• Journecology

What is the SAFE Project?

Updated: Dec 5, 2017

With a total of 323 researchers having worked on 172 projects, the SAFE Project (Stability of Altered Forest Ecosystems) is one of the largest ecological experiments in the world. Located in Malaysian Borneo, and on the front-line of deforestation, SAFE explores the processes and consequences of human driven rainforest disturbance.

An island of rainforest surrounded by oil palm plantation

How does SAFE work?

The concept, born in a paper in 2011, analyses the effects of human disturbance of rainforest in Malaysia on a huge scale, and more importantly, a huge gradient. The experimental site itself takes advantage of land previously allocated for conversion to oil palm plantation by protecting pockets of forest across varying levels of deforestation. Upon this land, three main aspects of the land change are being studied:

  1. Ecosystem changes across a deforestation gradient – analysing ecological changes when the forest is lightly logged, heavily logged, and eventually converted into an oil palm plantation.

  2. Ecosystem changes due to fragmentation – using carefully designed pockets of forest to explore how the size, shape and distance between forest fragments affects ecosystem function.

  3. The importance of riparian corridors – these are areas of forest around rivers, which are particularly important to certain species, and also for the health of waterways themselves. How might the presence, absence, or size of riparian strip change the ecosystem?

SAFE Project map; sampling sites and deforestation gradient, (Ewers et al. 2011)

To achieve this, SAFE works alongside oil palm companies by agreeing that certain fragments and strips should be protected, and allowing access into the oil palm gazetted area for experimental purposes. It is important to remember that the SAFE project is not the cause of deforestation in this landscape, merely monitoring the changing situation to address important scientific questions.

The two types of sampling point geometry at the SAFE Project (Ewers et al. 2011)

The SAFE Project has worldwide collaborations through universities, researchers and independent organisations – resulting in a huge variety of research topics, just a few examples being hydrology, acoustic monitoring, genomics, carbon flux, disease, and species monitoring. All these topics ultimately combine to further develop our understanding of how human impacts affect tropical forests, and what methods we can take to help minimise damage.

Working at SAFE

Working at SAFE can be done voluntarily, or through submitting a research proposal. Nearly everyone is based at the main site near Kalabakan in Sabah, however researchers often use other sample sites further afield such as Maliau Basin. It also gives a unique perspective on our changing ecosystems as you view the effects of deforestation first hand. It is a powerfully shocking experience to see this, yet also reassuring to see some of the fantastic science that is committed to helping the cause.

Work in this landscape can be difficult, tiring and take a lot of time. The only access routes are bumpy and winding logging routes through the hills, sometimes to reach a sampling site it can take 2 hours by SUV. After that, equipment and gear must be carried through the jungle, across (or through) rivers and up rocky terrain. Logged forest has a thick understory (lower foliage) as light penetrates the canopy easily, consequently researchers should expect regular walls of stinging plants or thorny bushes in their way. If that’s not enough, beware of snakes, fire ants, elephants, sun bears and giant hornets (just to mention a few). The reality of actually running into danger is quite low, however the work is tough and so local research assistants are always assigned to help navigate through the bush.

When you return from the field, it’s time to input your data, write that report or plan for tomorrow. The current lab is a wooden structure with 6 benches and limited shelf space, consequently it can be a squeeze during busy periods. However SAFE camp is always expanding and a new lab is being constructed with more space and more kit.

Living at SAFE

If you enjoy waking up to the whooping of gibbons, washing in a tropical river and sleeping with the rainforest chorus above you, then it’s good news. However, don’t forget the giant centipedes, extreme humidity and harsh terrain – SAFE come with pros and cons. Whatever the case, living at SAFE is certainly an eye-opening experience, and something that one certainly gains a lot from. 

Daily life is entirely built around researchers’ work. The likelihood is you’ll be jumping on a car around 8 after breakfast (noodles / fried rice + coffee). Occasionally researchers work on early morning or night-time species, in which case their routine is normally flipped! Working close to camp means you may get to come back for lunch, but generally a packed lunch can be arranged. After a strenuous day in the field it’s back to base for data entry, chats, nap, sports (there’s a badminton ‘court’!), and general wind-down. One of the great things about being based at SAFE are the people there, everyone can chat about science, share ideas and experience, or get involved with the local research assistants.

Food at SAFE is remarkably good considering the isolation. Weekly food/logistics runs to Tawau (3hrs) keep supplies steady and the on site chef works extremely hard to come up with good food for everyone. Some food is grown on site such as chillies, papaya, pakis and pineapple. 

Communications can be limited, with intermittent wifi it’s often unusable on busy days. Phone signal requires a short walk up the hill, but this is the nature of the jungle, and anything is a plus. Washing clothes in buckets, open bed spaces and cold(ish) showers are the norm, but SAFE is constantly expanding and improving facilities – personally I enjoyed the basic way of life here.

The Future of SAFE

In just five years, SAFE camp has expanded from a muddy campsite in the jungle, to a fully functioning research station accommodating researchers from across the globe. The future of the project is extremely bright as collaborations strengthen, and the project receives global recognition. SAFE continues to produce exciting front-line research outputs in top journals, and we are starting to see some results from long-term temporal studies of rainforest change. As the oil palm companies continue to log the surrounding forest, SAFE’s protected fragments are becoming more and more distinct, and soon the experimental zone will be complete. It will then be simpler to observe how isolated ecosystems survive and determine ‘safe’ levels of forest fragmentation. With this knowledge, we can provide solid scientific evidence to protect threatened forests worldwide which otherwise would completely be lost.

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