A Flash of History : Corlett’s textbook account of South-east Asia

*Something I wrote about a talk I went to so other people can get to experience what I did. L1040610



Biodiversity : The Southeast Asian story

Most of the audience seems to be made up of scientists, researchers or students from Nottingham – many carted in by bus, presumably from the campus grounds in Semenyih.

We are sitting in a room at Nottingham’s KL Teaching Centre in Chulan Tower, a stones throw from KLCC, ready for a talk hosted by Mindset.

Part of the centre’s objective is to spark discourse on matters of conservation and sustainable development, ‘mainstreaming’ the conversation, giving lay people a way to feel involved.

A couple members of the public – like me, sit among the audience.

I found out about the event through a mailing list I’d signed up for last year during a different talk, hosted by a professor at the university, elephant conservationist Ahimsa Campos Arceiz.

I figured this one – featuring Professor Richard Corlett (one of the most knowledgeable and recognized ecologists in Asia apparently, he’s lived in The region for about 40 years!) would be similarly engaging.

It was.

A textbook

The peg for this little gathering was the launch of a textbook.

Sounds dull, and unless you are an academic the huge 2nd Edition of The Ecology of Tropical East Asia probably isn’t going to make good bed time reading material.

However its content – delivered concisely by the animated Professor made for a riveting hour. (His head had this way of rolling around his clavicles, delivering 180 sweep of the room that reminded me of an ancient and wise Galapagos tortoise!)

Can’t say my memory / notes from the talk are 100% accurate …but because it’s good writing practice, and because I’d like others to get to experience in some fashion what I got to that day, here’s a feature style slice of what happened below :


Snap shots of history

The professor starts off with a map, an amalgamation of different tectonic places parting and rejoining over millennia; the state of permanence we attach to our surroundings no match for the slow consequential drag of time.

The fact that India is still moving north, and the Himalayas – the tallest mountain range in the world – still growing, seem an elegant illustration that no matter how monumental and looming the iconic landscapes within our memories, cultures and histories, the earth is indecisive; forever moving, reorganizing, shifting, in flux.

A look back at recent ice ages yield a greater sense of how great a change the accumulation of time yields: as ice builds up mostly on land in the northern hemisphere, the sea level drops by as much as 60-120 meters. Land bridges emerge, connecting the Malaysian peninsular, Sumatra, and Borneo.

Technically you could walk from KL to Bali, Corlett informs the room. Though getting to the Philippines, Sulawesi, Lombok and Australia would still require crossing the sea.

About 40,000 – 50,000 years ago, Homo sapiens arrived.

Homo erectus too, were likely present in Java and China, and probably generally scattered throughout the region for a couple million years – though we know little about the impact they had on the environment.

Homo sapiens on the other hand certainly left their mark.

The Niah caves in Sarawak are resplendent with archaeological clues to our ravenous appetites; cave murals and the fossils of animal bones indicate we ate pretty much anything that moved, and anything which didn’t (plants, I mean).

Then rice based agriculture appeared – supposedly spread here from the Shanghai region where it is thought to have been domesticated about 9000 years ago; yam and other crops also spread from the western Guinea region.

And so we continued to evolve, organizationally and culturally – Angkor in present day Cambodia was the largest and most complex urban centre in the world at the time.

It may even have been the biggest pre-industrial complex on earth, according to a recent paper, says Corlett.

Fast forward to two points in recent time:

Satellite images from 1992, and 2012.

After the slow lumbering transitions experienced over its cumulative past, in just 20 years – a mere blink in the eyes of time – Western Malaysia lights up 2000% brighter.

Could there be a more poignant symbolism of the dramatic changes that continue to shape the landscape of South-East Asia?


People and biodiversity : an inverse relationship?

Plant diversity is pretty accurately depicted by the number of wet days an area experiences in a year, Corlett tells us.

The tropical rainforest of Lambir in Sarawak for example, is one of the wettest places in the world, and most species-rich.

Scientists estimate 1175 tree species.

There are thought to be 1666 in the whole of temperate Europe, Asia and North America combined!

“This ought to be on T-shirt!” He exclaims.

It’s not quite the same for animal species, which show a different pattern.

The highest diversity of birds species is found in the northern margins of the tropics for example, in forests located within India, Myanmar and China. Nobody knows why.

“We just don’t. It’s one of those unanswered questions”, says Corlett.

For now, it remains just another one of the natural world’s many intriguing mysteries.

Science, is a tool we use to chisel away to get at the truth, however by no means does it guarantee us answers – much of what we know is by proxy.

