A Passionate and Personal Account Introduces our Research into the Rainforest

Lead Scientist, Tim van Berkel, takes you into the rainforest and describes how we are studying it

Mud, mosquitoes, sweat, leeches, wait-a-while-thorn-trees, rain, venomous spiders, snakes and poisonous fruits and millipedes. My first impression of a rainforest, over eight years ago now, has not been a very inviting one. The jungle of Mowgli and Balou, the one of Tarzan and Jane, the one I was adamant would engulf and entrance me once I set foot in it turned out to be a Disney Dream., leaving me severely disappointed with the real deal. I thought everything was there to eat me or hurt me.

In fact, the things that seemed out there to make my life more like an afterlife in hell are actually just as hard trying to survive themselves. The real forest is one of struggle, a constant battlefield of creatures and plants trying to survive long enough to spread their genes and so continue the endless battle we name evolution. Each species have developed different strategies to do so and indeed, some of those involve being spiky, prickly, poisonous or venomous.

A Strange Attraction

Even so, come unprepared and you might not ever make it back to the world of tarmac, office hours and air-conditioned buildings. Every tree looks exactly like the previous and next one, familiar and alien at the same time. The sun is hardly ever to be seen and the shimmer of daylight is almost immediately followed by the darkness of night, creating a new world, one in which danger can neither be seen nor heard, can come instantly or slowly and is always around.

So why do I go back again and again? What keeps attracting me to that humid, dark and hostile world under the canopy? After recovering from my Disney Dream Deception I tried to look beyond the green foliage. I wiped the sweat from my eyes and plucked the leeches from my legs. What I saw was not a jungle but a rainforest containing a beautiful richness which is easily overlooked. Hidden from first view, but stunningly diverse when you know what to look for, smell and listen to.

The mammals that remain hidden from view at first glance suddenly seemed everywhere. Claw marks on trees, deer footprints, pig trails half eaten fruit on the forest floor, rustling leaves and moving branches of squirrels and monkeys in the canopy are some of the signs that show that the forest is alive.

During the day, the forest indeed seems rather quiet and empty but when night falls a crescendo of noises starts to fill the air. A crazy medley of birds, insects, mammals and frogs could be heard in a constant and seemingly never ending masterpiece, never to be repeated the same way.

Unlocking the Hidden Secrets

Now, years after my first rainforest experience, I find myself here in Kalimantan as part of a team of researchers that share the same passion. We want to unveil the beauty of the forest and understand how the different plants and animals interact with each other. Out of curiosity but also out of necessity. The world’s forests are disappearing at an alarming and increasing rate and we are only just beginning to understand how they function. Our research will show how diverse the forest is by describing the insects, amphibians, reptiles, lizards, birds and mammals that live in the forest. The data we collect provides a first and logical step towards safeguarding and managing the forest for the future.

The research has been underway for a couple of weeks now and after the first few days it already became clear that this forest is teeming with wildlife. Gibbons, sun bears, pigs, Sambar and mouse deer, red langurs and a high density of hornbills were recorded in the first few days already and new species are being added to the already comprehensive list on a daily basis.

A few of the more remarkable sightings to date include flying lizards, a pair of sun bears, either a marbled or bay cat (unconfirmed), white-fronted langurs, the great argus pheasant male displaying and a cinnamon-rumped trogon.

How do we Find Them?

A wide variety of surveys are carried out to record an incredible variety of species. The trail cameras that are set up throughout the area will hopefully provide some insight into the whereabouts of the more elusive species such as the pangolin and cat species, while the daily and nightly walked transects aim to study the primates in the area.

Reptiles, amphibians and invertebrates are studied using pitfall traps and night transects. The pitfall traps seem to be a preferred breeding pond for some of the frogs and toads. The tadpoles are monitored daily to study their development and see what frog or toad species they turn out to be, leading to new insights in the development stages of these species.

Meanwhile, small mammals such as rodents and tree shrews are captured, recorded and released using specially designed mammal traps and birds are surveyed using songs and point and line counts. Most of the wildlife in Borneo is at least semi arboreal. To study the tree dwelling species, canopy research is an important though time consuming part of the research.

We are aware that we cannot survey all taxonomic groups at this stage but a planned summer expedition will hopefully fill some of the gaps that remain.

A Worthy Cause

In the end we hope to convince the Indonesian government that this area is worth preserving in the long term. That it is worth more standing than as garden furniture. Hopefully we can play an active role in the conservation of this area and learn more about the living treasures.

Meanwhile, I will marvel in the multitude and diversity of the species surrounding me.