We can all help save the man of the forest

THE Kinabatanga river winds like a coiled brown serpent between thickly forested banks in the north-east corner of the great island of Borneo.

Aidan Semmens

THE Kinabatanga river winds like a coiled brown serpent between thickly forested banks in the north-east corner of the great island of Borneo.

As far as the eye can see, even from a small plane flying over the forest, only the smooth belt of the river breaks the dense green of the treetops.

Down there, in the shadow of that apparently endless canopy, live 15,000 species of flowering plants and 380 types of mammal - not to mention more different ethnic groups of humans than anywhere else in the world (except maybe New York).

Seasonal floods help feed one of the richest concentrations of wildlife on the planet. They maintain, among other things, more than 2,000 types of orchid.

The trees themselves come in an astonishing 3,000 different species. But the woods are not actually endless at all and this wonderful variety is under threat.

Most Read

Desperate, serious threat, and all from the activities of just one of those species. Us, of course.

And I mean “us”, not “them”.

Every time you buy a burger, a tub of margarine, a bar of chocolate, a tube of lipstick or a bottle of washing-up liquid you could be inadvertently adding to the threat.

All of those are among the one-in-ten products on the supermarket shelf that are likely to contain palm-oil. If the listed ingredients include “vegetable oil”, chances are it's palm.

That's before you start reckoning up the huge call for bio-fuel that has exploded in the last couple of years, ramping up the demand for palm-oil even further.

Bio-fuel was supposed to be environmentally friendly. Yet according to Friends of the Earth the net effect of its production is actually accelerating global warming.

Palm-oil production is a major source of revenue in many hot parts of the world. But 80 per cent comes from just two countries - Indonesia and Malaysia, which along with Brunei own Borneo.

In itself, a well-managed palm plantation can be “sustainable” in the sense that while the crop is harvested the trees remain.

But what is not sustained is the virgin forest hacked and burned to make way for it. The diversity of tree species. The habitat for wildlife - or, incidentally, for indigenous people.

In Borneo the threatened creatures include the pygmy elephant and proboscis monkey (both officially on the “endangered” list).

At 4ft tall, the island's sun-bear is the smallest type of bear in the world. It is officially “vulnerable”.

And then there is one of our closest relations, the orang-utan (the very name means “man of the forest”).

Twenty years ago, Borneo was home to about 100,000 orang-utans. Today's figure is half that or less and there are real fears that by 2012 the man of the forest could be extinct in the wild.

Thanks (if that's the word) to the destruction of its home for palm-oil production.

So, once you've got over being ashamed to be human, what can you actually do about it?

Something must be done, surely. And happily someone is doing something. Someone in Suffolk, as it happens.

I hate to join the constant call from all quarters for charity cash, but in this case there's a chance to see exactly where your cash will go. Via Suffolk to the Kinabatanga river basin.

The Halesworth-based World Land Trust is working against the clock to raise the cash to buy part of the forest to protect it from the loggers and palm-growers.

The desperate aim is to join up the ten separate areas that currently make up the Lower Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary.

Because of the demand for palm the price of land in Borneo is increasing almost daily, but the Trust hopes to buy a vital piece of land, home to 604 orang-utans, which connects two government-owned reserves.

If the forest is cleared, the 11,000 orang-utans in the existing sanctuary will be split up into groups that could be too small to survive.

Apply that danger - and the hope offered by the WLT plan - to all the rest of the wild things there and it must surely be a project worth £343,364 of anyone's money.

For more details, and to make a donation towards that target, visit www.worldlandtrust.org

-Spying … but it's environmentally friendly

IT may sound like a definitively 1960s motor car, but the latest Zephyr is very much a vehicle of our times.

The 30kg unmanned plane has a carbon-fibre frame and is covered in super-light solar panels thinner than paper.

Its super-efficient rechargeable battery enables it to take enough power from the sun to stay aloft throughout the hours of darkness. And since it flies above the highest clouds, it has guaranteed sunshine by day.

It has just set an unofficial record for unmanned flight of 82 hours, 37 minutes, but its British designers believe it could stay airborne for months.

They also reckon it could take over many of the tasks now carried out by satellites - such as monitoring the weather, studying climate change, assisting crop development, seeking minerals and water.

So far from hugely expensive space rockets burning millions of gallons of explosive fuel, it can be launched by three men running.

It is in every sense an elegant invention.

What a pity that like most groundbreaking new technology it owes its funding to its military potential. Like the first satellites, it's meant for spying.