Stories from Scientists
To tree or not to tree? – The fight to protect primary forests versus the creation of new forest habitats
By Jessie Panazzolo
Conservation efforts in the past have always gone to protecting the remaining fragments of precious primary forest, and it’s warranted as these patches of remaining forest land are some of the most biodiverse ecosystems in the entire world, but that is just the thing, they are just patches. What makes up more of a sparse area is agricultural land such as oil palm and rubber tree plantations, with forests disappearing every day to make more room for this economy driven land use. Now days, when the Sumatran elephant walks along its migration pathways travelled by ancestors before them, they end up trampling through plantations, destroying food and rubber crops as they pass through. Disapproving agricultural workers end up poisoning 20-30 elephants per year who enter these plantations, diminishing numbers of what is already one of the world’s most critically endangered species.
The solution to this current situation is tearing down the agricultural land to make way for new forests to flourish. The problems that firstly come to mind with this may be the fact that farmers may be losing their income, which can be remedied by employing them to work as a forest patrol or nursery workers for the new forest habitat. Another problem is the fact that we, as conservationists have always been told that agricultural plantations wreck the quality of the soil and prevent forest species from germinating. This is frankly just not so as in North Sumatra and Aceh, fragments of agricultural land have already been distributed by the government to NGO’s to destroy the plantations in favour of replanting or naturally regenerating brand new forest habitats. In a meagre 5-8 years of forest growth, fully functioning secondary forests are now replacing encroached agricultural land in areas bordering Gunung Leuser National Park, and are now harbouring some of the most distinct species such as the critically endangered Sumatran orangutan which was previously thought to only enjoy occupying the dense canopy landscapes of primary forest.
The benefits of restoring agricultural land into forest are as sparse as their potential to grow as these forests not only can increase home range for critically endangered species and provide a matrix of new landscapes, habitat and food resources for generalist species, but they also harbour potential to re-locate farmers to more conservation orientated career paths and promote education to local villages. These are only meagre benefits compared to restoring water balance as well as sequestering carbon and replenishing oxygen levels in the atmosphere which will induce a global cooling effect.
Sure, we could spend our money saving the special endemics that reside in some of the world’s last remaining forest patches, but surely now we can also be inspired to decorate the world with a thick new canopy and restore the homes of millions of diminishing species globally.
Jessie Panazzolo is a student working at OIC in an Honor's program. She is studying how the Sumatran orangutan and the Sumatran elephant make use of restored forests as well as how to reduce wildlife conflict with farmers.