Musim Mas
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By Devane Sharma

Musim Mas engaged experts of ecology and biodiversity conservation from the South East Asia Rainforest Research Partnership (SEARRP), and scientists at the University of Oxford. This was to analyze the health of our forests and conservation areas, based on 12 years of biodiversity datasets collected by Musim Mas conservation team. While we’ve shared the findings of the report, this time, we checked in with the researchers themselves, to understand what got them interested in working in ecology, and to hear their most memorable experiences at work.

The Researchers

Dr Jennifer Lucey,
Knowledge Exchange and Research Fellow,
University of Oxford;
Senior Research Associate,
Dr Sarah Scriven,
Post-Doctoral Research Associate,
University of York (previously Oxford)
Dr Jennifer Lucey is a Research and Knowledge Exchange Fellow, and Impact & Innovation Lead for the Department of Biology at the University of Oxford. She is also a Senior Research Associate for SEARRP. She completed her PhD at the University of York during which she studied the effects of forest fragmentation on insect biodiversity in oil palm landscapes in Sabah, Malaysia.

Since then, she has conducted research into tree regeneration and viable forest set-aside size and manages the SEnSOR program, which investigates the impacts of RSPO certification on biodiversity and livelihoods. She has a special interest in translating science to policy and practice, aiming to improve biodiversity outcomes.

Dr Sarah Scriven is a Post-Doctoral Research Associate at the University of York. Throughout her PhD and subsequent research projects at the Universities of York and Oxford, she has specialized in tropical ecology and conservation. Her research focuses on finding ways to promote biodiversity and rainforest connectivity in tropical agricultural landscapes. She combines analyses of biodiversity datasets from oil palm plantation landscapes in Southeast Asia and connectivity modeling techniques to test the environmental impacts of sustainable palm oil certification.

She also works closely with stakeholders, including oil palm growers, to help inform management and monitoring practices of conservation set-asides and improve biodiversity and connectivity in oil palm landscapes.

What made you decide to go into ecology-related work?

Jen – I’ve been fascinated by wildlife and the natural world since I was very young, and being a rainforest explorer was my childhood dream. While studying ecology in university, I became interested in how we can balance our resource needs with looking after the planet. I decided to pursue a scientific career to help solve this complex question.

Sarah – I’ve always loved spending time outdoors whenever I can, and I enjoy being surrounded by nature. I was also interested in science from a young age, and when I initially went to university, I wanted to be a secondary school science teacher. After having lectures on ecology, animal behavior and global change, I became very interested in applied conservation. I decided to pursue a career in ecology instead to better understand how different species respond to human threats and find ways to create a more sustainable future that benefits both people and nature.

What are some of the most exciting projects you have worked on?

Jen – My PhD fieldwork allowed me to spend many months researching insects in Bornean rainforests, and I was overwhelmed by the diversity of wildlife I found there. Since then, one of the most challenging and rewarding projects I’ve been working on is in developing a tool which makes monitoring all that natural diversity and complexity as simple as possible, so that oil palm companies and a wide range of other forest stewards can effectively monitor and manage conservation areas. We’re now in the final stages of developing a smartphone application.

Sarah – I’ve been lucky enough to have worked on some diverse and exciting projects at the University of York (where I am currently based). I worked on a project examining how northern butterflies responded to climate change in the UK. This involved several months of fieldwork in the Scottish Highlands, an incredible landscape. I’ve also worked on the SEnSOR program for several years, which tests the impacts of Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) certification for biodiversity conservation. This has involved fieldwork in Borneo examining bird diversity within High Conservation Value (HCV) areas.

How were you involved with the Musim Mas biodiversity assessment report?

Jen – I worked with Musim Mas and SEARRP to develop the project concept and design, and as principal investigator, I led the scientific direction of the work. Putting together and delivering the end-of-project workshop in which we could share our findings with the Musim Mas team was especially enjoyable.

Sarah – I worked with Musim Mas and SEARRP to put together the biodiversity assessment report, and I was specifically responsible for the technical side of things, including cleaning, sorting and analyzing the biodiversity data. At the end of the project workshop, I also led the data management activities, working with the team to organize and use their data more effectively. I enjoyed helping the staff create graphs showing bird richness trends over time from their biodiversity datasets. Everyone was interested and engaged in learning about the project’s results.

Dr Jennifer Lucey and Dr Sarah Scriven with Musim Mas Sustainability Team staff at a workshop in 2022

On the Musim Mas report or the subsequent field visit, did you encounter anything that surprised or interested you?

Jen – The data analysis revealed some interesting and unexpected patterns showing that the location and landscape context is essential for understanding and interpreting biodiversity trends. Discussing the results with the Musim Mas field teams and seeing some of the field conditions was valuable for gaining a deeper understanding of real-world considerations and how to set realistic and practical management goals.

Sarah – I greatly enjoyed the Musim Mas field visit with the plantation staff. It was the first time I ever visited Kerangas forest and it’s such an interesting habitat. I loved learning about the ecology of this forest type and some of the species found there – the Musim Mas field team kindly pointed out some great pitcher plants! I also really enjoyed the discussions I had with the field team about the conservation work they are doing across Musim Mas concessions and some of the challenges they face while working out in the field.

The SEARRP team at a Musim Mas conservation forest in Kalimantan

In terms of conservation efforts, what would you like to see in the oil palm landscape?

Jen – RSPO members have set aside many vital areas for biodiversity and carbon storage, and there’s now a valuable network of conservation areas within the plantation landscape. However, these areas are often isolated or degraded, perhaps by historic logging or fire. There’s huge potential not only to conserve but also to enhance these areas, for example, by enrichment planting with native trees. A greater focus here would move the sustainability agenda forward from just avoiding further damage towards actively restoring habitat and taking the lead in meeting global targets for reversing biodiversity losses. It was great to see some of the restoration activities taking place on one of the Musim Mas estates we visited.

Sarah – I’d like to see more connected landscapes, whereby areas of remaining forest within oil palm plantations (e.g., HCV and High Carbon Stock areas) are connected to larger areas of forest in the broader landscape (e.g., protected areas) or to other HCV-HCS sites in neighboring oil palm concessions. This could be done by retaining and/or restoring smaller forest patches (i.e., ‘stepping stones’) or forest corridors to allow the movement of forest species. In my opinion, jurisdictional approaches to oil palm certification that designate HCV-HCS areas across districts or states would enhance forest connectivity and species persistence over much larger areas than at present.