Orangutans are protected in Indonesia. Photo: iStock

Coming up with an integral and rigorous forest-economy policy that balances arboreal resources and forested-land needs, with assured forest sustenance, is vital for governments. Forests, most critically tropical ones, are constantly being razed to make space for crops and plantations, and for meeting timber demands.

Soybean cultivation in Brazil, especially to meet fodder needs for beef cattle, and the palm-oil industry’s plantations in Southeast Asia are jeopardizing vast tracts of ancient tropical forests that serve as biodiversity hotspots, with many of their areas hitherto unexplored.

Forests are diverse entities. While governments consider some deforestation necessary to meet resource-extraction and land needs, biodiversity preservation is important. Should government designate many small-scale local areas all over the forest to be cut, or should it designate one big portion from which everyone can extract what they need, and reserve the rest as out of bounds? Should the designated areas be located in the center, an isolated, unconnected patch, or at the flanks? What should be the scale of allocation if it is in the form of several small portions, given that the sum total is constant?

Preservation of biodiversity and facilitation of animal mating, breeding and intermingling routes constitutes a critical consideration. If a certain subspecies or variety of creature dwells exclusively in one portion of the forest, allocating that area wholly for exploitation could prove detrimental to its chances at survival. It is crucial to analyze whether various parts of the forest have distinct identities as specific ecosystems with enough nuances to render them an exclusive dwelling for their endemic denizens. If a particular area possesses enough salient traits to make it special and exclusive in supporting certain species, it should be excluded from the free-use forest allotment.

If forest allocation is scattered and compartmentalized, the level of such allocation is crucial. If the compartments are small and in numerous pockets, and dynamically allotted under controlled usage, they may quickly recover from the surrounding portions of the forest like healing wounds. So a shifting, small-compartment approach is quite sustainable.

However, if the compartments are large and few in number, the forest’s healing ability is severely impaired. Chances are that one of these patches may contain an exclusive and distinct area of the forest that risks being wholly erased, imperiling the species that depend on its characteristic features for their survival.

In the case of absolute allotment, the land may be damaged beyond the scope of repair and recovery. Edge-effects and interfacial aspects between biomes is critical, and hence while underscoring the position of the deforested area within the forest, we must emphasize scrutiny of its proximity to the edges. For one, it is obvious that a gaping void surrounded on all sides by a forested area may recover from all sides, but an area excised from the edge will only be adjoined by forests on one side, impeding its natural recovery. While allocating pieces of forest for use, it should be ensured that they are diverse and do not contain a disproportionate number of a particular species, especially a slow-breeding, gradual-proliferating or critically endangered species.

When populations become isolated, inbreeding ensues, and a species is rendered prone to genetic disorders. As diversity decreases, hereditary ailments become frequent, and the population begins to die out

Animals travel through the forest for all sorts of reasons – in search of food, courting potential mates, evading predators and temporary disruptions, chasing away rivals, and so on. In particular, traveling for courtship and mating, diversifying, acclimatizing or seasonally adopting diets, and adapting to sudden introductions are important to their survival. Fragmentation of forests into isolated patches can render certain species vulnerable to easy predation.

When populations become isolated, inbreeding ensues, and a species is rendered prone to genetic disorders. As diversity decreases, hereditary ailments become frequent, and the population begins to die out. Fragmentation restricts gene-flow, curbing much-needed intra-specific genetic diversification that is conducive to the proliferation and survival of a species.

Mating is vital for various varieties to exchange genes and keep the gene pool diversified and robust. A monochromatic gene pool is highly susceptible to obliteration due to a single environmental change. In fact, in the evolutionary long run, migration and cross-population breeding ensure continued sustenance of species and bolster biodiversity.

Small segments are more likely to be simultaneously wiped out by ambient change, such as climate calamities, than a well-connected whole. Divided portions are more sensitive to minor fluctuations and factor alterations. In smaller, more isolated populations where there’s little genetic exchange with other populations inhabiting the same niche, susceptibility to adverse effects of genetic drift is dramatically high. Genetic drift tends to accumulate and can render the population disproportionate, reducing variety. Chance incidents and even small-scale natural decimations such as wildfires or rampaging of a large animal can threaten the population. Natural calamities and cataclysms that would otherwise be recovered from can exert an exaggerated influence and imperil the very existence of the species.

Forest fragmentation disrupts existent migration routes, confuses fauna, and curtails mating range available for the organisms. Psychological stress and disturbances due to sudden change in habitat, routes and dwellings also hamper megafauna.

In Indonesia and Malaysia, for instance, the orangutan populations have greatly suffered from habitat fragmentation, primarily owing to the palm-oil industry’s reckless deforestation, and these external stresses are adversely affecting their mating habits and impairing their other behavioral rhythms. The accessibility of forest areas to poachers heightens the crisis. When orangutans stop moving, seed dispersion is affected and the renewal rate of the forest is hindered.

Ongoing road-building facilitates the activities of illicit loggers and hunters, and also splits the forest, confining these shy and apprehensive apes into islets of vegetation. Ecological corridors will go a long way in encouraging genetic exchange and keeping the sparse population healthy. Wildfires are a menace that not only kills these slow-moving apes but also fragments the forest into a patchy framework. Fragmentation is particularly apparent in northern Borneo and the flanks of the forest cover. The decline in the orangutan population closely corresponds to forest fragmentation in geographical superposition.

All over Asia, from Papua New Guinea to China, ambitious infrastructure projects are being undertaken on a massive scale, aimed at bolstering connectivity in historically remote and inaccessible areas, many of which are thickly forested. These gargantuan initiatives are speculated to have severe consequences for pristine ecosystems. Case studies have reinforced the observation that fragmentation of forests hampers their recuperation tenacity, recovery rate, and the overall ability of the ecosystem to cope with environmental alterations. Intact forests are robust, unpliable and unyielding to short-term stresses and small-scale crises. New Guinea in particular has one of the densest endemic biodiversity concentrations in the world, and fragmentation has been shown to have an adverse effect on biodiversity.

Thus forest self-recovery and habitat fragmentation of denizens are two crucial considerations that need to be scientifically probed and consequently incorporated into forest planning. Coming up with a systematic, coherent forest policy that does not alienate the economy altogether, but accommodates and integrates with it, is the need of the hour. Legislators and policymakers must undertake surveys and scientific and field studies to analyze the impact of forest fragmentation.

Forest policy must be backed by research and rigorously substantiated by case studies inquiring into the extent and nature of the impact of deforestation upon the flora and fauna, as well as the recovery rate and health of the forest as a whole. Thus the regulations governing forest usage and resource extraction must be dynamic rather than static. Any cap or prohibition on deforestation must not only be quantitatively sensitive but also qualitatively considerate. Put simply, it means that given a sustainably suitable amount of forest area to be cleared for economic activity, its allocation within the forest is as important as the amount itself.

Governments must engage in drafting and adopting a dynamically evolving environmental-economic framework that strikes a rapport between environmental necessities and absolute economic needs. Reconciliation of industrial and environmental interests needs to be done conscientiously and dynamically, but greater compromises must always be on the side of sustainability.

A redefinition of “development” that integrates, rather than differentiates as two distinct components, environmental protection and economic development is necessary. It must be realized that the two are sides of the same coin, pertaining to human interest, not an absolute gain versus a liability.

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Pitamber Kaushik

Pitamber Kaushik is a columnist, an independent journalist, a writer, and an amateur researcher. His writing has appeared in more than 60 outlets in 30 countries.

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