Take the dense, cryptic vastness of the jungle: much of what we know about its inhabitants is based on what they eat.

Digested leftovers, give us clues about the presence, diets and habits of illusive animals.

For the longest time, the stories of wild fauna have been pieced together like a jigsaw.

Vast bodies of knowledge, built upon crude evidence, meticulously collected and studied in a biologists game of detective, with the proverbial magnifying glass swapped for tools of statistical analysis.


About five millennia ago, tropical East Asia was inhabited by only a few million people. It was almost entirely covered in forest.

That forest supported over 30 large mammal species, with over 12 species inhabiting any one area at a given time.

We think that in total, the region supported 15-25% of global biodiversity, a fact Corlett says will almost certainly have been true for marine species too.

Today, there are over a billion people in tropical East Asia.

About 40% of the land is covered by forest, most of the rest having been logged.

No forest supports all of the large mammal species it did five thousand years ago, many support none at all.

But here’s the thing, it still supports 15-25% of global biodiversity!

And that’s partly because the rest of the world has suffered the same problems.

Corlett points to a slide in the projector: it’s a graph showing the increase in the region’s human population.

One long line stretching out from about ten thousand years ago…looks almost flat, increasing at a shallow gradient.

At the right end of the graph however, the line suddenly launches straight up into an almost vertical reach toward the sky….the great leap from millions to billions.

But it’s not just the numbers that count.
Behavior, enabled by new technologies and influenced by local economies – can vastly intensify the impact a population has on its surroundings.

How much a person consumes, how much energy their lifestyle requires, how much waste they produce…

And Homo sapiens have become ravenous.

Fertilizer improved productivity which allowed consumption to rise, wealth has enabled an intensification of that consumption.

Corlett segways into an anecdote about how rhino hide was used for Chinese armour during the ancient Zhou dynasty.

Historically, all three Asian rhino species were found in southwestern China. By 1933, the last two Javan rhinos remaining there were killed.

*another notable animal currently pushed on to the brink of extinction is the Hainan gibbon, whose numbers range between 23-25 animals, and may end up distinguished as the first ape to be wiped out because of human actions.

The world is changing.

It’s getting warmer everywhere in the world, but here in tropical East Asia, it’s happening at a slower pace than in the northern hemisphere.

What has intensified are the mood swings in our weather. Patterns have become increasingly irregular, erratic.

Thus far 1998, the year of a strong El Niño has been the hottest year on record.

Climate models predict a temperature rise of 1-2% by 2050, and up to a 2-5% by 2100.

“If current climate models are correct, by 2050 Malaysia will be hotter than its been in 5 million years,” says Corlett.

Other changes have taken place.

Having been in the region for 40 years, Corlett says he’s seen it get richer.

Tropical Asia is no longer a poor region. In fact countries like Malaysia overlap with certain Eastern European countries in terms of wealth.

And as East Asian economies chug along, Corlett would rather this increase in riches translate into a better allocation for conservation, something that hasn’t quite happened yet.

Worldwide, people have been trying out new ideas to add value to the environment.

Technology has fostered a global village, streams of a collective consciousness.

Our ability to reflect upon our past and calculate its import upon our future, has led to the emergence of rough solutions.

Many are At the stages of infancy, getting people to pay for ecosystem services is one option being tested.

The idea Is to raise funds for active conservation measures, or to compensate local opportunity costs for leaving forests alone.

There are many holes in our plans.

We tear our ideas apart, sew them back together in different forms, patch them up.

The possible solutions we have constructed are amateur works in progress… Journeying through the stages all ideas must take before coming into maturity.

Certification systems have been invented to help create markets for sustainably source products.

Programs under organizations like the FAO, UNDP, UNEP, and the UN REDD programme continue to evolve in search of an answer to sustainability.

But even with the resources available, priorities have to be set.

For that we have organizations like the IUCN, which keeps a list – the Red List – documenting the conservation status of different species.

And even with that, many of the species of are classed as ‘data deficient’, which means there isn’t enough information to make an informed guess at how well populations are doing – about 10% haven’t even been evaluated yet.

In response, more solutions are formed, the Red List doesn’t say much about the unique values of different species, so another program, EDGE of Existence, has recently been helping to fill that gap.

They’ve scored the world’s mammals, amphibians, corals and birds according to how Evolutionarily Distinct and Globally Endangered they are, this should help set priorities in our conservation efforts.

