Going places no man has gone before
People like to leave their mark on the world. Something we did, or something we discovered or invented. Or something we built. We leave our names behind for all time, because we want our names to be immortalised. The highest mountain on earth bears Sir George Everest’s name. The Eiffel tower bears Gustave Eiffel’s name. The largest flower in the world is named after Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles. And the list goes on.
Borneo’s animal and plant life is rich with the names of people. There are so many plants and animals named after the people who first found them. To someone who didn’t know how animals were named, it would appear curious that so many animals are named so-and-so’s frog, or so-and-so’s orchid. Do they belong to that person?
You’ll have to admit, being named Wallace’s Flying Frog has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it? It imparts upon that species a sense of history. It is what we would call today, a “cool name”. You know what’s even cooler? There are several of these named species on Borneo that seem to have mysteriously disappeared from the face of the earth. It seems almost impossible that over 100 years ago, some white man, who hardly knew anything about Borneo, came here, found some animal (killed and skinned it) and now it carries his name. And since then, nobody has seen one. How is this so?
There is an answer. These early explorers in a new land. This was a mysterious land to them, of which hardly anyone knew anything about. They were extremely curious. They were driven by a purpose, and a desire to find out new things. They may not have been the best trained scientists, nor did they have all the best equipment to do research, but they had curiosity. They constantly asked questions. Where is this place, what animals and plants live there, and how can I get up that high mountain?
Today’s scientists are not as curious any more. They are surrounded with all sorts of equipment and comfortable air-conditioned laboratories. They have scores of lab assistants and students doing everything for them. Gone are the days when scientists would go out into the forests, swamps and mountains, spend months out there just looking at things. Today, they have remote cameras, which they can put up in the forests, and see what they capture on video. They use satellites, and more recently, drones. They have become distanced from the forests.
People like Alfred Wallace and John Whitehead didn’t sit in one place. They climbed mountains, and have many species named after them. Charles Hose, a government official under British Borneo, did the same. He found a civet in the highlands of Borneo in 1891, and it was eventually named Hose’s Civet. Over the next 100 years, it became one of the rarest and least known civets in the world, with only 17 specimens ever found, and stored in museums. Four of these specimens were collected by Tom Harrison between 1945 and 1949, in the Kelabit highlands in Sarawak.
This beautiful one-of-a-kind civet has recently come to light, after a researcher from a university in Sarawak decided he was going to go back to the old ways, and really spend time in the Sarawak mountains. He walked and walked, climbed and climbed, and became very tired. He also grew a long beard. But he eventually found out something we didn’t know – the Hose’s civet still exists, and is quite common in the mountains. It only comes out at night, and is a very silent creature.
How many other lifeforms like Hose’s Civet live in Borneo’s forests? How many more have never been seen by anyone, and have no name? How many CCTV cameras will our modern scientists have to put up in the forests to find things?
We better start going out to places no man has gone before to find these animals. If we do not know they exist, how can we protect them from extinction? The age of exploration, as we call it, is today focussed on Mars. We seek new worlds, and set our sights on distant planets. But we have yet to fully understand our own planet. Perhaps we never will.
Ancient Blue Eyes on Borneo
When it comes to the island of Borneo, one expects the unexpected. One expects plants and animals that are found nowhere else on earth. One even expects these unique animals to be strange, look completely different from any other animal in nature, and do things no others do. And those who have these expectations are not disappointed. Borneo is full of exactly such lifeforms. Many we know of today, but many more we don’t know of yet. They wait, silently in the forests, rivers and mountains, waiting patiently for someone to discover them, tell the world about them, and bring them into the world’s spotlight. They await recognition. They await their little place in the sun.
Here’s a story about one of these unique animals, discovered and described in 1878 but never properly understood and seen in its living form. This is the Bornean Earless Monitor, scientifically named Lanthanotus borneensis. It was first described from a dead animal found after a flood in northern Borneo, near the town of Sibu. It was 15 inches long, covered with a leathery skin with thorn-like spikes, a long tail and small feet. It was a lizard. It had no ears.
In 2015, at an undisclosed location, I encountered a living earless monitor. It was a sunny day, and I was resting by a small clearwater stream. I had just trekked 3hrs through the humid jungle, and found this small bubbling brook of the clearest water I’ve ever seen. I was sitting on the smooth water-sculptured boulders on its banks, lunching on an extremely squashed egg sandwich dug out from the bottom of my rucksack. My sweat-drenched shirt was drying on a rock, covered with a whole bunch of fluttering butterflies attracted by the salty sweat.
I had been sitting there about 30mins when suddenly I saw movement in the water. I spotted a small lizard swimming on the surface, some 10m from me. Following its slow swim, I realised this was a creature I had never seen before. It had a plump appearance, unlike a water monitor which is the common swimming reptile one encounters on Borneo. It was all reddish brown, unlike a crocodile which has distinctive markings. It appeared to be very rough skinned at first impression. Its skin was clearly not smooth. It disappeared under water.
I watched the area for a long time, probably a full 15 minutes before I spotted the animal again, emerging amongst some rocks. It climbed half way out of the water and settled on a rock. This time I could put my binoculars on it, and was amazed at what I saw! Before me was some prehistoric-looking reptile. The first thing I noticed was its eyes. They were blue. Blue eyes were totally out of character for a reddish-brown lizard.
This was a heavily scaled lizard, with each scale a bulging diamond-shape, like a snake. On top of this heavily scaled skin were rows of rough-pointed conical thorns. Each thorn was like a small pyramid, broad at the base and blunt at the tip. Each tip was slightly lighter coloured, creating the appearance of dotted lines from its head all the way to its tail.
I took my binoculars away for a moment, sitting back to absorb what I was looking at. My heart was beating fast, and I realised I was hyperventilating. The overpowering excitement of seeing an animal I had never seen before began to subside, and I began to breathe normally again.
Now I could watch this incredible lizard again, with a calm mind and steady hands. I began to observed it in great detail, taking mental notes of its shape, colour, markings and everything else I could think of. I realised I had time, because it was just lying there, apparently with no intention of leaving soon. I too wasn’t leaving anytime soon either! Not until it left.
It did eventually slip back into the water and swim away with a lazy serpentine movement that made me think snake rather than lizard. Its oddly sized small limbs and elongated body made it really look more like a snake when swimming. It didn’t use its feet to propel itself, but rather the undulations of its body, just like a snake. I couldn’t help think this must be an animal evolutionarily somewhere in-between a snake and a lizard. Its blunt snout and virtually no discernible neck added to this effect.
There ends my account of a first-time meeting with an extraordinary animal. Yet another lifeform that has evolved on Borneo, and remains confined to this great island. The encounter left me with more questions than answers. It also left me with a revitalised resolve to find the next Bornean animal that no one has yet seen. I know deep inside me that these animals exist. They are out there, waiting for someone to find them, and tell the world about them. Give them their moment in the sun. Give them recognition, give them a name and give them a sound and safe future. Surely this is what nature asks of us, one simple ask – know them!
The Otters of Borneo
Otters are amongst the most instantly lovable animals in the world. Without ever seeing a living otter, most people would attest to how adorable they are, how their fluffy fur makes them most huggable, and they are the most playful of animals. There is no doubt that few wild animals have the appeal otters have. They are indeed the most playful of animals. Even the ancient versions of their name means to play. Scientists have discovered that otters really do play amongst themselves just for the fun of it. Instead of lying still and doing nothing, they engage in playful fights, jump and run around the place and basically entertain themselves constantly. Why do they do this? The only answer would be, why not?
What most of us do not know is that the is not one, but three otters on Borneo. One is big, really big, with huge feet. This is the smooth otter, and they can grow to over 1 metre long, and weigh over 10kg. Smooth otters live almost exclusively along the coasts, and freely swim in the surf along beaches. They live in family groups of up to 8 members. It is called the smooth otter because it’s fur is shorter than all other otters, making its pelt the smoothest of all the otters. All otters have historically been hunted for their pelts, which are both waterproof and warm.
The second otter on Borneo is the hairy-nosed otter, which is smaller than the smooth otter. This is a dark coloured otter, with fine hairs growing on its nose, hence its name. This otter is one of the rarest of the otters, and until recently, was thought to have disappeared from Borneo. We now know that they still exist. This species appears to be a deep forest species, almost never seen. They appear to prefer swampy habitats like peat swamp forests. Hairy-nosed otters live in smaller families of 4 to 5 members.
The third otter is the smallest. This is the small-clawed otter, and is the most commonly seen otter throughout Borneo. They can be found in almost any habitat, from villages, ricefields, all rivers and even heading up mountains. This small otter lives in large family groups, sometimes seen in groups of over 10 animals. These dark grey animals are sometimes considered a nuisance, especially around fish farms and ponds. Keep fish in a pond and these otters will pay you a visit and help themselves to your fish!
As with almost all Borneo’s animals, there is always some mystery associated with them. Otters are no exception. In the museum in Kuching, Sarawak, there are two otter skins, labelled Eurasian Otter. These were added to the collection in 1959 and 1961, from the Bario highlands. Apart from these two skins, there has not been any record of this species on Borneo. Where did these skins come from? Were they brought in by traders from somewhere else? Is there an undiscovered population of the Eurasian otter up in the central highlands of Borneo? Only time will tell. If the Eurasian otter is found on Borneo, it would be news indeed. This would be an extension of this species from mainland Asia all the way down to Borneo.
Regardless, the fact that Borneo has three species of otters is wonderful. These adorable animals are in many ways a reflection of the inhabitants of Borneo. Fun-loving, water-loving and ferocious hunters, just like the natives of Borneo. They depend on clean water like the river-living folk all across Borneo. Sensitive animals, yet resilient in character. Their appearance of a sleek vision moving through the water is contrasted with a totally different appearance when dry, all fluffed up and cuddly.
The otters are one of only two mammals (the other is the Beaver of north America) which have totally adapted themselves to an aquatic existence. Their webbed feet are unique in the mammalian world. They swim like no other animal, effortless, elegant and mesmerising. If you’ve ever had the luck to see wild otters, you will recall the smile they brought to your face. You can’t help but smile and think to yourself: wow, what a joy they are to watch, and they make me feel good. May otters always be a part of this great island of Borneo, and continue to bring smiles to all.
Planning a Path to Perdition
From the Editor: This article depicts the nature and impact of wildlife trade on wild species. Names and places used are fictitious.
It all began in 2011, in Taipei. Mr. Hsien was in a meeting with his suppliers. On the table was a most exquisite carved piece of ivory, glowing orange-red in the light. “I don’t deal with hornbill ivory” Mr. Hsien said, leaning back. “My entire business over the past 30 years has been elephant ivory”, he added. Over the course of the next two hours, this group of ivory traders made a monumental decision. Mr. Hsien would invest USD1 million to set up a network to supply his craftsmen with hornbill ivory. If successful, this new venture could rake in millions.
Mr. Hsien sat at the top of an industry that sourced for ivory in Africa and Southeast Asia, controlling a transportation network of collectors, packagers, truckers, and shippers. They could accumulate large amounts of ivory from different places, shipping them to his warehouses in Taipei, Shanghai and Hongkong. From these warehouses, ivory could be sold to anyone who needed this precious material for craftworks. Mr. Hsien was the primary distributor in the world, and his conglomerate was estimated to be worth USD900 million. He was a rich man.
Mr. Hsien was also a rich man with a problem. Supply of ivory was getting more and more difficult. Prices were going up, and many of his clients were moving away. At the Taipei meeting, a new product was proposed to him. His decision to introduce an extremely high quality new product into the market began a path to perdition for an innocent bird half a world away.
Hornbill ivory is in fact not a new product at all. It has been used ever since the first Chinese traders appeared on the shores of Borneo a thousand years ago. Today, Hornbill ivory is the most expensive ivory available. Hornbill ivory is basically the same material as elephant tusks, except that it is softer, and it has colour. Instead of the normal milky white, hornbill ivory has hues of deep yellow and red. Carved, this ivory looks absolutely beautiful. And there is no other animal that has this deep richly coloured ivory. Fetching up to USD6,000 a kilogram, it is worth three times that of elephant ivory.
