Running wild

Borneo

Running wild

It is fitting that it rains on my visit to Borneo’s rainforest and I get somewhat drenched despite the wafer-thin ponchos that wrap me till my knees.

It is fitting too that Celina, my guide, is a member of one of the island’s many tribes. Unlike travellers or the scientists who fly into Borneo, Celina has a more intimate connection with the creatures of the forest. Her tribes, in the manner of most tribal societies, name all their deities after the animals, the birds and the trees.

And Borneo has a plethora of each of them. Geographically isolated from the rest of the world for the most part, many of them are endemic, including 44 mammals, 17 birds and 155 dipterocarp trees. The diversity of flora and fauna in this world’s third-largest island is staggering, so much so that new species are discovered here each year.

I am in Sarawak, the Malaysian part of Borneo where I am visiting the famous Bako National Park, one of the many national parks in Sarawak, where a lay tourist can get a fair sampling of Borneo’s immense biodiversity.

Rare sightings

A wooden causeway suspended about a foot from the ground leads us into Bako. It is not exactly my idea of a rainforest walk. But that’s the best option when the forest floor is wet with water collected in small leaf-filled pools. The sky is overcast, but even if it was a clear day, sunlight has no chance of seeping in though the thick canopy. Perhaps that’s why trees, many of them a variety of durians, stretch tall and disappear in the thick foliage of other trees overhead. However, the star animals of this island are two primates; the long-nosed proboscis monkey and the orangutan, both of whom we hope to get a glimpse of.

But to scamper about in a rainforest in a mad rush to see prize animals is to miss the point. A rainforest is not the African Savanna where you come to tick off the big five or marvel at the stampeding herds. In fact, you may not see very many species at all. But they are all there. Many of them hidden in the thick multi-tier canopy. Many others concealed in the thick undergrowth.

However, when you let the rainforest open unto you, you realise that the forest itself is a primordial beast heaving with its own cadence and rhythm. In the silence you are overwhelmed by the persistent bell-like sound of the cicadas, broken only by the sounds of crickets. The forest is still but crawling with the little things that are so beautifully camouflaged that without a guide you would miss them altogether.

Celina points out to us a green tree pit viper on a tree trunk twisted upon itself, green as the leaves behind it. It is frozen and its golden eye unblinking, glazed and cold. It is a tiny creature, but its venom packs a punch. What a fright to realise that these tiny reptiles could be hanging from any branch above us.

But the sight of a marsupial colugo or flying lemur cradling its baby has us throw caution to the winds as we follow other shutterbugs for a closer view. We leave the security of the wooden pathway and trapeze on the forest floor — crushing twigs and brushing aside branches much like the ones on which the viper perched.

The colugo is a ball of fur suspended upside down, seeking us out goggle-eyed. The baby occasionally joins in the staring before retreating to the safety of its mother’s belly. The mother unfurls her wings laboriously once or twice and tries half-heartedly to get away, stretching out to find a suitable purchase on another tree trunk. Though an excellent glider, colugo is a clumsy tree climber, and after what seems like a lot of effort, it manages to disappear behind a tree trunk. We return having spent close to half an hour on the colugo, but the viper had not moved an inch in the interim.

Jungle jaunt

Borneo has its rhino, its clouded leopard and the pigmy elephant, but the primates remain its signature species. It is home to over 20 of them. Celina spots the endemic proboscis monkey close to the Bako centre where it rests on a tree turning this way and that, visibly languid in the hot humid midday sun. It’s nose, after which it got its name,  hangs over its face like an overripe fruit and comes in handy, as they say, in attracting mates.

We see more of the proboscis monkey in the evening in the mangrove forests skirting the South China Sea. They crash about the branches looking for succulent leaves, surprisingly agile despite their potbellies.

The most charismatic animal on the island is however the orangutan, an ape we share 28 unique physical characteristics with, including an opposable thumb. The Orangutan Conservation Area in Sarawak rehabilitates orphan orangutans, often those whose mothers were hacked to death by machete-wielding men. The plight of these remarkable apes perhaps best epitomises the state of Borneo’s rainforest, which is today barely one-third of what it was 30 years ago.

Large swathes of Borneo’s forests have been cleared for timber and for the cultivation of palm oil or ‘green gold’ as it’s known for the lucrative value it fetches around the world. Borneo, one of the world’s most diverse ecosystems, is in danger, and with it the existence of many unique species of animals and trees hangs in the balance. Also in danger of extinction are the unique way of life of the indigenous tribes like the one to which Celina belongs. For centuries they have lived in complete harmony with nature. 

Demands fuels supply. And the best one can do on an individual level to save these rainforests is to eschew the use of palm oil. Another remedy is to visit these forests, insuring a steady footfall that will stop deforestation.

How to get there

There are no direct flights to Sarawak from India, but Malaysian Airlines has many connecting flights from all major Indian cities including Bengaluru to its capital
Kuching.

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