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.