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Understanding forest fragmentation

After leaving the magical valley of Maliau I head back to Tawau, where I meet with researchers of the SAFE project. SAFE stands for Stability of Altered Forest Ecosystems, and it is a large scale experimental study aimed at assessing the effects of forest fragmentation and exploitation on its biodiversity and ecosystem functioning.

The project started five years ago (2010) by monitoring both untouched forest and disturbed forest, the latter intended to be converted to palm plantations. The scientists at SAFE had the opportunity of shaping forest fragments of different sizes, and to assess the effects of forest patch size and degree of disturbance (i.e. logging) on ecosystem features such as forest microclimate, river hydrology, productivity and decomposition rates, and the diversity of plants, mammals, amphibians, and insects. The study is still ongoing but it is already providing interesting insights. For example, the more an area is disturbed, the warmer its microclimate becomes. This can reduce water availability as well as slow down decomposition, and thus nutrient recycling. Also, logged forests and palm plantations are more prone to erosion than undisturbed forests. These changes affect animal and plant diversity, changing their community composition to the advantage of species that are more resistant to change, and threatening the populations of those species that require larger or less disturbed patches of forest.
One interesting and unexpected thing is where the money for this study comes from. The SAFE project is funded by Sime Darby, one of the world’s largest producers of palm oil. The idea behind this cooperation is to implement the scientific findings into palm plantation practices to make them more ecologically sustainable. The question is whether the scientific results will come in time to be used, given the rate at which forests are being logged and converted. This is a challenge that the people at SAFE and Sime Darby were obviously willing to undertake.
As all studies on large scales and with a broad scientific breadth, SAFE attracts many satellite projects. In the few days of my visit I meet Dr. Sabine Both, yet another friend and colleague from Zurich, who is now leading a study looking at how wood and leaf features of tree species change with environmental variables such as anthropogenic disturbance and altitudinal gradients. Conor Bolas is at SAFE to study the emission of terpens, substances that trees produce for unclear reasons. Matheus Nunes is using remote sensing techniques to examine the “reflectance” of leaves (the spectrum of light frequencies they reflect) and correlate it with their chemical composition.
I really enjoy the atmosphere at the camp. Everybody seem to be keen on working together and to have fun with it. I soak up on these positive vibes, I was missing some social life. Meeting with a bunch of ecologists in the forest is like rejoyning my tribe.

The website of the project:
An article about the project from The Guardian: