Saturday, May 05, 2012

Man Of The (Disappearing) Forest

For most people there is one overwhelming reason to come to Borneo: wildlife. The world's third-largest island is home to large tracts of virgin, untouched rainforest bursting with biodiversity and harbouring more than a fair few endemic animals. For the budding David Attenborough* there are few places that can offer such a range of things both bright and beautiful as well as short and squat. The biggest draw is, undoubtedly, our distant cousin, the orangutan (a word derived from the Malay, meaning "man of the forest"). There are only two populations of orangutan left in the world: one here in Borneo and the other in Sumatra. Sightings in the wild occur next to never and so the next best option is to go to one of the rehabilitation centres where orphaned and abandoned orangutans are cared for before, hopefully, being released back into the wild. One such centre is located just outside Kuching and I made it the first thing I visited when I arrived.

Orangutan faces are full of expressivity, betraying how closely related they are to humans.

Food is left out for the apes twice a day, but since they live in the surrounding forest they can either come or not, so you are never guaranteed to see one. I needn't have worried. Even before arriving at the designated feeding and information centre I spotted a mother, with her child clinging to her hirsute back, nonchalantly crossing the road ahead, ambling from one patch of forest to the other.And although the place wasn't crawling with orangutans, it certainly was swinging. We were particularly lucky when Ritchie, the local alpha male with his characteristic cheek "flanges", came crashing in. The wardens hastily made us retreat as an adult male orangutan is a strong, and potentially dangerous, animal. As with all great apes it is their closeness to us that makes them so fascinating: their facial expressions that mirror our own and they appear to exhibit the same emotions we do.

Ritchie, the alpha male, sitting at the feeding platform and munching his bananas whilst I try and keep a safe distance. Note the "flange" of fatty tissue around his face, the symbol of a dominant male.

But it's not just our closest relatives that make a visit to Borneo zoologically special. Slightly further away on the family tree, but certainly at home in the branches, are the fascinatingly curious proboscis monkeys, so named for the distinctively bulbous noses of the males. Funnily enough, due to their pot bellies and large noses, the Malay name for the monkeys is "Dutchman" (it probably says something about the physical characteristics of 17th century Dutch colonisers). The proboscis monkeys inhabit the riverine jungles so the perfect way of seeing them is by boat along the dense network of waterways that permeates the rainforest. The advantage of getting around by boat is that, much like in jeep safaris, the animals don't readily perceive you to be a threat and so it's possible to get much closer to the action without the little blighters turning tail and running off. On my cruise through the claustrophobic canals I was lucky enough to get to spot monitor lizards lazing high on boughs, troops of macaques, a hornbill, a cat snake and a few too many mosquitoes.

A male proboscis lounging in a tree and flaunting his enormous schnoz and looking very much like a Dutchman.

This is no super-idyllic Garden of Eden though. Like in many other parts of the world where Mother Nature still has a significant presence she is being slowly killed off by a thousand cuts. The rainforest that once blanketed the island, allowing an orangutan to swing from one end to the other without having to step on the ground has long-since been fragmented and decimated by human encroachment. Logging and oil palm the prime reasons. Driving along the highways of East Malaysia and you are constantly surrounded by lush greenery. Look more closely and you notice that most of it is comprised of a sprawling monoculture of oil palm that stretches far into the horizon. Palm oil is a great crop which produces enviably high yields and is used in a wide variety of products from cosmetics to biodiesel. So far so good. However, in order to create more land for oil palm plantations primary rainforest is being cleared, leading to habitat loss for many of the world's most endangered animals as well as increasing CO2 emissions (primary rainforest is the greatest carbon sink and removing it will always lead to a relative increase in carbon emissions). The Malaysian authorities are certainly to blame to a certain extent with their shortsighted view of profits, but so are we. The EU, feeling smugly superior in its environmental saintliness, passed a directive in 2003 aiming to provide 5.75% of all transport fuels with renewable sources (mainly bioethanol and biodiesel) by the end of the decade, and 10% by 2020. A well-meaning gesture perhaps, but poorly thought through. They realised their own goal when it led to more rainforest clearance for oil palm cultivation and so had to change the law in 2008 by adding full life-cycle sustainability requirements thereby including any emissions from the cultivation process (although, unfortunately, this is not retroactive, so the rainforest that was cleared before 2008 doesn't count in the life-cycle analysis).

Oil palms as far as the eye can see are a fixture of the Bornean landscape. The monoculture replacement of primary rainforest is a world tragedy.

*For those not familiar with (Sir) David Attenborough he is an English broadcaster who, for decades, presented superlative natural history programmes for the BBC, and played no small part in my love for biology and the natural world. Which brings me aptly to today's rant (I haven't had a rant in a while and thought it high time to remedy that state of affairs).

Not surprisingly here in East Malaysia documentary channels are a staple of broadcasting, especially the National Geographic channel and so I had an opportunity to see several programmes. To be honest I was sorely disappointed. National Geographic is a respected popular science journal (although I often find it too superficial and low on detail, but that's a different story), but I felt let down by the slew of programmes that were all about emphasising the danger of certain animals or, worse still, had presenters hunting (in a non-lethal manner, of course), chasing down and generally interacting with the animals so as to make the programmes more entertaining to the casual viewer. Nature is not our plaything, but by displaying that attitude on TV it reinforces that point of view. The likes of Steve Irwin might have popularised natural history for a younger generation, and they may be experts in their fields, but I don't think them good role models for us as custodians of nature. There is so little wildlife and wilderness left these days, that to interfere with it more than we really need to is a cruelty in itself, no matter that our intentions may be good. Better to keep your distance and admire from afar, even if it means you won't get that killer holiday snap of you wrestling a crocodile or cuddling a panda.

P.S. As you can see I've been able to post pictures now, so feel free to look back at my last post and check out the photos there.

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