Publication update 7: What is wilderness?

Ever wondered what people mean when they use the word ‘wilderness’?

Selectively logged forest in Terengganu

To most people, the concept of wilderness generally means pristine, untouched nature, free from the destructive taint of humankind. Would you agree? Many early conservationists subscribed to this idea of wild areas that had been spared the human touch, and therefore their efforts were largely aimed at restoring nature to this perceived original state of being untainted and unchanged (e.g. see Sheil and Meijaard, 2010).

However, the truth is, over the many thousands of years that humans have occupied this planet, there are very few habitats that have not actually been influenced by us in some way or another. In fact, conservationists have discovered that some ecosystems thought to have evolved naturally had actually been subtly shaped by the human communities who once lived there! Today, it’s almost impossible to find a piece of nature that hasn’t been altered or impacted in some way by human activities. This is especially true in Sundaland, the biogeographical region of Southeast Asia which includes Malaysia and Indonesia, where development has accelerated over the last few decades.

This argument forms the basis of the latest publication from Rimba’s team members. Our paper, just published in Biological Conservation, was actually written as a response to an argument put forth by Didham (2011) in Biotropica, who feels that conservationists are making a huge mistake by moving away from ‘wilderness conservation’ to focusing on ‘degraded lands’ such as logged forests. Xingli, Reuben, Sheema and their co-authors argue that in places like Malaysia and Indonesia, we don’t really have a choice anymore because there is actually very little ‘pristine wilderness’ habitat left.  And ‘degraded lands’ such as logged forests, although they are no substitute for primary forests, still need to be saved as much as possible from being converted to timber plantations…or worse, oil palm.

So while we’re not saying that logged forests are as good as primary forests, what we do believe is that a forest, especially a natural one, is still way better than exotic monoculture plantations. We need a jungle out there…

Download our paper here.

NOTE: The forests referred to in our paper are mainly lowland dipterocarp forest i.e. those that are economically important for timber production. Our arguments do not extend to other forest types e.g. peat swamp forest etc.


Didham R.K. 2011. Life After Logging: Strategic Withdrawal from the Garden of Eden or Tactical Error for Wilderness Conservation? Biotropica 43(4): 393-395.

Sheil D. and Meijaard E. 2010. Purity and prejudice: Deluding Ourselves About Biodiversity Conservation. Biotropica 42(5): 566-568.


4 thoughts on “Publication update 7: What is wilderness?

  1. Pingback: Publication update 12: Indigenous rights matter! |

  2. It’s also worth mentioning that when we say “conversion” we really are talking about direct clear-felling from the get-go. If a forest has already been selectively logged first before conversion, it cannot be strictly said that it was a primary forest when it was converted. This doesn’t fit in with the definition of conversion which we applied in this paper. Likewise, the term “selectively logged” is not necessarily restricted to PRFs.

    Indeed, you’ve just helped to prove our point that conservationists should NOT turn away from logged forests and write them off as being ‘degraded’ out of a misguided belief that there is more ‘pristine wilderness’ out there which should be conserved instead. 🙂 We know that forests are frequently logged to purposely degrade them, after which they are converted on the pretext of already being ‘degraded’ and witten off as having no conservation value. As conservationists, we must NOT fall into this trap!

  3. Hi Teck Wyn, we apologise for the ambiguity, but perhaps we should have stated more specifically in our paper that we are referring to lowland dipterocarp forest i.e. those that are most economically important for timber production, not peat swamp forest. Also, as stated in our paper, many if not most VJRs have actually been logged at some point so are not strictly primary forest anymore. This is despite the fact that FAO considers VJRs as legally protected areas.

  4. I agree with the basic premise of the paper but it is unfortunate that several myths are perpetuated. The authors state that “In terms of protection, 100% of the primary forests in Peninsular Malaysia, for example, are already legally protected”. Sadly this is not true. Large areas of primary forest remain in Kedah, Perak, Pahang, etc (including all the remaining primary peat swamp forest). None of the VJRs have been gazetted as protected areas.

    The authors also contend that ‎”Forest conversion in Malaysia from the period 1990–2010 involved only selectively logged forest”. Again, this is not true. Primary forest continues to be cleared throughout Malaysia. Documented cases of conversion of primary forest include that of Ladang Umno in Nenasi FR (Pahang) where 4000 ha of virgin peat swamp forest was cleared in 1998. In most cases, the clearing only takes place as the final coupe of several rounds of logging (with selective logging occuring first). However, it is wrong to perpetuate the falsehood that the area of primary forest in Malaysia remained stable between 1990-2010.

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