New Mammal Discovered in Indonesian Borneo Already At Risk

JAKARTA, Indonesia, December 8, 2005 (ENS) - A World Wildlife Fund camera trap in an Indonesian national park on the island of Borneo photographed an animal of unknown species this fall but before scientists have identified it, the dark red furry creature is already threatened by a proposed palm oil plantation that would be the world's largest.

The camera trap is an everyday camera armed with infrared sensors that take pictures whenever they sense movement in the forest. The animal was captured on film twice at night in the dense forests of Kayan Mentarang National Park in Kalimantan, Indonesia, inhabited by one of the most diverse collections of species in the world.

"We showed the photos of the animal to locals who know the wildlife of the area, but nobody had ever seen this creature before," said Stephan Wulffraat, a biologist who is coordinating WWF's research on this species.

"We also consulted several Bornean wildlife experts and most were convinced it was a new species," Wulffraat said.

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An image of the unknown animal was captured with a camera trap deep in the forest of Kayan Mentarang National Park. (Photo courtesy WWF)
Believed to be a carnivorous mammal, the creature could be an entirely new species or a new species of marten or civet cat, which looks like a cross between a cat and a fox. It is very rare to discover a new mammal species of this size.

The researchers will set cage traps in the coming months in the hopes of finding more about this creature, which is slightly larger than a domestic cat with dark red fur and a long, bushy tail.

WWF says the unknown animal might remain a mystery forever if its habitat is not adequately protected. Kayan Mentarang National Park is located in the Heart of Borneo, a mountainous rainforest region that is threatened by a proposed palm oil plantation would clear 6,949 square miles - an area half the size of The Netherlands.

This mountainous region still holds vast stretches of forest, where threatened species such as orangutans and the Borneo bay cat live, and 14 out of the island's 20 major rivers originate.

WWF says new species have been discovered there at a rate of three per month over the last 10 years, making the area one of the richest on Earth in terms of biodiversity.

"This discovery highlights the urgent need to conserve the unique forests in the Heart of Borneo. This creature - whatever it is - hasn't been seen since the pictures were taken so it likely occurs in very low numbers," said Ginette Hemley, WWF vice president for species conservation.

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The unknown animal is caught on film a second time. (Photo courtesy WWF)
WWF's Heart of Borneo initiative aims to assist the island's three nations - Brunei, Indonesia and Malaysia - to conserve more than 85,000 square miles of rainforest in the area.

WWF branches around the world are urging the Indonesian government to reconsider plans for the palm oil plantation in Kalimantan.

Announced in July, the proposed plantation is funded at US$8 billion by the Chinese Development Bank and a number of palm oil businesses. The plantation would run through two protected areas - Betung Kerihun National Park in West Kalimantan and Kayan Mentarang National Park in East Kalimantan, both located on the Kalimantan border with Malaysia.

Creating the road network alone would have a devastating impact on the forests, wildlife, and indigenous people of this area, WWF warns. Converting natural forests to monoculture systems through palm oil development will cause the extinction of 80 to 100 percent of biodiversity in the area.

It is not necessary to use this area as there is already a total of 2.3 million hectares of idle or derelict land available for palm oil plantations in Kalimantan, an area greater than the proposed plantation, WWF points out.

In addition, oil palm is not recommended for planting in areas above 200 meters above sea level, because of low productivity at these levels. The plantations should be restricted to areas where the incline is less than 30 percent. But most of the Heart of Borneo border area is between 1,000 and 2,000 meters high, with infertile, shallow soils, and steep slopes. Such rugged terrain means that the risk of erosion is high.

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The Kayan Mentarang National Park in East Kalimantan, Indonesia (Photo by Tantyo Bangun courtesy WWF-Canon)
WWF explains that "although it makes little economic sense to plant palm oil in the uplands, the plantation companies would have access to timber, which they would fell and sell as part of the plantation preparation process. This could be extremely lucrative and there is evidence that some companies have applied for palm oil plantation licenses in the past with this mind."

Today Malaysia's oil palm plantations cover 40 percent of its cultivated land, and it has become the world's largest producer and exporter of palm oil. Indonesia has also embarked on a massive oil palm plantation program.

Palm oil is used worldwide in making margarine, shortenings and confectionery, and in frying snack foods.

Palm oil is also used in the manufacture of soaps and detergents. Oleochemicals manufactured from palm oil and palm kernel oil are now popular for the manufacture of environmentally friendly detergents as they are readily biodegradable.

Palm oil is a raw material for producing oleochemicals, fatty acids, fatty alcohols, glycerol and other derivatives for the manufacture of cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, household and industrial products.

A hectare of oil palm can produce five tons of crude palm oil, at least five times more than the yield of any other commercially grown oil crop.

Despite the Indonesian government's assurance that the project would not harm the environment, WWF insists that development of palm oil plantations should follow strict sustainable and environmental principles which exclude the destruction of forests of high social and biological importance.

"It doesn’t make commercial or conservation sense to rip the forest out of the Heart of Borneo to plant a crop which cannot grow in mountainous conditions," said Dr. Mubariq Ahmad, chief executive director of WWF-Indonesia. "Such a project could have long-lasting, damaging, consequences for the people who depend on the area and its massive water resources, which feed the whole island."