Within three months of the Taipei meeting, a man from Hongkong flies into Jakarta. He is met by his Indonesian business counterpart. They spend the next five days in discussions in a 5-star hotel, an come up with a plan of action. Just 2 weeks later, three men board flights from Jakarta, to Pontianak, Balikpapan and Banjarmasin. Each of these men set up base in these three towns, staying there for three months.
Over the next year, middlemen are recruited to put the word out amongst the villages throughout Kalimantan that there is someone willing to pay USD10 for one head of the Helmeted Hornbill. These middlemen then hire a network of people who go out into the villages. They use buses, cars, motorcycles and boats. They head up the great rivers of Borneo, the Barito, Mahakam, Kapuas. In the interior of this vast island, they spend time talking to villagers. “I will pay USD10 per hornbill head, no questions asked.” “I will come here every three months to collect”. “This is my phone number. You can call me if you have a good stock ready for collection, say at least 50 heads.” Across the villages, people quickly learn that there’s someone buying helmeted hornbill heads. Get 10 heads, and that’s USD100. Good money! Additional income for them. While out hunting for wild pig and deer, come across a helmeted hornbill, and hey! That’s a bonus worth going after.
By 2013, an estimated 2,000 heads arrived in Mr. Hsien’s warehouse in Shanghai. In 2015, 6,000 heads were reliably tracked to three warehouses in China, all owned by Mr. Hsien’s group of companies. To put this number in perspective, each hornbill head has only about 300gms of ivory. Ten birds would give you 3kgs of ivory. 6,000 birds would produce 1,800kg. At a market price of USD6,000 per kg, this is worth about USD10.8 million.
For a more sobering perspective, add 150% to the USD10 per head for middlemen salaries, shipping costs, bribes and other costs associated with getting these heads from Borneo to China, and that’s a cost price of USD150 per head, or USD900,000 per year to obtain 1,800kg of hornbill ivory ready for sale and distribution across China. Pretty good business, wouldn’t you say?
The most sobering fact of this story is the Helmeted Hornbill itself. Of the ten hornbills on Borneo, Sumatra and the Malay Peninsula, only the Helmeted Hornbill has ivory! All the rest have hollow bills. Although basically black and white birds, several hornbills have deep yellows and reds on their bills and white parts of their feathers. This colour comes from the uropygial gland, also known as the preen gland. This gland is found on the lower back of the bird, and secretes a yellow or reddish oil. Just like we use oils and creams to keep our hair healthy and neat, birds use this oil in the same way.
Over time, this oil absorbs into the ivory, and stains it these beautiful yellows and reds. This is why hornbill ivory has these beautiful colours. This is why hornbill ivory is so expensive. This is also why one of Asia’s most beautiful hornbills has become critically endangered.
Mr. Hsien’s network is now expanding to Sumatra, Peninsular Malaysia and the northern States of Borneo. In 2015, the Helmeted Hornbill was listed as critically endangered globally. This means that if unchecked, current practices will result in extinction of this magnificent hornbill in the very near future.
The Mysterious Pink Dolphin of Borneo
Human beings come in many colours. Domestic dogs come in many colours too. It seems very few other lifeforms on earth are like humans and dogs. Have you ever wondered why? “I saw this large animal on television yesterday. Do you know what it is?” “What colour was it” I ask. “It had black and white stripes.” “Oh, that’s a zebra. It looked like a horse, didn’t it?” “Yesss!”
This conversation makes one basic assumption: the zebra is always striped black-and-white. Some people will tell you that of course this is true. That’s what a zebra is. If it was pure white, it wouldn’t be a zebra, would it? You would be correct, but also wrong. Understanding why you are both correct and wrong is the story of genetics. A terribly boring subject to most people, but a hugely fascinating world to others.
No one is surprised that your son looks like you, or your sister has the exact same hair as your grandmother. You would say “Of course they would. They are our family. We share the same blood.” In fact, it has nothing to do with your blood, and everything to do with the genes you share with your parents and your offspring.
All around the coast of Borneo lives an animal that shows a striking variation in colour. Of the several species of dolphins found in the seas around Borneo, one species has mystified scientists for many years. This is the Indo-pacific hump-backed dolphin. Its Latin name is Sousa chinensis. This is a large dolphin, growing to 2.5m in length, with mature adults reaching weights of 200kg. They live in small family groups of five or six animals. Adults are usually solitary, or in pairs, and only form larger groups when young are present.
So what’s so special about this dolphin? Well, it is pink. “So what?” you might ask. It wouldn’t be that much of a deal is all of them were pink, but the curious thing is that they are not all pink! A family group may consist of pink dolphins, grey dolphins and sometimes even spotted dolphins. And they are all one family: father, mother and children.
Are these albinos? Albino animals are common in nature, an aberration of genetics when some individuals in a population, like some individuals in human families, are born with a different genetic make-up, causing their skin to be without the pigment called melanin that gives your skin colour. The more pigment you have, the darker your skin is. Without melanin, you become pink. And your eyes are red.
All this sounds rather technical, doesn’t it? Shall we forget about why these dolphins around Borneo are pink, and let’s ask a different question. What does it mean to an animal that lives in a family where not all members of the family are the same colour? As we discussed earlier, all (well, almost all) animals in nature are easily recognisable as belonging to the same type by their patterns, colours and shapes. A zebra is always striped, and if one wasn’t, it wouldn’t be a zebra!
The fact that this dolphin can recognise its mother, son or cousin when they are completely different makes them rather like humans. Your brother has curly hair, and you have straight hair, but you know he is your brother. You are both human beings, and you both have the same mother and father, but you look so different! Why does this happen in humans but not in most other animals? And why is this dolphin just like us? Has it anything to do with our brain capacities?
We all have heard that humans only use 10% of their brains. This is utter nonsense! We use 100% of our brain, but just not all at the same time. Dolphins do the same, but…. A dolphin’s brain is much larger than a human’s. Human brains have three lobes, dolphins have four. A human baby’s brain is 25% of an adult human’s at birth, and reaches about 80% in three to four years. A dolphin baby’s brain at birth is 42% of its mothers, and reaches 80% in 18 months.
What scientists do know is that brain size and brain growth are two factors in developing intelligence. This we know for sure. We can then conclude that both humans and dolphins are exceptionally intelligent creatures. Who knows, the dolphin may even be more intelligent that humans? Can this therefore perhaps be an explanation? Highly intelligent creatures do not have to look exactly the same? I am grey, but my baby can be pink, says mummy dolphin. I am short and fair, but you can be tall and dark, says daddy to his handsome son!
Science hasn’t discovered the answer to this question yet. We expect someday they will find out. And then they can move on to the next question…. the dog must be exceptionally intelligent too, wouldn’t you say?
Ghost of the Mountains
Eternally covered by clouds, Borneo’s mountains are wrapped with a blanket of forest that takes one straight into the fairy-tale world of fantasy. Gnarled dwarf trees with curtains of lichens blowing in cold winds. It is both a beautiful world, and a strange eerie world. This is the high mountain home of an incredible creature, a ghost in the clouds.
He comes from a family named Mephetidae, from the word mephitic, meaning foul, nasty, stinking smell. On Borneo, he is named Lucifer. In Latin, Lucifer means the shining star or light-bearer. In Christianity, Lucifer is the devil, but he keeps his former name. Lucifer was an angel before he fell from grace.
This ghost of the Bornean mountains is the Sunda Stink Badger Mydaus javensis lucifer. Interesting animal he is – he has a stinking English name, he has a devilish Latin name. He is called a badger, but he is actually a skunk. Skunks are a family of animals found only in north America.
All skunks have special glands near their anus, from which they can spray a noxious liquid at predators. The smell of this spray is so strong it can make you faint. It can take weeks to remove the smell from your clothes or body, and it is said you can smell a skunk a kilometre away! Our Bornean skunk also has these glands, and that is why he is called a stink badger. Everybody keeps away from him.
So, what is this skunk named Lucifer doing here on Borneo? Scientists have no answer. What scientists do know is this: Lucifer is a true Sundaland animal. He lives on Borneo, Sumatra and Java. As the sea levels rose a long time ago, Lucifer was trapped, and could not travel anywhere else, forever. In the north, the part of Borneo that extended northwards in a long spur became an island, today called Palawan, and is part of the Philippines now. Here Lucifer, forever isolated, gradually began to change. He became smaller, lost his bright white mane and eventually became a different animal altogether. Today, we call him Marchei, after Mr. Antoine Alfred Marche, the French naturalist who discovered several animals and birds in the Philippines in the 1880s. So, on Palawan, Lucifer became Marchei, and one became two.
Lucifer on Borneo is a creature of the night. He is completely deep black in colour, with a huge bright white crown of hair and a broad white stripe going down his back to his short white tail. He has huge five fierce-looking claws on his front feet, walks like a small pig, and has a hairless snout that also resembles a pig. And, disturb him and he will spray you with a foul-smelling liquid from his bottom.
Lucifer used to live mainly in the high mountains, far away from people. However, he doesn’t confine himself to the mountains any longer. He is now very comfortable in farmlands, secondary forests, plantations and almost anywhere he can find food. Lucifer eats both meat and plants. His long claws are useful for digging up grubs and tubers from the ground. He will eat insects, frogs, lizards. Basically, he is omnivorous, and will eat anything. This means he doesn’t have a food problem.
While Lucifer is not an aggressive animal, his defence strategy is so fearsome he has virtually no predators in the wild. The discharge from his anal glands have been analysed in laboratories, and are sulphur-based secretions that can caused temporary blindness. Most animals stay far away from stink badgers. There are numerous stories of Iban hunting dogs refusing to ever pursue a Teludu once they have experienced an encounter. Yes, they are not stupid, once was enough!
The stink badger is called Teludu in Iban. His only predator is man, although many of Borneo’s peoples do not eat the Teludu. They are not sure what it is, and frankly, they are a bit scared of it. When seen in the dark forest, it is an eerie sight indeed, a moving white flash with a long white tail, which is the long stripe down its back. Like a ghost.
There you have it, revealed is Borneo’s ghost of the mountains. Like so many things about natural Borneo, the more we learn, the more we are fascinated. And, there’s something about having fearsome claws that makes one seem powerful, fearless and dangerous! Like perhaps everybody’s favourite X-man, the Wolverine! Wouldn’t you like to see Lucifer?
May the Birds keep talking to us
The Maya of central America believe that every person has an animal companion who shares their soul, and that you could transform into your animal companion. The Haida of Canada believe animals are another type of people, more intelligent than humans and able to transform themselves into human form. The Iban of Borneo believe that an all-powerful god sent his seven sons-in-laws to live among humans, in the form of birds.
Beliefs amongst the ancient peoples were strongly influenced by what they saw around them. What they saw around them was not tall buildings, mighty big ships on the oceans or sleek shiny metal objects flying in the sky. They saw trees, mountains and rivers all under one enormous never-ending sky. They saw animals of different shapes, colours and patterns. They saw animals living in the water where humans could not live. They saw birds flying effortlessly in the sky, something humans could not do.
It is not surprising that early people had to find some explanation for how and why all these other living things around them could do things they could not. These amazing animals were bigger than them, faster than them, and many incredibly more beautiful than us plain humans. These other animals must be special. Perhaps they were really special humans in different shapes, colours and sizes. So they became gods and spirits.
The wonderfully curious thing about ancient beliefs is that animal gods or spirits are usually good, benevolent and take care of us. These beautiful creatures of the forest speak to people. They speak to us sometimes through shamans and medicine-men, or sometimes through signs. Some of these animals are also bearers of bad news, like the impending death of someone in your house. Many cultures share the old tales of the owl, that mysterious bird of the night, with its large eyes, silent flight and eerie call. Its bad luck if an owl landed on the roof of your house and called out in the night. But never do we find it culturally accepted to kill owls on sight. Why is this so, if this bird brings bad news? Is it not human nature to kill those who do us harm, or even threaten our families?
