Sundaland heath forests

May 27, 2013, 3:05 pm
Content Cover Image

Nortwest Bankga Island (image right) with degraded heath forests. Source: NASA

The Sundaland heath forests, known in Indonesia as kerangas (or land too poor for rice growing once cleared, in the Iban language) foster the growth of specialist plants such as the carnivorous pitcher plants Nepenthes, sundews Drosera, and bladderworts Utricularia. These forests are disjunctively distributed in southern and eastern Borneo, as well as on large portions of Bangka and Belitung Islands.

caption Satellite view of heath forest on Belitung Island, Indonesia (Photograph by USGS)

As in the many of the Asian lowland forests, the Borneo and Sumatran heath forests are being destroyed by intentionally set fires for slash-and-burn swidden agriculture. This quest for land by indigenous peoples is exploiting the nutritionally impoverished soils of the heath forests, and destroying habitat in an ongoing way. The Indonesian government is offerring scant protection to these endangered forests.

Location and general description

This ecoregion is made up of heath forests scattered throughout Borneo and parts of Sumatra on raised beaches, sandstone plateaus, and ridges. Heath forest is found on well-drained acidic soils (pH less than a value of 4) with a low clay content, derived from siliceoussoils which are crystalline in nature, chiefly silica, and typically acidic rocks under ever-wet conditions. These soils are commonly called white-sand soils. These soils usually originate from old, eroded sandstone beaches that isolated during the mid-Pleistocene. A layer of peat or humus often covers these soils, but is lost once the natural vegetation is cleared. If the soils become waterlogged (lose their drainage capabilities), they develop into kerapah forests. These forests still remain heath forests but are more swampy in character. Based on the Köppen climate zone system, this ecoregion falls in the tropical wet climate zone.

caption Source: WWF

Heath forest soils degrade very quickly to bleached sand once the forest cover is removed, making this type of forest extremely fragile. Periodic water stress and lack of available nutrients may be important in the formation of this forest, which is notoriously poor for agriculture. Heath forests are vastly different from lowland dipterocarp forests in structure, texture, and color. Heath forests have a low, uniform single-layered canopy. Leaf size is smaller, and trees often are densely packed and difficult to penetrate. Trees reach up to 20 meters (m) in height. Large trees are rare, buttresses are smaller, and epiphytes are common. Under favorable conditions heath forests contain many plant species found in lowland evergreen rainforest. Dipterocarps are prominent in the canopy, and palms are common. Under the worst conditions, no dipterocarps may exist, and palms may be rare. Species of the Australian Myrtaceae and Casuarinaceae families predominate, and conifers such as Agathis, Podocarpus, and Dacrydium are abundant. In Kalimantan, the dominant trees are Dipterocarpaceae (Shorea and Hopea spp.), Myrtaceae, Gonystlus spp., Agathis spp., Melor Tree (Dacriydium elatum), Styphelia spp., and Bachea spp.. It is estimated that the heath forests of Sarawak and Brunei contain 849 tree species, and, along with the Nabawan heath forests of Sabah, these forests are richer in plant species and endemics than elsewhere in the ecoregion.

Heath forests generally are less species-rich than comparable dipterocarp forests. They share many features in common with moss forests in the upper montane zones, such as a dense undergrowth, abundant bryophytes, presence of conifers, and the presence of the nitrogen-fixing Borneo Ru Tree (Gymnostoma nobile). They share at least 146 tree species with freshwater and peat swamp forests, including the dipterocarps Alan Batu (Shorea albida) and Dark Red Meranti (S. pachyphylla, CR).

Ground vegetation in heath forests generally is sparse, primarily composed of mosses and liverworts, with a host of insectivorous plants. The presence of insectivorous plants may be an evolutionary response to growing in nitrogen-poor conditions. The sundews Drosera have leaves covered with long red hairs that entrap insects. A bladderwort Utricularia has a hollow bag on the end of a stalk, with the entrance guarded by hairs. If an insect touches these hairs, a rush of water is released, dragging the insect inside to be digested. Six species of pitcher plants are common in heath forests, including the Fanged Pitcher Plant (Nepenthes bicalcarata, VU), found exclusively in heath and peat swamp forests. In other cases, a symbiotic relationship exists between plants and insects. This is the case with Myrmecodia and Hydnophytum species. Myrmecodia harbors ants in its thickened stem, and the ants in turn provide the plant with much-needed nutrients in the form of dead insects and other food they bring into their colony.

