous Glen (who is almost a deity in Sabah..quite rightly) is trying to work out solutions that will make it possible to repopulate secondary forest with dipterocarps.  But this is slow, slow work and it may take many generations of Glens to see Borneo’s remaining secondary forests growing the kinds of trees that would make Galadriel feel at home.

Pangolin Pie and how to Stop it

Tottering back to my hotel on the night I’d heard the Dipterocarp story from Glen I was told another, very uspetting tale. Before I went to Borneo I wrote a blog piece entitled An Inordinate Fondness For Pangolins. Which is what have had ever since I saw an B and W picture (Armand and Michaela Dennis Stylie)  when I was five. I’m slightly obsessed with animals that stretch the basic mammalian body plan to extremes…sperm whales, horse shoe bats, and pangolins. Imagine an elongated pine cone, with leaf shaped scales, given four legs and cute little face and you have a pangolin. There are a handful of species and they tootle about in tropical forests, ripping open ant and termite nests and slurping up the contents. A more entirely inoffensive, marvelously bizarre and completely beguilingly charming animal you couldn’t dream up on any kind of hallucinogenic drugs.

I imagined that the world’s ignorance of pangolins was probably a pretty good protection for them. They existed below the parapet of wildlife awareness, just quietly getting on with their lives. Whilst fluffier more anthropomorphic type species caught the limelight, the flak and the conservation money, pangolins could quitely benefit as their forest homes were preserved because they held more glamourous and well known species.

But a horrible spotlight has fallen on pangolins. Somebody somewhere has decided that their meat, their blood and their scales (which are made of the same stuff has human fingernails- just bite your nails people!) or any bit of them really will cure all manner of ills in humans. As I write pangolins are being stripped out of Malaysia’s forests and shipped off around China and S.E Asia. 400 kilos of scales were seized earlier this year, just imagine how many dead pangolins that means. So, no matter how much forest we manage to save, pangolins will be picked out of it like berries.

This is moronic beyond description, and it’s happening because hardly anyone – probably not even the people eating the meat to cure their hair loss/ colliwobbles/lumbabo etc etc – know what a pangolin IS. So the public’s ignorance about pangolins is no longer their blissful protection.

I’d like to do something about this. I think the children of the UK, and of Malaysia would find pangolins as magical and lovable as I did as a kid. I think if they knew what pangolins looked like it would be enough to trigger a mass of children writing to the Malaysian government would make them take action?  I don’t want to live in a world without pangolins and I’m certain nobody under 10 does either. Logon on to Project Pangolin if you’d like to help


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