SPECIAL SECTION VANISHING FAUNA
in woody vines called lianas, which cast
their seeds into the wind. Other studies in
Peru, Thailand, and Nigeria have also shown
changing patterns of plant distributions.
But long-term studies in Lambir offered researchers a closer look at what happens to a
forest as ever more animals disappear.
BORNEO’S INDIGENOUS NOMADS, the
Penan, long made a living by hunting, but
their impact was minimal. They would
move their forest camps when the sago
palm became scarce and game, as they put
it, turned shy. In addition, their communities were small relative to the forest.
Life for the Penan and other peoples be-
gan to change rapidly in the 1970s. Loggers
carved roads into previously isolated areas,
making it easier for outsiders and migrants
to hunt deep in the forest. They would take
game back to village markets or sell it to the
work camps. Although the Indonesian gov-
ernment had long since banned guns, dan-
gerous homemade shotguns proliferated.
Even more devastating has been the use of
snares, which indiscriminately kill animals.
Yet well into the 1980s, Lambir (
established in 1975) was reachable only by a dirt
logging road. It would wash out in the rainy
season, giving the park some protection.
Helmeted hornbills filled the sky with the
whoosh of their wings. Hunters covet these
magnificent birds, because artisans carve
the casque, a large, ivorylike protrusion on
its upper beak. “It was as near to an undisturbed forest you could have had at that
time,” Harrison says.
Now, after decades of logging, the park is a
lonely island in a sea of oil palm plantations.
The road to the park was paved in 1987, easing access by tourists and nearby residents
of Miri, the center of Borneo’s petroleum industry. Its 6952 hectares contain waterfalls
and sparkling pools. The trees growing on
the clay soil are gargantuan, dwarfing
those of the Amazon. “It’s like being in
a gothic cathedral,” says Peter Ashton,
a retired botanist who set up research
plots there in 1964. The warm, moist
air, smelling a bit like cigars,
buzzes with insects. To many,
especially newcomers, the
park looks pristine.
But the forest is not what
it was. The helmeted hornbill
was long gone by the time Harrison arrived
in 1994 to start his doctoral research on fig
trees. And other species, such as the swan-
sized rhinoceros hornbill and the gibbon,
seemed rarer than they should have been. “I
felt there was something wrong,” Harrison
recalls. It wasn’t a big leap to suspect hunt-
ing. In addition to hearing the blasts of shot-
guns, he came across snares and evidence of
In the evening, when Harrison and his
colleagues drove to Miri, they would sometimes see sport hunters parked in large
four-wheel-drive vehicles, shining spotlights into the forest to catch reflections of
wild eyes. In the city, curio shops sold earrings made from hornbill casques. Vendors
in the open-air market hawked small mammals in cages, ready to be cooked or taken
home as pets.
Years later, Harrison decided to pull together the data about the decline in animal
species. He went through previous records,
interviewed older researchers, and walked
his own surveys. The situation appeared
grim: A camera-trap survey in 2004 detected only one bearded pig in 8 months.
And when Harrison spent 6 months in the
park in 2007, he couldn’t find a single animal that weighed more than a kilogram. Not
all animals are gone; small birds, rodents,
and geckos persist, for example.
Harrison decided to explore the consequences of these losses, taking advantage
of the data that the Smithsonian has collected at Lambir since 1991. Every 5 years,
researchers and staff members spend
about 9 months measuring each and every
one of the 370,000 trees and saplings in a
While some researchers study insects in the park, others have probed the fate of plants based on their fruit or seed.