The ancient Romans had a practice of observing the flight of birds and interpreting signs, fortunes or omens from them. These “readers of birds” were called Augers, and were priests of special rank. It is from these augers that we have the word auspicious. We have auspicious days for weddings, for ceremonies and even for repairing a house, buying a car or closing a business deal. Although with its origins lost in the passage of time, we are today still saying things will be well if the birds say it will be so. It also works for inauspicious days, meaning when the birds say it will not be good.
So, just as the Roman God Jupiter’s will was interpreted through birds, here on Borneo the everyday lives of the Iban were interpreted through birds as well. Sinalung Burung is the name of the almighty God, and his seven sons-in-law are his messengers on earth. These seven help and guide humans. They tell us when it the time is right to plant rice, when it is a good time to go hunting or go trading with a neighbouring village. They even warn us if there is an illness approaching our longhouses. They are good and helpful gods.
It is also from the augers that we have the word inauguration. It means to celebrate the beginning of something. It could be a new building, or someone being admitted to office for the first time, like a new prime minister! It appears even today we still invoke the favour of the birds in accordance with the ancient traditions and beliefs of our ancestors.
This is a rather poignant reminder to us all that whether we accept it, or admit it, our past beliefs continue to influence greatly our beliefs today. Would understanding the origins of our beliefs today, in a world of changing climates, disappearing forests and annual choking hazy seasons, change our attitudes and practises? Let’s admit it, in the name of human progress, we have adopted poor human practises in almost every aspect where we deal with nature. Should we ask the birds for some guidance? Can the old Gods help us find better understanding and sense?
Nature is so much a part of us that it is really, really time to take notice and start doing things better. The birds of old guided our forefathers. They haven’t stopped. They talk to us right now. The old birds we used to see in our gardens are mostly gone. There are new birds in our gardens today, birds our fathers and grandfathers do not recognise. They are telling us of things to come, but are we listening? Do we know what they are saying? Do we wish we had augers today to tell us what these beautiful gods are telling us? Do we know how to listen?
There be Giants amongst us
Seventeenth century Europeans were terrified of the unknown parts of the world. Thankfully some bright spark, with a frizzy beard and funny hat, eventually convinced them that the world was not flat. They would not fall off the edge into hell if they traveled too far from home. This new knowledge ushered in a new age of discovery. Sailors were less frightened to sail away into the unknown. Ancient sailing maps always depicted un-chartered waters with images of sea monsters swallowing up entire ships!
Africa was called the deepest darkest continent, and later on, upon discovering the island of Borneo, it too was named deepest darkest Borneo. Such descriptive names invoke a sense of mystery, of unknown things, and a place one can get lost, never to return. Let’s face it, while its all nonsense, it does bestow a certain attractiveness to the place. It makes people want to come here. They read about Borneo, they find out interesting things, like head-hunters of old, or an ancient legend of a dragon living on a high mountain with a pink pearl. The desire to visit this island is strengthened.
Among the most alluring are tales of giant animals, and giant plants. We are all fascinated by large things. Borneo has many large things, and it would seem, as many people trying to find these large things, like the longest snake in the world. How many documentaries have you seen about some Indiana Jones type running around catching snakes, measuring them and releasing them? “Stupid fellow”, the local Iban would say, that delicious snake would have fed us for a week!
It is true, though. The Reticulated Python on Borneo keeps growing throughout life, as most reptiles do. If we don’t catch it and eat it, it would keep growing. And if it lived 100 years, it would probably be over 10m by then! Most pythons today don’t live that long, and therefore the longest ever found was just over 8m. And why don’t they live that long?
Of the 16 tallest living trees in the world, fifteen are conifers (locals know them as pine trees, or Christmas trees!). The one single non-conifer is a tropical dipterocarp, right here on Borneo. It is ranked 8th in the world, at 89.5m (290ft) in height, measured in Sabah. It is a Yellow Meranti, and it is an endangered species. Like reptiles, trees keep growing throughout their life. There are probably taller trees on Borneo, but their wood is so beautiful, and makes expensive furniture, so we cut them down. But Minecraft players out there can grow them.
We also have one of the most secretive giant reptiles on the planet, the Tomistoma. It is one of four species of crocodiles on Borneo. Most people only know of the one that eats people. The Tomistoma is a fish-eating crocodile, with a long narrow snout with a bulge at its nose. They don’t eat people. Ancient fossils tell us that million years ago, crocs grew to 11 to 12m in length. One ancient Tomistoma, whose skull lies in a cupboard in the Netherlands, is estimated to have been about 10m long. It was collected on Java 200 years ago. The longest today are only about 5m. If only their skins didn’t make fashionable shoes and handbags.
And, lastly, the Bornean giant No. 1. One of Borneo’s most enigmatic giants is almost never seen. It lives in large rivers. It is a giant freshwater stingray growing over 5m long, with a long serpentine slender tail. It can weigh over 600kg, making it possibly the largest freshwater fish in the world. Most people know stingrays from the coral reefs and the sea, and are surprised to find out there are some stingrays that live in rivers. Be even more surprised to find out how big the freshwater stingray gets. They live largely on the muddy bottom of the river beds, and therefore are seldom caught in nets. Borneo’s fishermen will tell you the only way to catch stingrays in a river is by hook and line. But how does one pull in a giant stingray with your fishing rod? That would be like trying to lift, and carry, a small car on your bicycle!
Like the other giants, there appears to be a pattern. Animals, and plants, that grow big, tend to be those that do not stop growing with age. Humans stop growing in about 18, maximum 20 years. That’s it. After that, we remain the same height, though not usually the same weight. But these giants are somehow different. Nature has allowed them to continue to grow in size. There is no scientific answer as to why this is so.
The question we should ask ourselves is not why some living things keep growing until they die, or why we all die at some point. The question should be what happens when certain life-forms disappear because of us human beings. If they exist in the world, they probably have some place in nature. We don’t know what that is. Perhaps we are not meant to know. Perhaps our place is simply to co-exist with them, and every now and then, be absolutely awed by these giants sharing our planet with us.
A decepticon amongst us
Bumble bee is arguably the most popular Transformer in the world. He is cool, funny and transforms into that sleek yellow and black sportcar everyone wants. Bumble bee is the good guy, and a superhero. When talking about autobots and decepticons, most adults wouldn’t know what you’re talking about, but let’s admit this – grossing US1 billion in movie ticket sales means something. Transformers are real superheroes and make a lot of money too.
But transformers are fiction. Let’s talk about a real transformer right here on Borneo. The wild Honey Bee is a decepticon. He is a small six-legged, winged insect, with a nasty stinger on his bum. Everybody is scared of being stung by a bee, but we all love that deliciously sweet and sticky honey they give us. It’s the healthiest sweet thing on the planet, and never goes bad. That bottle of honey in your kitchen remains unspoilt for years and years.
The honey bee is a true decepticon. A honey bee is a living organism all by itself. It flies around collecting pollen from flowers, bringing it back to its hive. There are scout-bees who go looking for new flowers, and new trees to build hives. There are soldier-bees who guard the hives, and protect their young inside. There are worker-bees who build the hives, constantly renovating and extending their homes as their families grow. All very organised. A perfect community of thousands of individuals living and functioning together.
Now here’s something else they can do. Bees can transform themselves into another lifeform. All the members of a community can come together and take to the air. They form a dense mass of flying bees, and they become one. They think as one, and move as one. Scientists have discovered that a swarm of bees is actually a single living being. These living swarms can be as small as 3,000 bees, or as large as 20,000 bees. They can travel vast distances over the forests and farmlands, from one end of Borneo to the other.
There appears to be some form of telepathic communication between all bees in one swarm. When one bee turns in flight, all the other bees also turn. They don’t bump into each other. This phenomenon is also seen in shoals of fish in the sea, and flocks of flying birds. It seems like somewhere inside the swarm there is a leader who decides to turn left, and somehow that thought is transmitted throughout the swarm. They are thinking as one being. They are one being.
The difference between honey bees and the fish shoals and bird flocks is that when they break up, and transform into their individual members, they are still able to think as one. One scout-bee who finds a meadow of flowers somehow telepathically communicates this information to other bees, who very quickly begin arriving at the new-found meadow. Simply amazing.
This is the decepticon part of the honey bee, one huge animal made up of thousands of little animals. The super-hero part is even more staggering. As recent as about 40 years ago, honey bees were the single animal most responsible for pollinating trees, plants and crops all over the world. As much as 80% of all plants on the planet were pollinated by wild bees.
We don’t have figures for all parts of the world, but research in the United Kingdom has valued wild insect pollinators at US840 million a year. Just for that small country. It is estimated that for all the food crops feeding the 7 billion human beings on earth, only 30% are being pollinated by wild bees today. It used to be almost 90%.
So what has changed? The mighty decepticon has lost places to build its hives. Fewer and fewer suitable areas for the honey bees to build hives exist today as forests disappear. The world bee population has decreased dramatically. Other insects have taken their place, and our crops are still ok, but we are gradually losing this special creature, this living decepticon. Alas, it seems our world has less and less need for our superhero. Like in the transformer movies, when no longer needed, our superhero leaves our planet, returning to where he came from. That would be a sad day.
Band of Brothers
Borneo's endemic Colobines
There are five doctors in the house. All of them are gynaecologists. There are five lawyers in town, all of them only do divorce cases. Not very useful situations, wouldn’t you say? In fact, society would have a serious problem if every contractor built bridges, and couldn’t build roads or buildings. On the other side, the problem would be even worse, with every doctor, lawyer or contractor having to compete with the other for clients. A better situation is for each doctor to specialise in a different area, thereby serving much more people, and not having to compete with each other. Makes perfect sense one would say.
Well, this is exactly the same situation in nature. The forest needs every type of animal to do something different, like eat a different fruit. The forest could not function if all the animals ate only one type of fruit, from one type of tree. How would the other trees then reproduce? And how would animals and birds survive if they depended on only one type of tree?
When we understand how this works, we can begin to appreciate how incredibly complex our Bornean rainforest is. Scientists have been studying this tree, that fish, the other bird and several monkeys for years and years, and still they keep finding out new things. Little things, but so important things that make nature work. Here’s a story of five monkeys on Borneo, like the five doctors.
These five monkeys are all similar. They all belong to the same family, and are called colobines. They have very long tails and big bellies. They eat only leaves and seeds. No meat. They have two stomachs, like cows. One for breaking down the cells of leaves, and the other to digest and absorb the nutrients they need for energy. They all live on Borneo, and nowhere else in the world.
The Proboscis monkey is the most famous of the five brothers. He is the biggest, has this enormous nose, and lives near water. He has slightly webbed feet, allowing him to swim and therefore live in the vast swamps and mangroves of Borneo. Being the biggest, he needs the most food, and therefore lives where the soils are richest. Trees that grow on nutrient-rich soils have leaves full of proteins. Borneo’s soils are notoriously poor in nutrients, and this is why the Proboscis monkey is not found in the interior of Borneo. This brother can have large families of 8 to 15 individuals.
The Red Leaf monkey is the next brother, completely maroon red in colour, with a black face. This brother divides its diet evenly between leaves, seeds and non-sweet fruits. He uses a huge number of trees for food. His strategy is not to restrict himself to the richest protein sources, but to eat as many of the lower quality foods as possible. His families are smaller, 5-8 individuals.
The Grey Leaf Monkey is found only in the north and east of Borneo. He is all grey with black markings on his face, like war-paint. This brother lives on leaves and seeds as well, but is found deep in the forests, usually away from the coast. His families are medium-sized, about 9 members, and he travels up into the high mountains. He compensates his poor diet by coming down to the ground to get his vitamin supplements from salts in the soils.