Efforts are thwarted by kinks in the unequal nature of life; data collection, knowledge, communication and dissemination of constructive ideas…

For example, it might look like number of threatened species listed on Malaysia’s plant list is bad – worse than anywhere else in the region.

In actual fact, this is more likely a reflection of the extensive and good work the Forest Research Institute Malaysia done in identifying and naming threatened species, muses Corlett.

The nuances behind the headlines, can be important.

It is a challenge of modern life – how the bigger picture, a slippery concept that shifts and changes in accordance with access to information is perceived by a global audience most likely to consume their information in bite-sized chunks

Back to Corlett.

He asks the question – what do we need to do?

Establish new protected areas. In the lowlands at least.

“This will have to include more logged forests.”

We also need to improve on existing protected areas, many of which are just ‘paper parks’.

Corlett recounts how a student of his spoke of working in a park with protected status in China.

“Guns could be heard going off every seven minutes, and they’d run into a hunter every half hour,” he says.

Other things that need work: better management of legal logging operations.

Clamp down on illegal hunting.

Take more intense control of the trade of endangered species – something for which there has been minuscule efforts toward, in the region.

Sometimes the challenges go beyond inadequate funding.

Socioeconomics play a role – rangers charged with preventing such crimes are often surrounded desperately poor people.

Patrols have to be made around the clock.

Cat Tien, a park in Vietnam where the last wild Javan rhinoceros known to have existed was shot, was full of other types of hunt-able species: gibbons, green peafowl, and lots of other stuff you don’t see anywhere else.

Though an all out ban is preferable for a Corlett, he says one option is to allow hunting only where it can be controlled – in certain places in the US, permit systems for hunting have worked quite well.

There is also more room for work to be be done outside of forested areas that can contribute to protecting the biodiversity inside, such as encouraging and developing biodiversity-friendly management in rural and farm areas.

And ex-situ stuff; conservation of endangered species through seed banks, germ plasm banks, zoos, breeding centers, botanical gardens and the like.

Re-introductions of species into wild where possible and appropriate, and improved education about the objectives of conservation – especially around protected areas – are also areas we need to improve.

Asia hasn’t been the best at executing all this.

Part of the reason why may relate to the striking contrast between the systems and legislature that have developed around conservation in Europe versus tropical East Asia.

One advantage that Europe has, he says, is that unlike its ASEAN equivalent, the European Union is a supranational entity with enforceable powers.

Hence, a top down look at what needs protecting has led to better monitoring, priority setting and action, Corlett reflects.

you can read more in a paper he wrote titled Becoming Europe: Southeast Asia in the Anthropocene, published in Elementa, Science of the Anthropocene.


And with that, we had been taken through the last chapter of Corlett’s textbook.

The talk wound up with lively discussion from the audience.

The whole point of Nottinham’s Mindset Talks has been about encouraging cross talk between disciplines.

A question posed about why – aside from moral obligations – we should protect biodiversity (asked I thought, with sincerity from the angle of someone wanting to know how these ideas could be sold to those without the same level of interest in these subject matters) seemed to illustrate this point.

Corbett reacted with sheer honesty : “I don’t know.”

In all frankness, he said, the need to protect our forests and the astounding and awe-inspiring diversity of life contained within just seemed, too obvious.

Which is why getting geographers, economists, sociologists, finance experts and all the divergent fields we can get, sitting in a room together and discussing things like this is so important.

Protecting nature doesn’t have to be a zero sum game, but many of those driven by passion to study it, and protect it, need help from those who think differently from them.

There are plenty of solid, valid arguments for protection that have nothing to do with ‘values’, we just need to figure out how best to communicate and streamline them into decision making processes.

Environmental accounting. Ecosystem service valuation. These need to be the new buzzwords.

And drawing in multiple stakeholder perspectives will be crucial in the coming years if we are make sense of and find holistic solutions to the global challenges we face.

In this sense, Mindset’s objective is to create a space where sociologists – engineers – economists – biologists and the general public at large, can come and hear experts discuss things that both interest and matter to them is a wonderful and much needed initiative, I think.

It’s what we need to help not just the general public, but different academic factions move away from the silo-based approaches often adopted in dealing with global challenges – so frequently boxed within the purview of a specific discipline or government agency.

Agriculture, biodiversity, development, income generation, the economy; these are often seen as having to progress at the expense of each other.

They are not, they are the puzzle pieces for which we need to figure out a best fit, within the larger, more complicated patchwork of interlinked issues.

You can watch Nottingham’s Mindset Talks by visiting their You Tube channel where all previous events are posted for public viewing:



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