The Tale of the Ibis

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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.

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