The White-fronted Leaf Monkey travels the least, mainly across central Borneo. He has never been to Brunei or Sabah. This brother stays away from the swamps, preferring the hill forests. He has a distinctive crest on the top of his head which points forward, and gets his name from a white spot on his forehead. Because he travels less, he can have larger families, up to 10-15 members. He eats almost entirely leaves, but loves flowers too.
The Bornean Banded Leaf Monkey is the dying brother. He always lived only in a small area, but today he has just one small patch left, between two rivers. He is the most beautiful of the brothers, with red, yellow and black markings. His families are very small, 5-7 members, and he eats leaves and some bitter fruits. He is one of the most critically endangered animals on the planet because his tiny home has been almost completely wiped out.
Our fascinating five brothers have successfully lived together in one town because they each became a little different. They changed their body sizes so that they could do different things, and go different places. They changed what they ate, so each of them always had food. They changed how they lived and how far they travelled, so that they could reach more sources of food. They changed their family sizes to allow them to feed their families in areas where food was poor. And they did this all in one place, their home called Borneo.
Living together is a strategy found everywhere in nature. Humans too need to live together, smartly. We urgently need to learn strategies that do not require any other living thing to give way so that we can continue living.
Are we alone on Borneo?
When scientists discovered, in 2003, fossils of a small human-like creature on the Indonesian island of Flores, the news literally shook the world. It wasn’t that a race of human-like creatures closely related to us existed in the past. What shook the world was that they lived just 12,000 years ago. This means that they were living at the same time human beings like you and I were living. Many of us cannot comprehend that not too long ago, there was more than one type of human living in the same place. They knew about each other. They saw each other. Who knows, perhaps they may even have fought each other. Or perhaps they were just friendly neighbours. My kind living here… your kind living over there.
Today there is just us human beings, and the rest of the animal world. The time when different kinds of humans lived together is past. But is it? What if they were still around, living in some remote part of the world, not yet discovered? What if there was another human-like creature living close to us? Would that scare you or excite you?
Those of us living on Borneo and Sumatra will know of the tales of another creature. It is a small human, under four feet tall – about the size of a 10yr old child. The stories tell that It is covered with dark hair. It walks and runs on two feet, has hands and feet just like us, and its face is just like ours. It lives deep in the forests. Occasional sightings have usually been up mountainous areas, far from human settlements. It always runs away when encountered.
The majority of sightings seem to have come from the central mountains of Sumatra, called the Kerinci-Seblat range, reaching altitudes of over 2,000m. On Borneo, occasional reported sightings have been from the remote mountainous terrain of Brunei, and in the Kenyah territories of Sarawak and eastern Kalimantan, also up in mountains. People call this creature the Orang Pendek, which means Short Person in the Malay language.
No specimen on this creature has ever been obtained. There is no proof of its existence, only tales from the forest. The question is this: why would there be such stories? Maybe one or two “creative” people might have made up a story about meeting a strange creature in the forest. But if it is not just one or two, but repeated stories from across the ages? Tribal grandfathers telling of meeting a small human. His grandfather also telling him the same story. Could there be some truth in it?
Could they have seen some creature in the forest that resembled a human? Perhaps an orang utan walking on the forest floor? Could a sun bear be mistaken for an upright walking human-like creature? These are intriguing questions. What would happen if tomorrow scientists actually captured such a creature on Borneo?
One can imagine a special laboratory being set up to study this creature, if it was alive. Scientists from all over the world would come to examine it, take its blood, x-ray it from all sides, take samples of its muscles, bone and hair. Hundreds of tests would be conducted on it. Finally, medical and scientific papers will be published giving it a name, identifying it as a new species of animal on Earth.
Everybody would want to see it. Indonesian, Bruneian and Malaysian governments would have to give it some sort of protection status, since it must be a rare animal. There would be global media coverage of this exciting new find. Field biologists will begin organising surveys of the areas where it was captured, to learn more about the forests it lives in, what it eats, how it moves and where it sleeps. How many more are there out there?
Zoos around the world would want to have specimens of this creature to exhibit. Rich private collectors of rare and exotic animals (dead or alive) would offer handsome rewards to anyone who can get them a living specimen. This would mean it wouldn’t only be the scientists heading out into the forests looking for this creature! It is likely to become a race, a free-for-all, of people searching for this creature. And let’s not forget the documentary film-makers and iPhone owners, all trying to be the first to film this creature.
Let’s just say that wherever such a creature was found, that place would turn into a circus. A national park would be gazetted, logging concessions in the area would be cancelled, plans for oil palm plantations would be put on hold. Private investors and politicians would start buying land in the area, and major hotels would be commissioning feasibility studies for tourism. What chance would any remaining Orang Pendek have once they are found out?Now here’s a really crazy scary possibility – what if it spoke a language?
Bars and Hands
Through the inch-thick iron bars, she reached her hand out to me. It was a huge leathery hand. I looked into her eyes, more than a little afraid. Her hazel brown eyes looked straight into mine. A full minute passed. This large orangutan and I, looking into each other’s eyes. She held my gaze throughout, unwavering. Twice she blinked, as did I.
I was not sure what to make of her eyes. They looked so human. The pupils were the same, the white of the eyes darker. The eyelids were the same, and she had eyebrows too. I thought to myself, if I had this staring match with someone else, one of us would surely have looked away by now. Looking directly at someone’s eyes makes us uncomfortable. She didn’t seem uncomfortable at all. She just looked at me.
Two minutes later, I broke the eye contact. I looked away, looked down at her hand, still extended towards me, palm upwards. It looked like an offer. It said to me “take my hand”. I looked back at her, and decided there was no fear in her eyes. There was nothing I could interpret as aggression.
I looked back down at her hand. It was enormous. Each finger was twice the size of mine. From base to the tip of her finger, her palm was about 10 inches! Her palm was a whole latticework of lines, much more than mine. I guess a palm reader would have read ten life-stories from her palm, or given up his profession entirely. It was a velvety black in colour, a rather attractive picture framed with long wiry red hair growing from the back of her hand. I wanted to take her hand.
I contemplated these bars between us. I couldn’t imagine being this close to the 2nd largest ape in the world (after the gorilla) without these bars. What’s wrong with this contemplation, I ask? Is it because I am a civilised human, and she’s an uncivilised wild animal? She can’t harm me from behind those bars, so I am brave. Or, is it I am weak, and she is strong? We’ve about the same weight, but look at the size of her hands! She’ll kill me if it were not for these bars. My race’s only defence against her is its brains, and the bars we can build to cage her. And yet, look at her hands and I am amazed at how much alike we are.
I summon up courage… a lot of it, reach out and take her hand. Immediately her fingers wrap themselves around mine, just the way one would shake someone’s hand. My heart was racing. The great red ape held my hand gently, but firmly. She didn’t squeeze, she didn’t twist. She just held my hand in a warm embrace. I looked up into her eyes, and smiled. I just couldn’t help it, my heart was thumping with excitement and joy. It was the best feeling ever! I was grinning from cheek to cheek!
It felt like reaching my hand out to a child, and the child taking my hand. I grasp the child’s tiny hand, gentle, lovingly, reassuringly. The child looks up at me and smiles. My whole heart constricts, and a sensation of joy and pleasure washes through my whole body. That little act of reaching out to a child and receiving a smile is one of the most rewarding experiences people can feel. Except, mine was the tiny hand.
She and I held hands for about 30 minutes. Just sitting there, on either side of those strong, thick, iron bars. Holding hands. Looking at each other. In those minutes, a thousand thoughts raced through my mind. I knew then that this moment was a connection I would treasure for the rest of my life. I didn’t feel the need for those bars. I didn’t want to think about what my race was doing to her race. I didn’t want to know what circumstances lead to her being in this cage. Instead, I wanted to know how similar we were? What does she think of? Does she know she is a captive animal, sentenced to a life of waiting for a meal. Is she afraid of me? Does she like me?
Our connected hands answered many of those questions, but also asked a whole lot more questions. I ran my fingers through her hairy back of her hands. I stroked her fur on her arms. I caressed her soft skin on the palm of her hand. I felt hard patches of skin on her finger joints… just like my hand! I examined her finger nails, and thought… she needs a manicure!
I finally let her hand go, and she did too. We looked at each other again, and I searched for a smile in her eyes… just like my big smile on my face for the last 30 minutes. I found none. Maybe orangutans don’t smile? Maybe they have nothing to smile about? I turned and walked back to my car. As I walked, I started to stride faster. My heart started to pound. I felt a rising in my throat. I felt tears starting to roll down my cheeks. I got into my car, and sat there. I was sobbing, crying buckets of tears! I sat there another 30 minutes before driving home.
Big-footed Little Dinosaur on Borneo?
Here’s a story of a really eccentric but genius resident of Borneo. It is so eccentric it chooses to live not really on Borneo, but just off – it lives on the small islands off Borneo’s coast. And it is a brilliant chemist! Until today, no one has been able to explain, or understand, who this creature really is, how it does what it does, or why.
Introducing the Megapode. In Greek, Mega means big, and Poda means feet. In proportion to its body, the Megapode has the largest feet of any animal on Borneo, and just to complete a picture of a stupid chicken, it has a small head and looks like a small village chicken! But don’t be deceived by this stupid looking chicken… it does something no other bird (or human) can do, it understands and uses chemistry to measure and regulate temperature.
Megapodes are mound nesters. They build huge nests made by shovelling sand (with their oversized feet) into a huge mound. Their nest mounds vary in size with different species (there are over 20 species), some reaching 5m in diameter and 1m deep. These incubator nests (Megapodes are also called incubator birds) are the largest nests in the bird kingdom.
Now, we all know birds build nests, lay their eggs in these nests and incubate their eggs by sitting on them. They control the temperature of the eggs until they hatch. Too cold, or too hot, and the eggs won’t hatch. All birds do this, except the Megapode.
Megapodes of Borneo build their large mound nests of leaves and sand on or close to beaches. They lay eggs inside a chamber of dead leaves, covered with twigs, dead branches and sand. The eggs are incubated by the heat generated by the decaying vegetation, and the male regularly checks the temperature by “opening” the lid, and closing it again.
The nests are taken care of by the male, who never wanders far from the nest. No one can understand how the males tell if the temperature inside the nest mound is increasing or decreasing. When the daytime temperature gets too hot, the male opens the mound to let the air circulate, thus reducing the temperature. When it starts to cool down, the mound is closed again.
This is highly intelligent behaviour, but from a stupid looking chicken-like bird with a small head. This behaviour is more like a reptile than a bird, wouldn’t you agree? Snakes, lizards and turtles do this, but not birds! And that is not all.
Megapode chicks are hatched fully formed, and in some species, the chick can fly immediately upon hatching. The hatchlings are fully independent right from the start. They climb out of their nests and off they go. The parents do not look after them, they do not feed them. In fact, the parents never even see their young! Again, this is a reptilian trait, like sea turtles and crocodiles.
The question scientists are still pondering is whether this Megapode is really a bird. Could this actually be a reptile? It is commonly accepted that the dinosaurs were reptiles. 60 million years ago, there were no real birds yet, just these dinosaurs, many walking around on two legs, laying eggs and some flying around in the skies. Hmmm… just like birds?
Come to think about it, the dinosaurs seem to be more like birds than our reptiles today… our favourite dinosaur, the Velociraptor, had two huge feet, two tiny front feet (think chicken wings!) a small head, and laid eggs in a nest on the ground. It looked more like a Megapode than a lizard!
Is this Megapode now sounding more like a dinosaur than a bird now? This is the mystery. Perhaps this little big-footed stupid chicken looking bird is a little more than we initially thought it was? Surely in time, our ever clever scientists will solve this mystery, and tell us for sure whether this is just a weird, but extremely smart little bird, or is this a dinosaur that has cloaked itself in a robe of feathers, defied evolution as we think it is, and continues to live amongst us… oh well, not amongst us, but just a little away from all of us… on small islands off Borneo.
