WLT Writer Nina Seale visits The Eden Project and sleeps under the dome of the Rainforest Biome for the world’s first Big Canopy Campout.
“What they got in there, King Kong?”
These are the words I heard echo in my mind, as large Jurassic Park-esque doors slid open with a metallic hum and I entered The Eden Project Rainforest Biome for the first time. The gate is not for dramatic effect; it is the entrance staff use to bring in large plants and equipment which are carried around in small buggies (which did nothing to get Jurassic Park theme out of my head).
The Rainforest Biome is home to ancient giants, but not the dinosaur kind. The Eden Project is all about plants- visitors can smell the putrid stench of the Titan Arum, learn how rubber is extracted and spot the botanical origins of chocolate, coffee and pineapples (surprising fact: pineapples grow on the ground).
Surrounded by this exotic diversity, it was the last place I thought I would spot a blackbird, then a robin, then a grey wagtail. Accidental biome inhabitants who are now trapped in this tropical utopia, feasting on the insects and singing to visitors. Trying to imagine the day each one accidentally hopped from a chilly English morning into this warm, humid paradise made me smile.
Animal life in the biome
There were some non-native animals keeping them company too, the most charming of which were the male Roul-roul Partridges with their indigo plumage and orange crests, scampering around the biome floor with their emerald females.
After the Biome closed to visitors, and evening turned into night, I met some of the biome’s exothermic inhabitants. Was that a green anole lizard? Is that a gecko, almost invisible, clinging to that trunk in perfect camouflage?
What was I doing, staying in the biome after nightfall? No, I was not an accidental guest of The Eden Project with the robins and blackbirds. I was sleeping in the Biome for The Big Canopy Campout, an international canopy campout event to raise funds for WLT’s Saving Kinabatangan Appeal for Bornean Rainforest. As soon as the day visitors had left, the rope access team were aloft, hanging over the rainforest as they erected hanging tents from the dome.
Once they were finished and sunlight dropped from the dome, the result was quite spectacular. They left a torch in each one and they glowed above the trees like floating candles.
Sleeping under the biome’s starry sky
These tents would be the canopy nests for the rope access team, the canopy climbers who had organised The Big Canopy Campout and Phoebe Smith, extreme sleeper and Editor of Wanderlust magazine. The rest of us, made up on Eden staff, canopy scientists and myself, would sleep in hammocks strung up on the Canopy Walkway.
When the path night-lights came on, their reflections in the hexagonal bubbles of the dome looked like stars. This impression, with the glowing tents, had quite the same effect on our conversations as a campfire under a starry sky. We finally crawled into our hammocks with the same warm contentment I always associate with forest adventures, born of campfire stories, unexpected guests (I almost stepped on a White’s Tree Frog on my way back from brushing my teeth) and the comforting rustle of trees (called psithurism, I learned).
We awoke to the familiar chorus of British birdsong from the biome’s residents, and when we made it down to the biome floor a covey of the Roul-roul Partridges followed us until they realised we were not carrying their breakfast. I was shown around the Borneo section, and was given an insight into an innovative research project The Eden Project is a part of.
Can oil palms be used in conservation?
As I was there for WLT and talking to canopy campers about our Saving Kinabatangan Appeal, I was naturally drawn to the exhibit about Oil Palm, one of the chief threats to the Bornean Rainforest we are trying to save. In addition to the towering palms and information about Palm Oil, Eden is also hosting a project with rainforest scientist Dr Farnon Ellwood of the University of the West of England, Bristol, and PhD students, Julian Donald and Josie Phillips, all of whom were my canopy hammock bunkmates.
Julian and Josie explained that their PhDs fieldwork use the Oil Palms in the Biome to see whether the biodiversity associated with ferns high in the canopy of the Bornean Rainforest could be successfully transferred to Oil Palms. If this works, the biodiversity of the Oil Palm plantations could be improved and help enrich the monoculture landscape.
They spoke about the possibility of transferring bird’s nest ferns from forests marked for clearance, like an epiphyte lifeboat to canopy plants and insects. As a conservationist, it is hard to hear that deforestation is so unavoidable that such measures are necessary. It is a fascinating project, and I hope it works. As canopy scientists, it is their job to best serve the forest through research and innovation. As for World Land Trust, it is our job to protect it through land conservation.
After the amazing success of the Saving Kinabatangan Appeal, supported by wildlife superstars like Steve Backshall and Helen Glover, incredible events like The Big Canopy Campout and inspiring young conservationists like George Earnshaw, I have hope that maybe such ‘lifeboat’ projects will not always be necessary.