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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