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The fate of orchids in logged forests of Peninsular Malaysia



THE ORCHID REVIEW (September 2020 Issue) - A report on the alarming loss of orchids in Terengganu and the desperate attempts being made to save them.
163162 September 2020 September 2020
In Peninsular Malaysia,
habitat loss due to human activity
has led to a serious reduction in
orchid diversity in the region. The
threat to orchid diversity has reached
alarming proportions, as millions of
hectares of virgin forest are annually
clear-cut for agriculture, mining and
urban development, either legally or
illegally. Lowland and hill forests in
Terengganu have suffered the
greatest decline in environmental
quality and biodiversity due to timber
extractions that triggered landslides,
cascading water and mud floods.
Epiphytic orchids are particularly
affected as a single tropical tree can
bear hundreds of them. Casualties
from clear-fell logging can therefore
be calculated in the millions. The
orchids on fallen trees in the logged
area are vulnerable, deprived of water,
shelter and nutrients and left to die
under the scorching sun. Of these
defenceless plants, many could be
endangered, flagship or undescribed
species. Removal of buttressing trees
reduces soil-holding capacity and
could cause landslides. Some massive
landslides and mud floods damage
or eliminate herbaceous plants,
including terrestrial orchids. The
wholesale alteration of habitats allows
for the ingress to the forest area of
invasive, resilient and dominant plant
species of low conservation value that
will gradually transition to disturbed
secondary forest vegetation. Here we
take a closer look at the mechanisms
of orchid loss for which logging is
responsible and assess what
conservation measures can be taken.
rusea Go and edward entalai Besi report on the
alarming loss of orchids in Terengganu and the desperate
attempts being made to save them
The fate of orchids
in logged forests of
Peninsular Malaysia
Photographs by the authors unless otherwise stated
Numerous orchids rescued from logged forests have been rehoused at an
ex situ
conservation site managed by conservationist and photographer Dome Nikong.
What drives biodiversity loss in Terengganu?
The main factor is industrial logging,
mainly for timber extraction. This
forest clearance is spreading to the
surrounding area near the National
Parks locality. The malpractice
affects habitat and ecology causing
major disruptions, especially to
sensitive species such as orchids.
Forest destruction by logging is
compounded by rampant illegal
logging in both reserved forest and
other government land areas, in
violation of the laws and regulations
set by the government authorities.
This activity is now at a peak, where
legislation, regulations and other
policies put in place are blatantly
ignored by selfish individuals. The
matter is made worse by factors such
as the increasing demand for logs,
mainly tropical hardwoods, and
other primary forest products,
and clearance for palm oil plantations,
mining and large dam projects.
Monitoring and enforcement of
the many laws aimed at land and
forest protection are inadequate
and fail to protect reserved forest.
Timber extractions
that triggered
landslides and
mud floods
Dendrobium singaporense
(left) and
(right) in a clear-felled forest.
and a
on a fallen
tree in a selectively logged forest in Terengganu.
(left) and
(right) on a dying bough of a fallen tree.
Dome Nikong
164 September 2020 September 2020
The removal of trees reduces sites
for colonization by epiphytic plants,
including orchids. The canopy
disruption caused by clear-cut forest
logging and mud floods changes the
habitat and ecosystem by significantly
altering humidity, temperature and
light levels which are the key
ecological factors behind orchid
survivability. Particularly disrupted
are pollination, flowering and seed
production, limiting the potential for
the diversification which would allow
adaptation to a changed environment.
Nutrients accumulate in soils,
delivered by rain or through the
activity of soil microorganisms. The
impact of timber harvest becomes
apparent when soil erosion and
landslides occur, reducing the soil
holding capacity and eventually
washing away the nutrient layer. This
also leads to disturbance-induced
drought-stress affecting orchids.
Even where there are still
fragments of original habitat available
for colonization, gene flow and
pollinator availability will both have
reduced. It was also observed that
most of the orchids in disturbed
forests survived the long hot and dry
conditions by employing a diverse
set of adaptive strategies. These
What are the consequences of clear-cut forest degradation for orchid habitats?
Logging causes instant damage to the forest’s soil and
vegetation. This protective layer is swept away by log
trucks, bulldozers, log loaders and the heavy machinery
used to lay out skid trails.
Soil surface erosion and clearance in the logging
sites removes the tree canopy and leaf litter which
then alters the pH and humidity, eventually eroding
nutrients from the soil. Without canopy protection,
exposure to full sunlight heats up the ground in
logged forests.
The heavy rains that occurred in Terengganu
and Kelantan in 2014 triggered major floods in
the area, made much worse by the lack of buffering
trees. Without trees, unchecked rainwater flows
quickly to rivers, eroding riverbanks and causing
mud floods on exposed soils on the way.
An underlying cause preventing
conservation efforts from being
fully effective is the contradictory
enforcement of policy and legislation
at different levels of jurisdiction.
Confusion is also added by the
conflicting regional legislation
that is effective in different states
of the country.
