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The future of Borneo is bleak - I've read its palms

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Mark Carwardine Mark Carwardine | 11:30 UK time, Wednesday, 23 September 2009

This week's programme is ostensibly about Komodo dragons, but Stephen and I started our travels in Malaysian Borneo - and that's where we experienced our personal highs and lows of the trip. 

We had an amazing few days filming at a blissful tropical island called Sipadan, which is one of the best dive sites in the world. As Stephen put it at the time: "You know the saying, 'The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence?'. Well, this is the other side of the fence."

But there is one sight in Borneo that neither of us can get out of our minds: the palm trees. Vast swathes of what was once tropical rainforest have been cleared to make way for row upon row, mile upon mile of identical palms. 

It is such a huge problem that the rapid expanse of palm oil plantations in Southeast Asia could be the single most immediate threat to the greatest number of species on the planet. When the forest goes, so does most of the wildlife - indeed, palm oil is now considered the biggest threat to orangutans.

Palm oil is a key ingredient of many processed foods (though it's usually listed simply as 'vegetable oil') and is in huge demand as a source of non-hydrogenated fats. It is also used to produce biofuel, even though clearing the forests releases so much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere that the damage caused outweighs the benefits of switching to a so-called environmentally-friendly fuel.

Malaysia and Indonesia are by far the largest exporters of palm oil. Their economies rely on it - and so do the livelihoods of millions of people. In fact, the incentives to produce palm oil are so great that national park and reserve boundaries are often changed to make way for new plantations.

There are solutions. For a start, there is plenty of non-forested land that would be perfectly good enough to meet the growing demand for palm oil plantations. But even so, the greedy corporations prefer to bulldoze the rainforests to make extra money out of their valuable timber. 

If you'd like to find out more about palm oil and what's being done to tackle the problem have a look at the following websites;


  • 1. At 8:50pm on 27 Sep 2009, earthtrust wrote:

    Wonderful programme but please stop touching the seahorses! If you do it other people think it is acceptable - and its not.

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  • 2. At 01:24am on 28 Sep 2009, samyogita42 wrote:

    Before I say anything else, thanks a lot for everything that you're doing.

    Just wanted to ask you...
    I understand that you were making a TV program and that it's a more complicated and sensitive issue than just going around telling people what to do... but couldn't help wondering after watching all those marine life shops on today's episode... did you not try to create more awareness in the areas that you visited?

    All the best and lots of love!

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  • 3. At 5:55pm on 30 Sep 2009, Steven wrote:

    Hi earthtrust, Mark has sent through this response to your comment:

    I have to agree entirely with the comments that I shouldn't have touched the seahorse in last week's programme - I deserve to be ticked off. I do know better and it was a silly thing to do. I was trying to show it to the camera, because it was lost in all the vegetation on the seabed, and was being very careful and gentle - but it definitely sends the wrong message and I regret that it made it into the programme.

    The golden rule is that divers shouldn't touch anything, whether it be coral, sea turtles or seahorses. I feel particularly embarrassed because I have been very outspoken in the past about presenters who grab and wrestle animals to the ground to make themselves look impressive on telly.

    They argue that this style of presenting is the only way to reach a huge audience with virtually zero interest in wildlife, but I believe it encourages entirely the wrong attitude towards wildlife - manipulative, domineering and interfering. Many thanks for pointing my mistake out - lesson learnt.

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  • 4. At 11:02am on 05 Oct 2009, psephotus wrote:

    Although I suspect you got this question before. Will there be extra episodes on the Baji and the rodriguez fruit bat who both are one the opposite ends of conservation success.

    Also I would like to give my compliments to the show. I enjoyed last nights show a lot and the Kakapo stays a very charismatic species even when they are committing rape ;).

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  • 5. At 4:23pm on 05 Oct 2009, Steven wrote:

    Hi psephotus,

    Tim Green, Series Producer of Last Chance to See, has sent the following in response to your questions:

    The Yangtze River Dolphin was a tricky one for us as it was one of the species that Mark and Douglas originally tracked, but was officially declared extinct some months ago. It is a powerful story, and not one we wanted to duck. We tell the story of the dolphin in the final programme of the series. As we can't go hunting the dolphin, Mark chooses another species that faces many of the dangers and threats that overcame the Yangtze River Dolphin and we go hunting for the Blue Whale.

    As the series ends we are looking for a new species, and facing up to the threats that finished off the Yangtze River Dolphin. It turns out to be a dramatic and emotional journey as Stephen is blown away by his whale encounters and many of the threads of the series come together for the series finale.

    The fruit bat will have to wait for another series... Many of the issues raised in Mauritius were similar to the issues raised in New Zealand, and once we realised that we probably had seven films competing for six slots, we decided to lose Mauritius. It would have been a great film, not least because of Karl Jones, one of the most charismatic, inspiring and extraordinary men in conservation.

    For real fanatics, Mark Carwardine is currently filming for a series about the Natural History Museum. In the first episode he will be visiting Mauritius and will encounter Karl Jones. I do not know at the moment whether the fruit bats will make an appearance...!

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  • 6. At 8:08pm on 05 Oct 2009, nitegroover wrote:

    I have been glued to the TV watching this great series, I was especially interested in the Indonesia programme and seen Monitor Lizards in the wild, as I have visited Borneo, Pulau Tiga and Snake Island myself.
    I have wonderful pictures of holding a "deadly" Sea Krait and watching someone completely submerging themselves in the volcanic mud pit.
    I was horrified when I went deep into central Borneo (7 hours in the car) and saw the extent of the logging and the size of the oil palm plantations.
    People cannot imagine the immensity of the destruction by seeing it on TV, it just cannot be portrayed enough.
    But I know that it needs to stop, I was very dismayed to see the huge loss of habitat that countries like these are suffering.
    I have also visited the Masai Mara, and I was extremely pleased to see that the protection of the Rhino is now extremely important to the local people.
    I hope that more series like these are put on because it can only make people more aware of the plight of all the endangered animals on this planet...

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  • 7. At 12:05pm on 06 Oct 2009, psephotus wrote:

    Thank you Tim for your explanation and I can understand the choice and I m looking forward for the encounter with Karl Jones as he is indeed is very inspiring.

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  • 8. At 10:55pm on 18 Oct 2009, benthicboy wrote:

    Will the'Last Chance to See' program evetually be released as a DVD? If there are currently no plans to do this, please, please BBC give this some consideration. I would love to have a copy of this series to enjoy over & over again.

    Ref. The last program in the series I can thoroughly recommend to bloggers a book called 'Leviathan' by Philip Hoare. A very comprehensive account of whales & whaling & is one for the personal bookshelf.


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  • 9. At 12:34pm on 29 Oct 2009, DozyMozy1955 wrote:

    Delighted to read your comments about the devastation caused by deforestation and the threat of palm oil to the orangutan. What a pity the programme didn't include ornagutans: it may truly have been our last chance to see this magnificent creature.

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  • 10. At 00:51am on 12 Nov 2009, ThisIsMe wrote:

    Thank you everyone who was involved in making this series - it truly is the most compelling viewing and the knowledge and enthusiasm of both Mark and Stephen is completely infectious. I cannot wait for the next series. Please tell me I won't have to wait too long to see more of the beautiful filming and thought-provoking commentary which made this series such an absolute joy to watch.

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