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Research in Borneo produces novel approach to predicting deforestation risk

Scientists from the Forest Service, University of Oxford’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit and University of Montana collaborated for a study that has drawn attention to the risks of deforestation, providing conservationists with the tools to predict and plan for future forest loss.

The study, “Multiple-scale Prediction of Forest Loss Risk across Borneo,” was published in the journal Landscape Ecology. Co-lead author and research landscape ecologist Samuel Cushman, Rocky Mountain Research Station, and his team focused their research on Borneo, a rugged island shared by three nations in the Malay Archipelago of Southeast Asia. Borneo forests have among the highest biodiversity and the highest forest loss rates on the planet, the country has lost a staggering 30 percent of its forest since the 1970s. The loss of Bornean forests releases significant amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and threatens species such as the orangutan, Sumatran rhino and the Sunda clouded leopard.

The research team’s innovative approach to conducting data analysis included using existing maps of the area and the machine learning algorithm ‘Random Forests’ to build a multi-scale model of deforestation on the island from 2000–2010. After calculating the historic links between landscape variables and deforestation, the team used this information to predict the future deforestation risk facing Borneo’s remaining forests. In addition, the results highlight the immense and imminent deforestation risk to Borneo’s forest biodiversity, with risk patterns related to the differing topographies and landscape structures of the three nations.

Despite its focus on Borneo, the study findings will be useful to all forest conservationists, and could help analyze risk in tropical forests around the world. The research findings confirm that this multiple-scale modelling approach offers a powerful method for analyzing land use change.

Graphic: map of Borneo with different colors representing areas where deforestation is predicted.
Map from the study showing the predicted risk of deforestation across Borneo’s remaining forests. Red areas represent areas of highest risk.

Photo: Sunda clouded leopard in dark forest. Leopard snarls at the camera.
Sunda clouded leopard captured on film as part of a WildCRU study of clouded leopard ecology in Malaysian Borneo. Deforestation is one of the biggest threats to clouded leopards. WildCRU photo courtesy Andrew Hearn.