Biodiversity features

Faunal species in heath forests are confronted with many of the same threats as those in peat swamp forests. Poor soils cause low productivity, and plants defend themselves from predators with toxic or unpalatable compounds. Because of these unfavorable conditions, heath forests are less species-rich, and animal communities are reduced in diversity and abundance.

Orangutans (Pongo pygmaeus) may frequent this forest types, but less often than other forest types. Heath forests have no turtles and less than one-half of the number of amphibian, lizard, and snake species found in other Bornean forests. There is a noticeable lack of small vertebrates, a partial explanation of why heath forests contain only one-third of the snakes found in dipterocarp forests. With a lack of prey, snakes become less diverse, and this effect cascades up through the food chain. The area supports only a single near-endemic mammal and one near-endemic bird species (Tables 1 and 2).

 Table 1. Endemic and Near-Endemic Mammal Species.




Presbytis hosei, VU

An asterisk signifies that the species range is limited to this ecoregion.


 Table 2. Endemic and Near-Endemic Bird Species.


Common Name



Pygmy white-eye

Oculocincta squamifrons

An asterisk signifies that the species' range is limited to this ecoregion.

Ecoregion status

The Sundaland heath forests ecoregion includes two blocks of intactThe condition of an ecological habitat being an undisturbed or natural environment habitat larger than 5000 square kilometers , and the most intact part is in south Kalimantan. Although more than half of the ecoregion has been cleared, heath forests cannot sustain agriculture, probably accounting for the good condition of this vegetation type. There are seven protected areas that cover 4440 square kilometres (six percent) of the ecoregion (Table 3). Tanjung Puting is the largest of the protected areas, Kutai, which extends into the ecoregion and is also greater than 1000 square kilometres.

 Table 3. WCMC (1997) Protected Areas That Overlap with the Ecoregion.

Protected Area

Area (km2)

IUCN Category

Tanjung Putting [IM0104], 89, 110]



Pararawen Baru [IM0102]



Pantai Samarinda



Bukit Soeharto






Kutai (extension)



Muara Kaman Sedulang






Ecoregion numbers of protected areas that overlap with additional ecoregions are listed in brackets.

Types and severity of threats

Heath forests are easily degraded by logging or burning activities. Once degraded, they develop into an open savanna of shrubs and trees over sparse grass and sedge. This formation is called a padang. Heath forest can recover from a padang, but this takes a very long time period. The replanting or reestablishment of native vegetation has proved ineffective. Extensive areas of this ecoregion were severely damaged in the great forest fire of 1982-1983, which consumed a total area of 33,000 square kilometres, mostly in East Kalimantan, and more recently during the 1997-1998 fires.

Justification of ecoregion delineation

The sizable island of Borneo can be divided into nine ecoregions. Most of the island's lowland and submontane forests are dominated by dipterocarp species. MacKinnon and MacKinnon divided the island's lowland forests into six subunits, with a central subunit representing the montane forests. MacKinnon revised the boundaries of these seven subunits, but retained the same general configuration. These authors used the major rivers, the Kapuas and Barito, to represent zoogeographic barriers to a few mammal species and based subunits largely on these barriers but also used climatic regimes for the drier eastern biounits.

Because ecoregions are based on biomes, the central montane ecoregion-the Borneo Montane rainforests-above the 1000-metre elevation contour was isolated using the Digital Elevation Model (DEM). Then the large patches of peat forests, heath forests, freshwater swamp forests, and mangroves, in the lowlands and along the periphery of the island, were assigned into their own ecoregions: the Borneo peat swamp forests, Sundaland heath forests (which also includes Belitung Island and the heath forests in Bangka island), Southern Borneo freshwater swamp forests, and Sunda Shelf mangroves, respectively. The alpine habitats of the Kinabalu Mountain Range were represented by the Kinabalu Montane alpine meadows.


  • Alistar I. Robertson. 1992. Tropical mangrove ecosystems. American Geophysical Union. 329 pages
  • Mario Rautner, Martin Hardiono, Raymond J. Alfred. 2005. Borneo: treasure island at risk : status of forest, wildlife, and related threats on the Island of Borneo. World Wildlife Fund, Germany. 78 pages

See Also

Disclaimer: This article contains certain information that was originally published by the World Wildlife Fund. Topic editors and authors for the Encyclopedia of Earth have edited its content and added new information. The use of information from the World Wildlife Fund should not be construed as support for or endorsement by that organization for any new information added by EoE personnel, or for any editing of the original content.




Fund, W. (2013). Sundaland heath forests. Retrieved from


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