The national vision of a progressive
and high-income nation is always in
favour of large-scale development
projects – including the establishment
of commercial agricultural plantations
and building massive dams – over
safeguarding forest communities.
Many examples of forest destruction
have been observed within the
National Park but go unreported,
with fragments of virgin forest
converted to secondary vegetation.
There are different perceptions of
the logging activity in Peninsular
Malaysia. Some parties assert, based
on their surveys, that there is no
illegal logging and that all activity falls
within the scope prescribed for
productive forest. The logging
methods applied are said not to
affect the forest biodiversity. The
introduction of tree replanting, so
that areas can be logged again after
30 years is cited as sustainable, while
permits to cut trees specify the quota
allowed, including the size of the
timber that can be harvested.
However, extreme changes in local
climate which have been experienced
in the past few years indicate these
measures are insufficient. The
temperature and heat fluctuate to
a dangerous level during the long
dry period from January to August,
often triggering forest fires.
Fallen epiphytic orchids are threatened by direct
exposure to the sun and aridity.
adaptations might allow them to
survive warm and dry conditions for
a limited time but they will eventually
succumb to prolonged exposure so
species composition in the immediate
aftermath of logging events does not
represent the long-term picture.
Cleisostoma scortechinii
on fallen
dipterocarp trees at a logging site.
Coelogyne cumingii
exposed to the
scorching rays of the sun on degraded soil.
The devastation
left after a forest
has been clear-felled.
What factors limit conservation efforts? How do orchids respond to anthropogenic-driven forest degradation?
166 September 2020 September 2020
What further research is required?
An assessment of the conservation
status of several rare and endemic
species found in the logging sites
needs to be made. This could provide
information for the IUCN Red List
Categories and Criteria evaluations.
The conservation plans should be
started with the general actions
outlined by the IUCN Species
Survival Commission before detailed
actions are taken. By filling these gaps
in the existing proposed conservation
plans, a better foundation is provided
to advance orchid rescue, including
all-important habitat restoration.
In spite of the implementation of
conservation and reforestation
projects, the rates of deforestation
and forest degradation are still high
in the region. In the absence of
appropriate intervention and the
provision of incentives to tackle the
direct causes and underlying drivers
of deforestation, a quarter of orchid
biodiversity may be wiped out in the
coming years. n
Prof. rusea Go is a researcher
working in the Department of
Biology, Universiti Putra Malaysia,
where edward entalai Besi
is a PhD student.
A botanical visit to a biodiverse lower montane forest in Terengganu to study orchids.
concerning the diversity and
wellbeing of orchids in logged forests.
Within the first 18 months of the
project, we have recorded a total of
273 orchid species belonging to 77
genera. Of these, 73 species are new
records to Terengganu. The extreme
damage to orchid diversity projected
to result from human-induced
disturbance in logged forests has
become a limiting factor in our
efforts. The apparent hopelessness
discourages participation from local
However, we are also reaching out
to orchid enthusiasts and freelance
conservationists for field knowledge
and research materials. Ex situ
conservation may be the only viable
option for some species. Assisted
geographical and marginal migrations
to other localities may not be a
workable choice any more due to
rapid local environmental change.
Unfortunately, the mountains no
longer provide suitable, healthy
habitat in which to re-establish
displaced plants.
Logging opens up opportunities for
those who wish to grow orchids and
doomed plants have been collected
for horticultural purposes. However,
according to our surveys, these have
mostly been for private use and not
for large-scale commercialization that
might help safeguard species.
Fallen specimens of
Coelogyne cumingii
that have been rescued, on their way to an
ex situ
conservation site for nurturing in a shade house.
What is being done to rescue
orchids in logged areas?
Periodical evaluation of the orchid
diversity and health in logged areas
in Terengganu is being carried out
through botanical fieldwork. n
Accompanied by an inspiring nature
enthusiast, conservationist and avid
nature photographer, Dome Nikong,
we have ventured into all forest types
in Terengganu to study orchids.
Our particular task, in
collaboration with Universiti Putra
Malaysia (UPM), has been to rescue
orchids from the active logging
concessionaires and nurture them in
a simple shade house. This is the first
rescue mission of its type to be
carried out in Peninsular Malaysia
and the only research being done
Bulbophyllum pileatum
, a lowland and hill-forest
species, also on its way to the shade house.
Dome Nikong
Dome Nikong
New species discovered in Terengganu, three
of which were named for individuals who have
supported conservation in the area.
Above left
Bromheadia petuangensis
, named
after its type locality, a logging site in Terengganu.
Dendrobium ruseae
, named for author of
this article, Prof. Rusea Go.
Dendrobium ainiae
, named for Prof. Datin
Paduka Dato’ Dr. Aini Ideris, vice-chancellor of
Universiti Putra Malaysia.
Dendrobium mizanii
, named for His Majesty
Sultan of Terengganu, Tuanku Mizan Zainal Abidin.
Dome NikongDome Nikong
Dome Nikong
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