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.