Save the Trees, We’ll Save Your Life (Pacific Standard)

Posted on by Brendan Borrell

IN JULY 2011, about a week before I landed in Western Borneo, a local man sent an ominous text message to his boss from deep within the jungle. For more than 10 years, this man had worked as a research assistant at the Cabang Panti Research Station, in the core of Gunung Palung National Park, a mountainous wilderness that contains some of Indonesia’s last lowland rain forest and remains a stronghold for orangutans, gibbons, and other primates. Like many protected areas in the developing world, Gunung Palung’s boundaries were poorly enforced, and the people from the hardscrabble communities nearby had been logging and hunting in the park’s periphery for decades.

Cabang Panti (pronounced CHA-bong Pon-tee), by virtue of its remoteness and year-round research activities, had largely been spared. The research assistant, whose name I have agreed to withhold, kept track of the growth of the dominant canopy trees, including Borneo ironwood, which can live for more than 10 centuries and is prized for its dense lumber. One morning, he was walking along a trail when he heard a chainsaw through the thick understory.“I’ve come across people working,” he texted. When he and a coworker returned later, they found a fresh stump and a massive tree splayed across the trail. They took photos of the area with their cell phones, documenting more than a dozen felled trees, including several ironwoods marked with aluminum research tags. Nearby, smaller trees had been stripped of their bark to construct a kuda-kuda, a rudimentary rail system loggers use to transport heavy timber to the nearest waterway.

The photos quickly spread through the network of biologists and conservationists working near the park, including an American doctor named Kinari Webb, who operates her clinic in the regional hub of Sukadana. The episode was not as shocking as the time a researcher crossed paths with a hunter holding the embryonic body of an orangutan stripped of its skin. Nor was it as upsetting as the weeks Webb spent caring for an orphaned baby orangutan, only to find a bullet in its stomach after it died. Nevertheless, the tree-felling—conducted in broad daylight, a stone’s throw from an international scientific station—was far more significant. It meant that no part of Gunung Palung would ever be safe.

Webb’s clinic is the most powerful bridge between the people who want to save the rain forest and the people who are destroying it. Poachers and loggers are just like the rest of us. They get sick. They get malaria. They get ear infections. One way or another, they are going to end up sitting on the turquoise plastic chairs in Webb’s waiting room.

Read more at Pacific Standard