This is yet another intriguing tale of yet another animal on Borneo that is special in its own way. Just another of the myriad of reasons why Borneo is a really special place. Yet another reason for the people who call Borneo home to be fascinated, to be appreciative, and to be a little more careful in the way we live our lives, so that other special creatures can also continue to call Borneo home as well.
Going Camping with Alfred WallaceEarly Europeans began arriving on Borneo in the late 1700s, and throughout the 1800s. To these first pioneers coming to the vast tropical island of Borneo, this was the most fascinating place in the world! They knew nothing about it, and they wanted to find out. In order to do so, they needed to head away from the shores and walk into the deep never-ending forests. They needed to cross rivers and climb mountains. They either found longhouses to stay in, or camped for weeks at a time, carrying what they needed, and hunting in the forests and rivers for food along the way.
Today, to go camping, one can head to a shopping mall and quickly come away with almost everything one would need: backpacks, tents, mosquito protection of all types, foldable chairs, mobile cooking stoves, battery-powered lights, etc. In the 1800s, things were a little more complicated.
Many of these early explorers were naturalists or geologists. In other words, they were not on holiday. They had a purpose, and more often than not, that purpose required them to collect things…things they would have to bring what with them.
A certain Major Georg Muller, in 1824, is thought to be the very first European to undertake a camping trip into the unknown parts of Borneo. He didn’t come back. It is thought that he met some Iban head-hunters. A range of mountains in West Kalimantan is named after him. Since then, several came back. Carl Schwaner, a German naturalist, came back from the Meratus in 1842, Dutchman Anton Niewenhuis came back in 1894, and Charles Hose also managed to come back. All also have mountains named after them. No one knows why.
Perhaps the most famous of these early explorers was Englishman Alfred Russel Wallace, who not only came back, but has forever imprinted his name on Borneo with his writing, in Sarawak, of the theory of evolution (with Charles Darwin) in 1858. Surprisingly, he doesn’t have a mountain named after him.
Wallace was a happy camper. We know he undertook several trips, each for weeks at a time, going where no one had gone before. Wallace was collecting plants, animals, birds and insects, eventually collecting some 125,000 specimens. He also shot a dozen orang utans!
So, what would Wallace’s jungle camp have looked like? Well, firstly, this would have been a big camp. He would have had a huge amount of stuff to carry with him. Rice would have been the most important, since meat could be obtained from wild pigs, deer and fish along the way. Nobody eats vegetables.
He would have had crates and boxes to carry the specimens he collected, and the more he collected, the more people he needed to carry them. More people would have meant more rice to feed them, and more cooks too.
To collect plants, he needed knowledgeable locals who could climb tall trees to collect leaves and fruits. They would have built smoking houses to dry and preserve plant specimens. This would have been virtually a small factory of people pressing specimens between frames of twigs, and storing them in crates. Imagine this little industry being set up each time they chose a spot to camp, stay a few weeks, then dismantle it all to set up again in a new place.
Collecting birds and animals required teams of locals with blowpipes and guns, shooting and trapping almost everything they found, bring them back to camp, skinning them, drying them, preserving them in salt, and labelling each one before storing them in crates. Another small factory-line going on in the forest. Imagine the quantities of salt they would have brought with them!
For insects, they needed lamps and sheets of cloth to trap them at night. This means lots of people up all night, and all day too! Preserving insects is a delicate process, and mounting them and transporting them requiring a lot of care.
Keeping salt, clothes, gunpowder and specimens dry in the rainforest must have been a phenomenal feat! Having the stamina to stay out for months collecting and carrying specimens is another feat. It is possible that a typical Wallace camping trip would have had at least 50 people, with several tons of stuff to carry. Basically, these were like small villages being set up in the forest!
Thinking back, what we know about our island of Borneo today owes a huge debt to all these people who went out those years ago to document our nature. Wallace may have been the leader, but without the locals, he would have achieved little. We salute these explorers of old, our first campers on Borneo.
Is there a Wild Dog on Borneo, hiding in plain sight?
Walk to any longhouse throughout Borneo and chances are you will be met first by a dog. Or a whole lot of dogs! Those of us afraid of dogs will cringe, and wait for someone to chase them away. Those of us who love dogs will say hello to them, smile and cautiously continue walking. And that’s the end of that. We go about our business having greeted, then ignored these dogs.
It will surprise you to learn that you might have just met one of Borneo’s most enigmatic mysteries – an animal found only on Borneo, and until today, not definitely identified by scientists. Yes, we are talking about possibly one of the world’s unique species, the Bornean Basenji, or Bornean hunting dog.
The word Basenji comes from the language of the pygmies of Africa, meaning “small wild thing from the jungle”. Half a world away on Borneo, this name describes our doggie well – it’s small, it’s definitely wild and it lives in our jungles. But it is also smart. People have built longhouses all over the place, why not go live there! And so they do, and they get fed too.
The Bornean dog is not a domesticated dog. There are two types of home-living pet dogs. The first are those that are completely domesticated. They can be taught things like tricks, trained to be guard dogs or drug-sniffer dogs, or guide-dogs for the blind. We call these obedient dogs. The other type is called Schensi dogs, or independent dogs. They can live happy lives with humans, but are very difficult to train without cruelly punishing them. They simply choose to live with us whilst remaining completely “independent”. Our Bornean dog is a Schensi dog.
If you look up the official listing of intelligent dog breeds, Schensi dogs are right at the bottom! This is of course a mistake. They are not stupid at all, they just do not feel the need to please their human masters, will not be trained to sit, extend a paw or roll over when asked to. They do their own thing. One might say, these are the most intelligent dogs of them all!
The Basenji does not bark. They whine, whistle or howl. This is characteristic of all Basenjis. The Bornean dog can bark, and therefore cannot strictly be categorised as a Basenji. However, in appearance, shape and behaviour, it is closest to the Basenji. It’s like a Basenji, but different. It’s the Bornean Basenji!
Our lovable Bornean hunting dog is a square dog, meaning its legs are as long as its body. Most pet dog breeds have bodies longer than their legs. The purest form of the Bornean dog is usually red in colour, a bright orangey red all over, with some white on the underside of their tail, which is always curled in a circle over their back.
They have a pointed snout, brown eyes and often have wrinkles above their eye brows, giving them a smiling appearance. They are extremely energetic, excellent swimmers, and can move through the forest better than any Kenyah or Penan. Needless to say, they are loved, treasured and respected by all Bornean tribes. It’s a fact that without these dogs, hunting would be a really difficult task. With hunting dogs, your chances of coming home with a wild boar or a deer greatly increase.
They are resilient, tireless and agile hunters in the Bornean forests. They can slice through impossibly dense vegetation, climb steep hills at incredible speeds, cross small and large rivers with ease and, most importantly for hunters, they can always lead you home. Unlike humans, dogs never seem to get lost, they always know exactly where they are!
Basenjis are considered one of the oldest breeds of dogs in the world. Although first described from tropical Africa, DNA studies suggest that they originated from eastern Asia, possibly southeast Asia. The dogs on ancient Egyptian inscriptions, some 8,000 years old, resemble the Bornean dogs. The earliest archaeological records of dogs living with humans come from the middle east and south Asia, and their bones resemble Asian dogs still living today. In southeast Asian forests (although not on Borneo) we have the Red Dhole, or the Whistling Dog, and in Papua New Guinea, we have the Singing Dog. Both these are wild species of dogs. Could a wild dog also be living on Borneo?
We really must start studying our Bornean dog properly. University researchers should start studies on the evolution and biology of these dogs. They have been ignored for too long, and should be given the status they rightfully deserve – an endemic and ancient breed of dog that has evolved on Borneo, lives with its people, provides for them, and even give its life for them.
We on Borneo want to know if there really is a wild dog living on Borneo, hiding from the wildlife experts and scientific researchers, hiding in plain sight…. because they choose to live with Borneo’s people! Now, is that a smart dog or not?
Borneo’s Red Dragon
Mythical Borneo is home to many mythical creatures, and there is one that lives beneath our calm dark waters. This is the awesome Arowana, or the Dragon fish. Officially, its English name is the Asian Bonytongue. The Latin word Sclero means hard, and Phage means something that devours. Formosus means beautiful, finely formed. Brought together, Sclerophages formosus is not only the official name for the Arowana, but a most-apt description of this ancient animal.
This beautifully formed, armoured-scaled devourer of flesh is a powerful symbol of elegance, perfect form and the incarnation of the dragon. Have one in your home, or your business premises, and it will bring you prosperity, keep your family together and protect you from evil.
This is not a small fish, and neither is it cheap to own and keep. Arowana can grow to three feet long, and have healthy appetites, preferring live fish as food. In the wild, these supreme carnivores will eat almost any other living thing it can catch, tear apart or swallow in one gulp! One giant 3ft Arowana was observed killing, tearing apart and eating a whole snake, twice as long at itself. They have teeth on their jaws, inside their mouth and on their tongues too.
The Arowana lives only in freshwater. They prefer the acidic blackwaters of southeast Asia’s swamp forests and the slow-flowing waters of large rivers and lakes. They cannot tolerate salty water, and therefore they cannot cross the seas. But they are found in Indochina, Thailand, Sumatra, Peninsular Malaysia and Borneo. How did they get there if they can’t cross the salty seas?
The answer is that they never crossed the seas. They are remnants of the freshwater fish that lived across Sundaland before the seas rose and created the islands today. They are old, actually they are more than 140 million years old. It is no wonder that they have evolved into the perfect form of beauty and grace, they have had a long time to get it right!
Arowanas can cost you thousands of US dollars. Why? The main reason is that they are endangered species today, difficult to find and strongly regulated in how they are traded between countries. Certificates are required, and most of the highest quality Arowanas have micro-chips in them to assure buyers and regulators of their authenticity. Their natural habitats are rapidly being lost, and wild-caught Arowanas are extremely difficult to get. Most of the Arowanas in shops are farmed, from captive-bred stocks.
The Arowana is undoubtedly Borneo’s most beautiful fish. Its scales are amongst the largest among freshwater fish, each at least 2cm across. Each scale has delicate patterns and mosaics, and have a metallic shine. They have two barbels (like twin beards) sticking out from their lower jaw, resembling the Chinese dragon, hence its name Dragonfish. Added to this impressive character, it is their colour that makes people go waaah!
Arowanas from different parts of southeast Asia have different colours. The northern Indochinese varieties are green and silver, the Malay peninsula are beautifully patterned in gold and red, and the Sumatran forms are silver and red. But it is the form from Borneo that is most impressive – completely bright glowing shining red. This is the red dragon of Borneo, and only from Borneo.
These magnificent red dragons are found almost exclusively in one river system, the Kapuas river in west Kalimantan. Some 700km upstream of the Kapuas is the Danau Sentarum lakes, much closer to Lanjak in Sarawak than Pontianak in Kalimantan. This giant lake system, some 80,000ha of floodplain lakes, supports Borneo’s largest and last remaining population of the Red Dragonfish. And even here, the Arowana is declining fast, as aquarium traders continue to catch them.
Another reason why the Arowana is so highly prized is they live long lives. They can live for 60 years. They don’t start breeding until four years, and the males are the care-takers of Arowana babies. Arowanas are mouth-brooders. After the female lays eggs, the male keeps them in its mouth. After hatching, the fry live in the male’s mouth, wandering outside to feed, but quickly returning to the mouth when threatened.
Watching an Arowana in an aquarium is a mesmerising experience. It also makes one think of the wonderful animals that live on Borneo. They have lived here for millions of years, generation after generation and generation, a symbol of our island’s richness of life, and ancient history. Something inside us can’t help but appreciate nature’s wonder, and want it to be here forever. We have no right to wipe out a 140 million year-old creature in order for us to live. No such thing as we humans replacing something else. We must live together, a perfect form, an elegant life.
