Sun bears and clouded leopards roam Borneo's forests, while two species of gibbons and eight species of monkeys climb in the trees. Around a thousand elephants have survived in one corner of the island—mostly in the Malaysian state of Sabah, where the Kinabatangan River runs to the Sulu Sea. Rhinoceroses barely hang on to existence, with fewer than four dozen remaining. But it's an even more charismatic animal—the orangutan—that has become the symbol of Borneo. Its expressive eyes stare out from the newsletters and funding appeals of conservation groups around the world. Considering the island's unsurpassed biodiversity—from orangutans and rhinoceroses to tiny mosses and beetles not yet discovered—and the rate at which its forests are being lost, Borneo's future may well be the most critical conservation issue on our planet.
From a satellite perspective, the threat of Borneo's imminent deforestation might seem overstated. The island, slightly larger than Texas, is still half covered with trees, and in the interior highlands stand hundreds of square miles of virgin forests where almost no one goes save indigenous hunters, wildlife poachers, and gaharu gatherers. Reaching some areas requires a boat trip of several days or strenuous hikes through pathless wilderness.
But it's an entirely different story, and an increasingly desperate one, for lowland forests, the prime habitat for most of Borneo's wealth of biodiversity, including orangutans and elephants. During the past two decades, an estimated two million acres were cleared annually, an area more than half the size of Connecticut. A paper in Science magazine in 2001—ominously titled "The End for Indonesia's Lowland Forests?"—warned of the "dire consequences" of "the current state of resource anarchy" and cited a study predicting that lowland forests in Indonesian Borneo could be totally destroyed by 2010. While government crackdowns have slowed illegal logging and exports, the result has simply been to delay the forecast doomsday.
Other factors could speed it up again. In the past 20 years vast, single-crop plantations of oil palm have spread across Borneo to meet the demand for the versatile (and vastly profitable) oil derived from its fruit. Palm oil is used for cooking, and in cosmetics, soap, desserts, and a seemingly endless list of other products, including biofuel. Indonesia and Malaysia provide 86 percent of the world's supply; growing conditions are perfect on Borneo for this green gold. Even as conservationists spread the news about palm oil's contribution to global deforestation—some calling for boycotting of palm oil products—Indonesia has become the world's number one producing country, with 15 million acres under cultivation, a figure that may double by 2020.