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Going places no man has gone before

FEATURE25_Hoses CivetPeople 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.

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Ancient Blue Eyes on Borneo

monitorweb2When 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!

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The Otters of Borneo

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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.

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Planning a Path to Perdition

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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.

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The Mysterious Pink Dolphin of Borneo

3dolphinwebHuman 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?    

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Ghost of the Mountains

 

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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?

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May the Birds keep talking to us

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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?

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There be Giants amongst us

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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.

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A decepticon amongst us

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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.

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Band of Brothers

Borneo's endemic Colobines

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.

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