The Curious case of a Chinese visitor
People and animals have been visiting Borneo for 50 million years. Many of these visitors have made an impression on this great island. Some lived for a while, then died out, and have become our past, our history. Many others stayed, and evolved into something else, giving rise to new species, new cultures and new languages, and are now identified as truly and uniquely Bornean.
It doesn’t really matter if we Bornean people agree or disagree with whether the pygmy elephant in Sabah evolved on Borneo, or came from Sri Lanka. Neither does it matter if the Iban, Kenyah or Malay were the first peoples on Borneo, or whether they originally came from Burma or from Australia. These are arguments, interesting no doubt, that mean little over the course of the ages. What is true is that Borneo, like the rest of the world, is a result of people and animals moving from one place to another, and a result of rising and falling oceans.
What is also an extremely important question for the three countries that govern the island of Borneo today is what do we do when we get new information? Every now and then, some archaeologist digging a hole somewhere, or some scientist watching birds somewhere, discovers something new. Something we never knew before! And sometimes… just sometimes, this new information is so dramatic that the world starts to discuss it, and letters and emails start flying here and there, asking what is to be done with this new bit of information?
Let’s explore one example. In 2008, a flock of 429 Chinese Egrets were discovered on the mangrove mudflats in Sarawak. This shocked the world, because the Chinese Egret was one of the world’s most endangered species, with a world population (at that time) of just 2,500 individuals, all breeding on just one rocky island off the coast of South Korea. Yes, amazingly, the entire world population breeds in just one area of the Yellow Sea!
Scientists knew that every year, when winter comes to the north, the entire world population of Chinese Egrets spread out each year around the South China Sea, spending the winter months along the coasts of Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines. Everywhere they were seen, it was one bird here, or five birds there… always in very small numbers. Except for the central Philippines, between the islands of Bohol, Leyte and Cebu. Here, in this tiny spot, there were hundreds.
All the reports and world knowledge was that the central Philippines was the major “wintering” site for the Chinese Egret, and together with this rocky island in Korea, were the world’s two most important sites. They had to be protected to save this species from extinction. Proposals were written up, money was being allocated and experts were gathering in meetings to discuss saving this beautiful white Egret.
Then, out of the blue, we find out about this egret on Borneo, with almost 20% of the entire world population. Nobody was looking at this obviously very important site!
Between 2010 and 2012, small research projects were begun by Malaysian NGOs, and a survey was done across the whole northern coastline of Borneo, covering Sarawak, Brunei and Sabah. It confirmed that the entire northern Borneo coast was of critical importance to the Chinese Egret. Almost every egret counted was a Chinese Egret! Several very important sites were also identified, from Bako-Buntal Bay near Kuching, to the Rajang Delta and Brunei Bay.
Efforts to get the Sarawak government’s attention fell on deaf ears. No one was interested. Sarawak was already struggling with saving the Orang Utan, Sabah similarly with the Rhinoceros and pygmy elephant, and Brunei was otherwise occupied. Nothing was known about the Chinese Egret down Kalimantan’s eastern coast.
In the meanwhile, scientists were also investigating the breeding colony in Korea, as were photographers and bird-watchers. So many people were crowding the rocky island that the population started to decline. So, this is a case where an exciting new discovery leads to confusion, and creates a problem. We suddenly have new information, but are not prepared to receive, or respond to it. We don’t know how to use it! And… worse still, somehow, it seems to get in the way! Either, governments don’t want to know about something new that affects their already laid-out plans, or a great big fuss is made out of it, and birdwatchers clambering over each other to capture that award-winning photograph causes an already endangered species to become even more endangered.
We are all guilty of withholding information we obtain, for various reasons. Sometimes we keep information to ourselves for our own benefit, so that it doesn’t damage ourselves or our plans. Sometimes we keep information to ourselves to protect something else, like not letting people know where a precious orchid is found.
Curiously, the result of withholding information, for whichever reason, is the same. Borneo is an island, but not isolated from the world. Collectively, the governance of Borneo needs to be much more integrated into the mainstream of the world. What happens on Borneo affects other countries. More importantly, what happens on Borneo affects many species that are not confined to Borneo, just like the Chinese Egret. They need a place to breed, and they are losing that… and they need a safe place to see out the winter, and so far, it still has that on Borneo. But for how long? And who is responsible to make sure this beautiful creature continues to exist on earth?
Why Wet Feet, not Happy Feet?
In February and March 2016, newspaper headlines all across Borneo looked something like this: Samarinda flooding spreading; Banjarmasin paralysed by floods, West Kalimantan capital Pontianak hit by flash floods; Kuching’s general hospital evacuated because of flooding; Miri submerged!
One might think someone up there emptied a huge bucket of water on Borneo! The result was terrible. South Kalimantan’s Governor announced 95 flood prone areas, and instructed 13 districts and cities to prepare flood response actions. Tabalong district had 1,840 homes in 25 villages flooded, 205 homes in nine villages in Balangan flooded, 4,715 homes in 166 villages in North Hulu Sungai under water, and 814ha of ricefields damaged.
West Kalimantan’s provinces of Ketapang, Landak, Bengkayang and Melawi were flooded to average depths of 1.5m. Water levels rose 2.5m in Singkawang and Sambas provinces, submerging at least 10,000 homes, forcing 31,000 people to move to higher ground. Two people died.
Central Kalimantan’s Barito river overflowed its banks, flooding the village of Banjar where 13,941 people were affect, and 3,949 homes submerged. In Hulu Sungai village, 3,000 homes and 525ha of farms were inundated.
In Sarawak, floods forced 3,812 people from 939 families to be evacuated, 36 schools closed (affecting 3,678 students). In the state capital Kuching alone, 2,306 people from 506 families were evacuated.
Apart from a lot of wet feet, there was an amazing flood of comments, opinions, complaints and accusations over social media. Between the three countries of Brunei, Malaysia and Indonesia, an estimated 2 billion messages and pictures were exchanged over smartphones between January and March. Everybody had something to say, and let us not try and understand what each and everyone said. There were three things that were basically the common conclusions: a) everybody was unhappy, b) everybody wanted somebody to do something about these catastrophic floods that happen every year, and c) these floods are getting worse every year!
One home owner living in Kuching commented “I have lived in my house, by this little river, for 35 years. My house has never flooded. Then last year, they built this huge shopping centre behind my house. This year, my house had half a metre of water in my living room. There must be a relation between this shopping centre and the floods!”
There’s a lot we ordinary people do not know, but this is what we do know. Water will flow. We cannot stop it. The more water, the more flow. Putting a roof over our heads does not make the water any less, it just diverts it from landing on our head and makes it flow somewhere else. Put a dam across a river, and the water in the river remains exactly the same, it simply flows somewhere else. Build walls on the sides of a river makes the river neater, but does not reduce the water one tiny bit. It just moves somewhere else.
This basic principle is not some fantastic new discovery some scientists made. Human beings have known this ever since we first got our feet wet. It will not be an unreasonable assumption then, to expect those who do city planning to know this too. Right? Of course they do! So, if they do, then why do our cities suffer flooding? Something has obviously gone wrong. There can be only two possible explanations as to what might have gone wrong.
The first scenario is that our city planners on Borneo face some challenge they cannot overcome. We can guess that it is not some technical aspect in planning, simply because there is really nothing we cannot overcome with technology. This is a fact, demonstrated by the human race becoming the dominant lifeform on planet earth, and able to travel to the moon and beyond. The conclusion therefore, has to be that, whatever this unsurmountable challenge faced by city planners across the three countries of Borneo is, it is not technical. Someone pray tell us what it is, so we can find a way to solve this critical problem.
The second scenario is that despite the best efforts of our planners at projecting climate and rainfall patterns, there is a sudden and unexplainable huge increase in the amount of water that falls on Borneo. Most of Borneo’s cities are over 150 years old, and therefore we are unprepared for this increase in water, hence flooding destroys property, crops and disrupts our lives.
We ordinary people cannot say which explanation is correct, or whether our flooding problem is actually a combination of both scenarios. However, most of us would probably guess that the first scenario is a more likely explanation than the second…
Whichever the true explanation is, one thing is sure. There is no point spending money developing Borneo’s cities into better places to live in if we cannot protect our cities, and our people, from water. It is also true, perhaps even more, that if we cannot protect our food-growing areas from flooding, we will either starve, or be colonised by someone who can provide us food.
It begins with a distant rumbling. Within two minutes, the rumbling has turned into a thunderous roar, punctuated with loud cracks. Run is what you must do, run as far away from the stream where you are standing. And run fast! This roar is the sound of a flash flood coming towards you, and coming fast it is.
Every year, throughout the interior of Borneo, tens of people die from flash floods. People are simply caught unaware, often mesmerized by the frightening roar. Then suddenly a wall of raging water appears, rushing at you at speeds of over 80kmh. it is then too late. What makes these flash floods even more deadly is they are not always as loud as described here. Sometimes, they appear quietly, creeping up on sleeping picnickers and tourists camping by what appeared to be a seeming tranquil and peaceful riverbank.
Flash floods are destructive because of their speed and strength. They are a natural phenomenon along the upper reaches of Borneo’s rivers. Borneo’s rivers are one of this island’s most beautiful character. Over thousands of years, flowing water scours the earth, eventually reaching base rock. It is along these channels over base rock that river courses run today, forming the very bottom of valleys.
The smooth pebbles on these river beds are little pieces of art, as are the smooth surfaces of larger boulders along forest rivers. All have been sculptured over thousands of years by flowing water. They are also a clue to the power of water.
Have you ever enjoyed a picnic along a river, with shingle banks, rippling water so clear you can see fish swimming, and huge shady trees? Have you noticed accumulations of twigs, dead leaves hanging from overhanging tree branches way above you head? These are signs of previous flash floods, and seeing with your own eyes how high the water reached is a rather frightening experience.
Taking a boat ride in the interior of Borneo, passing longhouses and villages along the riverbanks, is another clue – all riverine settlements are located at least 10m above the water’s edge. Ever wondered why? Well, I guess it makes sense now.
Forested rivers are typically narrow, with rather steep sided banks rising upwards to the ridges. Huge trees overhang these rivers, creating a beautiful and shady environment. Every now and then, these trees fall down, and land in the rivers. These fallen trees influence these rivers, and can last hundreds of years. Sometimes, these tree falls land over a cascade, or small waterfall. During heavy rains, more logs and debris can accumulate at a certain point along a river, forming a dam. Behind these dams, water is then backed up.
Periodically, after periods of heavy downpours, these dams break, releasing a huge amount of water. The result is a torrent of water at the bottom of a narrow valley floor, quickly rising several metres in height, and carrying with it broken logs and trees. This is the most destructive and dangerous type of flash flood. Little in its path has a chance of surviving its tremendous force and speed. If the stream is descending a slope, this force is even greater.
Although under some circumstances these raging torrents can last several kilometres, flash floods usually dissipate as quickly as they begin. Lower downstream, river levels rise quickly, but without the roar of rushing water and breaking logs. Along narrow stretches, water levels can rise 5 metres in an hour.
Flash floods are an important part of the river ecosystem. Most of the waterfalls and cascades we enjoy so much are formed by flash floods. Following a flash flood, the river receives a big dose of nutrients from the soil and dead leaves and trees washed into the rivers. These nutrients are needed by the various lifeforms living in the rivers, from the fish, shrimp to invertebrates. In short, these floods are a necessary part of a living river.
Whether one believes in the legends of old, about the spirits of the great rainforests of Borneo showing their anger at human mischief, or hold that these destructive floods have an earthly logical explanation, the fact that they happen is undeniable. Care we must take when we head upriver. Respect the awesome power of nature at all times, and all will be well. Regardless, Borneo’s river thunder will always be a force to be respected, and many of us hope to one day be able to witness it.
