A Western Australian ecologist is part of a world-first study into how restoring degraded rainforest affects human health.
University of Western Australia Albany research scientist Peter Speldewinde has holidayed in Sabah, a Malaysian state in northern Borneo, for 16 years.
Until last year, he had no idea a pilot revegetation program in a local jungle offered a dream opportunity to investigate how forest restoration impacted people's health.
The multi-million-dollar Inikea Project started rehabilitating the 18,500 hectare Sungai Tiagau Forest Reserve in 1998, after drought, logging and fire degraded the area in the 1980s.
The international initiative is a bid by partners in Malaysia, Sweden and Arizona to improve biodiversity by planting hundreds of thousands of native seedlings each year.
Dr Speldewinde said it was the perfect site for scientists to study how restoring tropical rainforest affected human health, for the first time.
"There are instances all around the world where you have a change in biodiversity or some kind of ecological disruption … and a disease or mental health issue suddenly appears," he said.
He said dryland salinity could increase depression and mosquitos carrying Ross River virus, while removing vegetation could increase mercury poisoning.
This article was written by Lisa Morrison and first appeared on ABC Great Southern Online.
"What we don't know is, when you restore an ecosystem can you reduce the human health impact?"
Dr Speldewinde said restoring ecosystems was like assembling a jigsaw puzzle without the picture on the box and with some of the pieces missing.
"You're putting things back together but you might have lost a species or two, you might be putting them back in different proportions, the conditions … might be slightly different, so one species thrives while another doesn't," he said.
"You never know where it's going to end up."
This can have important ramifications for disease rates in people near the restored area.
"You might … make the disease worse because you've created a set of conditions where that disease thrives," Dr Speldewinde said.
"Or you might assemble it in a way that the disease doesn't exist [there] anymore."
Dr Speldewinde returned to Sabah in October last year in search of answers.
He teamed up with University of Adelaide ecologist Philip Weinstein and University of Malaysia Sabah malaria expert Tock Chua.
"We are some of the only people in the world looking at ecosystem restoration and human health," Dr Speldewinde said.
The trio wants to work out when the rate of Plasmodium knowlesi, or monkey malaria, is lowest during the Inikea Project.
Dr Speldewinde said monkey malaria cases had increased from about 100 to 1,000 between 2004 and 2013.
"With the normal strains of malaria … if you put people under mosquito nets … [and] spray them with repellent, you can essentially break that cycle and bring the levels right down," he said.
The researchers will return to Sabah throughout next year to measure mosquito abundance and species, monkey populations and malaria infection rates.
Their findings will be correlated with vegetation type and age across the Inikea Project.
"If we can manipulate the landscape … so we get certain types of mosquitos and certain types of monkeys, then we might be onto a winner," Dr Speldewinde said.
"If the forest can be restored in a way that maximises biodiversity and minimises malaria risk, that knowledge can be applied to ecosystems around the world.
"This could be another tool in the toolbox to prevent malaria."
David Stacey (UWA Media and Public Relations Manager) (+61 8) 6488 3229 / (+61 4) 32 637 716
Peter Speldewinde (Centre of Excellence in Natural Resource Management) (+61 8) 9842 0845
Paula Phillips (UWA Albany Centre Manager) (+61) 8 9842 0810