When emergency responders arrive at a mass casualty scene, they perform rapid triage: determining who stands a chance of survival, and who does not. The decisions are difficult, but critical. You do not commit four rescuers to a lost cause when they could be saving several others who stand a chance.
Rapid deforestation! Habitat loss! Species extinction! Conservationists must triage the tropics. And, while it may not sit right to choose one threatened area of old growth forest over another (save them all!), we must weigh our commitments against an area’s chances of survival and its conservation value.
So what makes Gunung Palung National Park worth saving?
Gunung Palung is unique among Bornean landscapes. It does not just contain lowland dipterocarp forest. It is not just a vast stretch of peat swamp. Rather, its close proximity to the coast combined with extreme elevation gradient (ranging from 16 to 3,600 feet above sea level) allow seven distinct habitat types to exist in a compressed proximity to one another. The rich lowland alluvial and swamp forests with their towering trees give way to sandstone and granite slopes capped by high montane forests where poor soils mean the pitcher plant must employ a novel means of gaining nutrients.
This habitat diversity means that an unprecedented array of plants and animals live in a relatively small area. And, Gunung Palung houses a nearly complete inventory of all of Borneo’s fauna, including many rare, protected and/or endemic species.
Aside from the well-known orangutan and gibbon, the park also houses clouded leopard, sunbear, bearcat, tarsier (the world’s smallest primate), reticulated python, cobra, argus pheasant, long-tailed parakeet, assorted hornbill species, tufted-eared ground squirrel, flying lizard, and wild pig. By some estimates, over 71 species of mammal and 178 species of bird reside within the borders of Gunung Palung – not to mention the innumerable reptile and invertebrate species.
The dizzying diversity of the Park alone places it high on the triage list. But, there is more:saving Gunung Palung National Park may help save other forests.
The compression of forest types also makes Gunung Palung National Park a unique laboratory for studying tropical forests. Comparing habitats can be resource intensive: requiring multiple teams at several sites. But, in Gunung Palung a single research team do it from a single outpost.
Long term studies at Cabang Panti Research Station have enhanced our understanding of tropical ecosystems and population dynamics for 30 years. The observations have taught us how orangutans must migrate between habitats to follow food. Researchers have learned how higher elevations are likely demographic sinks for gibbons (and presumably other species). This means that although animals may be found in the montane forest, they likely can not sustain a population there.
These vital understandings help land managers make critical decisions about habitat protection. For example, simply leaving an intact hill forest in a sea of oil-palm without consideration of habitat or resources may do nothing for conservation at all. Just as bandaging someone who has suffered a terminal injury may make us feel good… it is ultimately a futile gesture.
Gunung Palung National Park is not just another threatened forest. It is a high-priority conservation area with a unique and resilient composition. The park is vital for both area residents, as well as for our understanding of the tropics as a whole. In short, according to the difficult criteria of tropical triage: Gunung Palung IS worth saving.