Broken Roads, Broken Families
Here’s an unlikely story. You build a house, a home for your family. You have a nice road leading to your house. Then you decide you would like to plant some vegetables, your own little garden to supply nice fresh vegetables for the family. You decide to plant your vegetable garden in the middle of the road to your house. Now, you have to drive around your vegetable garden to get to your home. Nonsensical right? No one in the right mind would do such a thing! Instead, would you not look around your land, decide where the best place for your garden would be, and plant it there?
Well, the old saying “do onto others as you would do unto yourself” apparently doesn’t always apply when we plan how to use land throughout Borneo. For some reason no one seems to understand, we put our towns, roads and vegetable gardens wherever we like. Sometimes we think of others, but sometimes we don’t. This is the biggest problem faced by Borneo’s wildlife in the past 20 years.
It is a common misconception that our jungles are wild and disorganized places. Animals are running all over the place, with no rhyme or reason. This is not true. Animals use the forest, their home for thousands of years, in a very ordered fashion. They follow fixed paths, which if you followed them, you would find that these are often the best ways to climb a hill or cross a ridge. These are known as animal trails, and if you are not wandering around oblivious to the forest, you would be able to see them. Years of use make them very defined paths. In fact, most of the forest trails used by people over the years were animal trails first.
Animals know their forests much better than we do. They know where the fruiting trees are, and when they fruit. They know the best places to cross rivers. They know where their kitchens are, where they keep their salt. The larger the animals, the more apparent these ancient animal roads are.
Elephants are the largest animals on Borneo, and they have followed their elephant roads for generations. People who live in areas with elephants know exactly when the herds come each year, where they walk and when they leave on to their next destinations. This has been the way for centuries.
Now comes the vegetable gardens, placed here and there, sometimes right in the middle of the elephant road. What do the elephants do now? Walk around them, or walk through them as they follow their ancient roads? Well, if they walk straight through the gardens, people get angry, and start chasing them away. Get out of my garden! If they walk around the gardens, they start to get lost, because they have never taken this road before. They end up in kampungs, in towns and in other people’s gardens.
The result of this “displacement” of animals, like elephants, is called human-wildlife conflict. Lost families of animals come into contact with humans, and all sorts of troubles begin. People are scared of large elephants, and elephants are even more scared of people. Lost herds sometimes get split up, with individual elephants unable to find their families, young babies left wandering without their mothers and starving to death. Damage to property also happens, with elephants crashing into homes and gardens. All in all, this becomes a messy situation, and more often than not, the elephants are killed, or caught and transferred to other places, far away from their families.
The question that we on Borneo should be asking ourselves is whether this is avoidable? Can we do the things we need to do on our island without breaking homes and families? Can we build our roads and towns in such a way that the ancient animal roads are not broken? Can we co-exist with our incredible wildlife on Borneo?
It boils down to this – how much to we value our wildlife? Are they important enough to us that we take a little extra effort to make sure our development doesn’t affect them negatively? How difficult is it to find out where the elephants are, and then plan our development around their homes and roads? Is this impossible to do? Well, once we decide that this is indeed not an impossible task, Borneo will be rid of its ever increasing problems of wildlife and human conflicts. No elephants need to die. Let all families on Borneo remain unbroken.
When People of Borneo Come Together
Mysterious Borneo. There have always been mysteries about Borneo. There still are. For example, we don’t quite know when people first set foot on the island. The latest archaeological research indicates that modern humans were present in northern Borneo at least 46,000 years ago. Whether some people got there even earlier without leaving a trace is anyone’s guess.
Exactly how those first people got to Borneo is also unclear. Their time of arrival coincided with a time of low sea levels, when Borneo was likely connected to the Malay Peninsula or to Sumatra. In this case, the first people of Borneo probably arrived on foot. Other studies, based on language similarities, however, have suggested that Borneo was settled through Taiwan and the Philippines. These areas were never fully connected to Borneo, which would then suggest that the first Borneans came by boat.
What is obvious from the many studies on human genetics, archaeology, language and culture is that Borneo is a bit of a human melting pot, with people arriving at different times from the Asian mainland, Sulawesi, the Philippines, and bringing along with them their own habits and languages. These movements were not just in one direction. People left Borneo as well. The settlement of Madagascar from Borneo, a minor 10,000 km boat-trip to the west, is a well-documented example. Up until now, all Malagasy languages have close similarities to those spoken in the south-east part of Borneo.
Now, these Bornean people didn’t all get along fabulously. Historic accounts and other evidence indicate a relatively violent past for the island’s people, although probably no more violent than people elsewhere in the world. Inter-tribal warfare occurred frequently, as did related slavery and head-taking, and villages were often barricaded to withstand attacks from raiding parties.
It would have been a pretty scary time to live on Borneo, although these dangerous days seem to have benefited wildlife. Some early writers suggested that species like the rhinoceros survived in large numbers until the early 20th century, because it was pretty dangerous for hunters to be out in the forest. After forests became safer for people, rhinos rapidly declined.
Obviously, reintroducing war into Borneo is not a conservation strategy one would recommend. The constant wars on Borneo were a great source of suffering and a major concern to Borneo’s people as well as the Dutch and British colonial governments.
Now, here’s a rather intriguing fact. History tells us that these people and governments managed to do something that has rarely been repeated since. They brought together people from all over the island to one location to discuss and settle the issue of ongoing inter-tribal wars.
Of course, these days, people from different parts of Borneo meet quite often, as do the respective governments. However, in those days, there were no air planes, comfortable hotels and air-conditioned meeting facilities. Instead, the people of Borneo paddled and walked for hundreds and hundreds of kilometers through un-interrupted tropical rainforest. No small feat indeed.
The first such major meeting was the peace conference in Tumbang Anoi on the Upper Kahayan River, deep in the interior of Borneo in May, 1894. After long preparations, Dayak representatives from across the island came together in this relatively obscure village on the border between Dutch West and East Borneo. How they informed each other of this meeting boggles the mind!
Some 418 people attended, representing 116 different villages and ethnic groups. The meetings reportedly took 4 months to complete. Hundreds of buffaloes had to be brought to the village for sacrificial purposes, and to feed the people. But, after much talk, an agreement was made that ultimately resulted in a significant decrease in inter-tribal wars and raids.
But the problems weren’t quite solved, so a second and third meeting occurred 30 years later, first in Long Nawang (in what is now East Kalimantan), then in Kapit Fort (in Sarawak). Sporadic hostilities between Ibans, Kayan, Kajangs and the Kenyah, which reached a peak in 1921, brought these people together in 1924 under the presence of Rajah Charles Brooke and the Dutch “controleur” Molenaar.
First, Brooke’s officials took the effort to take the 500 km roundtrip journey to Long Nawang, and on 16 November 1924, the favour was returned when a party of 960 men travelling in 97 boats journeyed from their home towns to the Sarawak coast.
A Straits Times article from that year provides a fascinating report on this great gathering of 4,200 indigenous people in one spot to address the common war problem. And it seems that this time, they really cracked it. They probably had finally figured out that peaceful co-existence benefited everyone. In the words of the reporter who was present at the event, the ultimate idea was to “encourage freer intercourse between Sarawak and Dutch Borneo to the benefit of the inhabitants of these rivers, in that they will be able … open up the vast country … for the working of forest products and to peacefully trade.”
There’s a pattern here. A meeting in 1894, two meetings in 1924, and if you keep counting in steps of 30 years, you eventually get to 2014. And indeed, in that year once again, the people and governments of Borneo got together to discuss the future of their island in a large Heart of Borneo meeting in Sabah (Malaysian Borneo).
People have been on Borneo for a good 50,000 years. At least some have worked out that they need to collaborate to achieve a peaceful co-existence between the people of island and the living ecosystems on which their lives depend.
Not everyone is on board, though, and there are still plenty of people who see Borneo as an easy place to fill their pockets. More effective collaboration is needed between Borneo’s people and governments to ensure that sustainable development is not just preached but also practiced. Let’s not wait until 2044…
The month is Oct, the year is 2015. For the past weeks, we have been shocked with images of orange flames reaching into the skies. Our town’s skyline is a faint outline of nearby buildings. We wake up to dry throats, runny noses and a smoky taste in our mouth. The papers are full of what ministers are saying, how neighbouring countries are sending fire engines, water bomber aircraft from here to there, and back again. Emergency laws are being passed in several countries, and the blame-game is in full throttle. It is that time of year again… Borneo’s forests are on fire. Again!
Like a hugely popular stage performance, it happens year after year. Some insist that burning forests is cultural, and its been done for ages, while others are shouting furiously at plantation companies who clear vast landscapes of forests to grow lucrative crops like oil palm and acacia trees for paper.
Two centuries ago, a heretic or a witch would be tied to a stake in the middle of the town square, and burnt alive for his or her sins. It was a hugely popular public event, with townsfolk being told of a burning days before so they could plan their time, and not miss the event. It was entertainment for all. Gruesomely horrific, but accepted as entertainment.
Two centuries later, this is unacceptable in civil society. But…. While we shop in the local air-conditioned pharmacy for a facemask to protect ourselves from the haze, a deer shudders in the forest. It has been running for the past two days, its lungs are burning, and it is exhausted. It hasn’t had a drop of water to drink. The heat is intense, and it stands gasping in smoke so thick it doesn’t know where it is any longer. The deer’s panic and fear ripples like waves through its body.
Suddenly, crack! The tree next to it bursts into flame. It bolts left and runs wildly straight into another wall of searing fire. Its fur catches fire, its feet land on molten soil and its flesh starts to dissolve. Its eyes melt, its lungs drag in its last gulps of pure fire… mercifully. The deer stops running, and drops to a crouch, a heap of burning flesh. Finally, it is over. The deer has no more fear. To ashes it has returned, forever again part of the earth of Borneo.
The fate of this deer is the same fate of thousands and thousands of living animals, birds, lizards, snakes and insects on Borneo. Monkeys climb trees and are burnt alive like the witches of old. Porcupines hide and are burnt alive in their burrows. All this happens without any spectators to gawk at their fear, searing pain and death. This is happening this year. It happened last year too, the year before and before and before that.
Thoughts drift to the city of Naples, on the southern coast of Italy. Here, two thousand years ago, volcanic fire swept through the ancient city of Pompeii, wiping all life before it. The preserved bodies of the citizens of Pompeii, incinerated alive in their homes, are one of the most poignant sights in the world. Visitors stand silently in the museums of Pompeii, awestruck by the power of nature, and in their hearts, say silent prayers for the victims of the brutal volcano that is Vesuvius.
It is not the same sentiment for Borneo’s wildlife. Their annual mass death is not a result of a natural phenomenon. It is our doing. It is murder. And it is murder most cruel. And it happens year after year. We may not gather and cheer their deaths, but our indifference asks many questions.
Without going into the technical and political debates about why Borneo burns every year, there is a simpler contemplation of this horrible situation. Is there really nothing that can be done to stop this annual mass murder of wildlife? Should each and every one of us, hiding our children indoors to guard them against the smoke, spare a thought for the animals being burnt alive? Many of us support animal welfare organisations striving to instil empathy and conscience amongst our society to the plight of our animals, domestic pets and farmed animals.
Should we not speak up now? If we do not speak, those bears and deer certainly will not. They can’t.
Here’s speaking for those who do not have a voice in our newspapers, who can’t send you a message on facebook asking for help. They do not die in silence, away from our conscience and knowledge. Know this. They die in fear, and in pain. They are burnt alive.
A commodity gone off the scales
Folklore is full with tales of the underdog, the small but wily creature outsmarting the larger and less agile. In Malay and Sri Lankan folklore it is said that there is a small animal that can kill elephants by biting the giant beast’s feet, then coiling itself tightly around the end of the elephant's trunk, and suffocating it. For those elephants out there, don’t worry. Your alleged killer is now nearing extinction itself, and won’t be suffocating you any time soon.
The animal in this story is the Sunda Pangolin Manis javanica, also called the Scaly ant-eater. Its known as tenggiling in Malay, and trenggiling in Indonesian. It looks somewhat like a miniature Stegosaur, with a scaly body and pointed head. It is classified as Critically Endangered animal. This means that if present trends continue there is a 50% chance that the species will go extinct in the wild in the next 10 years and that’s bad news.
