Vanishing Borneo Pheasants Look Great but Won't Mate

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The parks are supposed to be off-limits to logging, but the laws are ignored by timber cartels, Curran added.

Rowden, who has been conducting his Bulwer's pheasant studies in the Malaysian province of Sarawak since 2001, said the loss of forest there is less severe—at least the parks are protected. "But a lot of the areas outside of the protected areas are being harvested right up to the border," Rowden said.

In addition to the logging, Rowden said waves of men sweep through the forests in search of gaharu, a fungus that infects some trees and creates a resinous wood considered a prized fragrance in Asia and the Middle East.

According to some reports, top quality gaharu sells in these markets for more than U.S. $2,000 per kilogram (2.2 pounds). Though this cash incentive drives gaharu harvesting, the harvesters make a fraction of the fungus's market value, Rowden added.

Curran said that the most destructive practice is conversion of land to palm oil plantations. Forest is stripped and replaced with a single species of palm tree.

Palm oil is used in everything from food products to cosmetics and toiletries. In the late 1990s, Curran said, land speculators bought up swaths of forest in West Kalimantan for conversion to palm oil plantations. Today much of the land is cleared, but the plantations have not been planted.

Elusive Pheasant

The impact of Borneo's forest loss to the Bulwer's pheasant in unknown, Rowden said. Currently, the World Conservation Union lists the pheasant as "vulnerable," which is less serious than "endangered."

Rowden said that until better information on the pheasant's population is obtained, its listing will stay unchanged. But the birds have such a low density and are so sensitive to disturbance that "it's difficult to track them down," he said.

Curran, the Yale University professor, counted animals in Kalimantan's lowland rain forest for eight years straight and never saw a Bulwer's pheasant. She's returned for several months each year since. Still no pheasant.

"There are some species we know so little about. This is one of them," she said. Bulwer's pheasants are thought to spend most of their time in the highlands, which may explain their lowland absence, Curran added.

For now, the hill forests are mostly intact. As the last of the lowland forests are logged, however, the hill forests will become more vulnerable, Curran said.

A vibrant zoo population of Bulwer's pheasants could help raise awareness of conservation needs in Borneo, Rowden said. He's now racing to find that "something" that convinces zoo populations of Bulwer's pheasants to reproduce.

"I think the Bulwer's is such a spectacular bird and comes from such a threatened habitat that it can be a useful conservation ambassador," Rowden said.

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