Returning to the take of the elephant-killer, it is quite unlikely that pangolins would bite elephants, considering they don’t even have teeth. They eat with their stomachs. They have a gizzard-like stomach that is adapted for grinding food. Pangolins primarily feed on ants and termites, hence the name ant-eater. They catch ants with a unique and amazing tongue. The tongue of a pangolin is longer than their body, and they use these extraordinarily long tongues to reach insects burrowed deep underground.
Talk to local people across southeast Asia, from Sukabumi in West Java's mountains to To’Uban in northern Kelantan, and they reminisce how, as recently as in the 1990s, pangolin were still very common in gardens and forests around villages. People who went out at night to catch frogs would encounter pangolins every night. Now these same people report seeing them maybe once every six months. Of course this is entirely anecdotal, but it does suggest major changes in density.
So, what’s going wrong for this unusual and protected animal? First, there’s a huge illegal market in Vietnam and China for pangolin meat, which is eaten by rich people as an exotic luxury food. In Southeast Asia, it’s often brought out in celebration when a business deal is finalized.
Furthermore, the pangolin’s ground-up scales are used in traditional medicine, apparently to cure cancer or asthma. It is estimated that demand in China alone amounts to 200,000 pangolins per year. As a result of growing demand and declining supply, prices of pangolin scales have gone up from US$250 to US$600 per kg over the past five years. Increasingly, there are reports of large amounts of illegally smuggled pangolins. In one such incident during 2013, 10,000 kilograms of pangolin meat were seized from a Chinese vessel that ran aground in the Philippines. Similarly, in 2014, police confiscated 5,000 kg of pangolin meat and 77 kg of scales in Medan, Sumatra. Very likely such captures are just the tip of the iceberg.
Pangolins are caught on Java, Sumatra, Borneo and other places by stretching long low nets on the forest floor, snaking along ridges, or across them. Pangolins wandering on the forest floor get caught in these nets. As a defense mechanism pangolins roll up, hedge-hog-wise, into a tight ball and are easily retrieved and kept alive in sacks.
Hunting for pangolin scales is certainly not new. In 1949, the naturalist Edward Banks, reported that six hundred pounds of pangolin scales were exported at the time to China from Sarawak alone. These were made into “curry-combs”, which is possibly a type of horse brush.
Interestingly, in Indonesia there is apparently a perception that Brazil's mascot for the 2014 Football World Cup was a pangolin. Not quite. It was actually a three-banded armadillo, nicknamed Fuleco. We can't blame Indonesians for thinking that armadillos are similar to pangolins, because they look alike in body form and scaly outside. In fact, many scientists were thinking along similar lines and for centuries classified pangolins with anteaters, sloths, and indeed armadillos.
Newer genetic evidence, however, indicates the closest living relatives of pangolins are, wait for it, the Carnivora! Yes, they are related to cats, dogs, hyenas and the like. Evolution comes out laughing yet again, one branch on the evolutionary tree creating totally different-looking animals. It’s the power of evolutionary selection. When you feed on ants and don't have any real defense mechanisms, it apparently makes sense to look like a scaly ball with pointy snout.
So what to do? One pangolin species has already gone extinct, the Asian Giant Pangolin, or Manis palaeojavanicus. This was a truly large form of pangolin that could measure over 2 meters long. It disappeared from Java and Borneo around the time when people arrived in its range. We will probably never know the exact role humans played in its demise, or what role other factors (like disease or climate change) played. But as one of the tastiest and most easily caught animals around, it is likely that human predilection for exotic meats had at least some impact on driving the species to extinction.
We need to make sure we do not lose another species of pangolin. A few years ago David Attenborough put the pangolin on his top 10 list of species he wanted to save from extinction. This is going to require some serious action from the wildlife authorities of Indonesia, Malaysia and many other countries. Pangolins are fully protected in Indonesia, so the authorities need to let the people of Indonesia know through extensive media campaigns that catching pangolins is illegal and will be punished.
Being small and weird looking makes you the stuff of folklore but it’s no match for the growing trade in exotic meat which will be the death knell for an increasing number of South-east Asian animals.
The Unusual Bearded Pig of Borneo
What is the most important animal or plant species on Borneo? Depending on whom you ask, you will surely get very different answers. The timber towkay would say Borneo’s giant hardwood trees are the most important, because one tree alone could buy you a house. The oil palm grower would reply the oil palm tree. People in Australia or Europe may reply “the orangutan”, because it is highly threatened and many worry about its survival.
But ask a native Iban or Kenyah person, and their most likely reply would be the wild pig. There is only one species of wild pig on Borneo, called the bearded pig because of its prominent beard. They grow to 100kg, large individuals reaching six feet in length with long curving tusks. The bearded pig occurs only on Borneo, southern Sumatra and south-eastern peninsular Malaysia.
Interestingly, the bearded pig does something few other rainforest species do: they migrate over long distances. Just like the great herds of zebra in Africa, every few years, bearded pig populations erupt and move across Borneo’s jungles in their thousands - one of Borneo’s most spectacular natural phenomenon. One such migration, recorded in 1935, was described as follows: ‘For five or six weeks, at points sixty to a hundred miles apart, moves a steady stream of wild pigs, a few solitary, some family parties of seven or eight, many packs from fifteen to thirty or forty, occasionally convoys estimated at two hundred. Whence came the pigs, and where they go, no one knows.’
Depending on religion, pigs can be rather gross, or totally wonderful. Certainly, non-muslim communities on Borneo have always relied heavily on pigs for meat and other products. A study in one remote village in Indonesian Borneo recorded 707 pigs hunted over a period of 21 months. Another study showed that one village caught 429 pigs in one year, about 81% of the total weight of all animals they hunted. That’s about 30 tons of pork!
For many millions of people on Borneo, for many hundreds of years, the bearded pig has been the most important source of meat. This may be changing. Based on information from interviews across Borneo, pig populations in forests seem to be declining. The big spectacular migrations seem to have disappeared entirely in some parts of Borneo. It is believed that today, most bearded pig populations are small and sedentary, meaning they stay in one place.
We don’t know what causes these population declines. Bearded pigs feed heavily on seeds of dipterocarp trees, the same trees sought after by the timber companies. With many such trees now gone, pigs may have fewer resources to feed on. Also, hunting pressure is, and has always been, high.
Declining pig populations are a worry for many people. If an estimated 4,000 pre-dominantly non-muslim villages on Borneo catch on average 300 pigs per year at 50 kg of meat per pig, and at a market price of between 10 and 20 Ringgit per kg, that would be between 600 million and 1.2 billion Ringgit per year of free meat. If that meat is no longer available, people would need to buy other meat in markets, with cash. In poor rural societies though, availability of cash is often limited. Declining pig populations could therefore have real impacts on people’s nutrition and health.
Many local people are very aware of the importance of pigs in their lives. It is a fact that it is much easier to talk to people about pigs than about orangutans. Try having a conversation in a longhouse about orangutans, and you will send them to sleep, or the subject will change within a few minutes. Start talking about pigs, and three days later they will still be telling new stories.
The bearded pig is what is called a cultural keystone species. They play a crucial role in many people’s lives.
As we forge ahead into the 21st century, with a view to a Borneo that has all its cultural attributes intact and thriving, the bearded pig cannot be ignored. We need to better understand this wonderful species, in order to continue benefiting from its presence. We need to conduct scientific research on it. We also need to begin managing pig populations. There are many ways we can manage wild animals like pigs, such as designated hunting periods and areas, and setting up areas where no hunting is allowed.
Unless, we think that local communities could develop and implement these hunting controls themselves, such solutions require buy-in and policy assistance from government. Unfortunately, however, governments on Borneo have generally not paid much attention to pigs, perhaps because of religious reasons? Regardless, action is needed to ensure that Borneo’s bearded pig is here to stay for the benefit of Borneo’s people.
The Tale of the Ibis
The Egyptian God Thoth is depicted as a man with the head of an ibis. He is a powerful god, overseeing the balance between good and evil, and preventing either from ever triumphing over the other. Thoth is also the scribe of the Gods, patron of the art of writing, and the creator of all works of science, religion, philosophy and magic.
The Ibis is a sacred bird. Its long down-curved bill is thought to represent the crescent moon, and its graceful flight has inspired writers for thousands of years. Few people know that there is an Ibis on Borneo, and a very rare and endangered one at that. This is the White-shouldered Ibis, known in Kalimantan as the Burung Karau. It has no name in Sarawak and Sabah, probably because no one has ever seen it. The last time a white-shouldered Ibis was seen in northern Borneo was in 1947, a single bird feeding in the ricefields around Batu Lintang, Kuching. It is believed to be extinct in Sarawak, but who knows, it might still show up somewhere, someday.
Fewer than 1,000 of these birds are left in the world. Once found over large parts of Southeast Asia, from Myanmar and Vietnam in the north to Peninsular Malaysia and Borneo in the south, today it is found in small pockets of riverine and swamp forest in Cambodia, extreme southern Laos and Indonesian Borneo.
The White-shouldered Ibis is a dark brown bird, with a striking white crescent on the back of its head, orange eyes and bright red legs. It gets its name from prominent white patches on its shoulders, only visible when it flies. Ibis are shy birds, living along large rivers and wetlands far in the interior of Borneo.
The species was first described in 1875 by Allan Octavian Hume, although he wasn’t the first to notice this curious bird. 40 years earlier, Dr. Müller, a German naturalist working in the Netherlands Indies, shot several of these ibis along the Barito River in what is now Central Kalimantan Province. He didn’t think that much of his discovery, and considered the bird the same as the Red-naped Ibis from India. One wonders why, because the two species look completely different, with one having a bright red patch behind its head and the other a white one. Well, Dr. Müller didn’t have google, or he was a better hunter than a naturalist!
What Hume and Müller had in common is that they lived at a time when the White-shouldered Ibis was still wide-spread. Both described the species as not-uncommon but very shy. Being the size of a very large chicken and living along river banks obviously made this species a prime target for hunters and egg collectors. If they were not wary, they would inevitably end up cooked and eaten.
Unfortunately, people and ibis live in the same place, fertile river banks. The ibis is being pushed into extinction as we speak. What is worrying is that fewer than 100 birds of this globally endangered species are left, and nobody seems to be doing anything about it. In Indonesia, where the ibis is still found, the government has neither the manpower, nor expertise to effectively protect all 1,259 species in the country listed as threatened with extinction. In Malaysia, the situation is the same.
We know that people in central Kalimantan still occasionally shoot the ibis. They say any bird that shows itself so obviously on river banks, surely is worth a shot! Local people say that until recently, large groups of White-shouldered Ibises were regularly seen on pebbly river banks, but nowadays it is almost never encountered.
As far as we know, there are no white-shouldered Ibis in any zoo in the world presently. This means that if they disappear from the Mahakam – as they did from the Barito where they were last recorded in 1984 – that’s it for Indonesia. Another species ticked off as extinct.
Surely it can’t be that difficult to do something! How hard can it be to breed these birds in captivity? How hard is it to convince communities in the Mahakam area to stop shooting these birds or collecting their eggs? How can we re-introduce this ibis to Sarawak (we know it was here before) if there are none left?
This story of Thoth in Borneo is a tale that is becoming repeated over and over again. We continue to lose our wildlife, and we are not doing anything to save them, even a small number of them, for our future generations. Perhaps it is just not important to our leaders? Building roads and schools are more important. We often say educating our next generation is our biggest responsibility…. But do we understand that educating them is also about leaving them with the richness of our natural environment to appreciate and care for.
Thoth would be sad to see his earthly incarnation discarded and ignored today. If we believe that Thoth represents the balance between good and evil, and that science, religion, culture and magic is part of our lives, then we must preserve the magic that is Borneo. We simply must.