Friday, April 06, 2007

Sweatin' to the Oldies in Borneo

Written by Lynn

Kuala Lumpur, affectionately known as KL, is the capital city of Malaysia, and is located on the peninsular mainland. For us it was a convenient spot to hook back up again, me coming from Jakarta and Gilles from the Palau Perhentian. As for what there is to see and do in KL, the guidebook recommends, of course, the Petronas Twin Towers (tallest twin towers in the world, the top floor being 1273 feet off the ground). KL also has one of the top 10 largest shopping malls in the world (watch out West Edmonton!) containing the biggest Border's bookstore ever built. There's the usual assortment of museums and architecture, but nothing to really grab our attention. So after a few days of wandering around the markets in Chinatown where we were staying, we headed out to Borneo.

Borneo is the third largest island in the world, in terms of land mass. It is divided up between the countries of Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei. Borneo is actually an antiquitated term from the time of Dutch colonial rule and is known as Khalimantan for Indonesians and Western Malaysia for those sitting in KL. Borneo is land that is unbelievably rich in biodiversity, which is why it held such an interest for me. The island was originally made up of a mixture of dipterocarp forests, peat bogs and mangrove swamps. It contains the only remaining natural habitat for the endangered Bornean Orangutan, as well as a list of endangered plants and animals that includes, but is not limited to, the following: Sumatran Rhinocerous, Bornean Clouded Leopard, the Borneo shark, the pygmy elephant and 3 species of pitcher plants (over 30 of the world's 76 known species of pitcher plants are found on this island).

Interestingly, the dipterocarp trees, which form the majority of the canopy forests in Borneo, have evolved to synchronize their reproduction with the 4 year cycle of El Nino. In a process called "masting" the dipterocarp trees will burst into fruit on El Nino years, many trees producing over 4,000,000 blooms. The cyclical increase in food sees a corresponding increase in indigenous animal populations, as 96% of the fruit produced falls to the ground to provide ready nutrients.

Presently Borneo's landscape is being denuded by aggressive logging, which has sees one half of the world's annual tropical timber production being produced here. Presently, Khalimantan produces more tropical lumber than Latin America and Africa combined. 56% of the lowland forests no longer exist. In 1991 the average acre of dipterocarp forests produced 175 pounds of seeds. In 1998 this had dropped dramatically to a mere 16.5 pounds per acre, even though 1998 was a major El Nino year. The lack of forest canopy, which allows the undergrowth to dry out, has dramatically increased the risk of forest fires, and in 1998 an area bigger than Costa Rica burned to the ground, taking with it an estimated 9 billion dollars of forest products. If the rate of logging continues, the World Bank estimates that the lowland forests of Khalimantan will be completely gone by 2015.

This has placed great time pressure on scientists studying the area. Since 1996 over 360 new species were discovered in Borneo, and in an 18 month period from June 2005 until December 2006, 52 new plants and animals were identified by the World Wildlife Fund on the island, an unheard of feat. While we were there it was decided through DNA testing that the Clouded Leopard found on the island was genetically distinct from the one on mainland Asia.

I was hoping to spend some time with a Dr. Birute Galdikas, who has been studying orangutans in Tanjung Puting Reserve since 1971, meaning she is responsible for some of the lengthiest continuous research on a mammalian species. I was lucky enough to be put in contact with Dr. Galdikas through some people I had met at the Canadian Embassy in Jakarta, Cindy and Dom. Unfortunately for me, Dr. Galdikas was in Los Angeles for a few months during the time I was going to be in the area.

So my dream of hanging with the orangutans shattered, I was unwilling to give up the opportunity to go to Borneo when we were SO close. Unfortunately, time was limited, but Gilles agreed to be dragged along on a brief foray to the island. We flew into Kuching, the capital of Sarawak province of Malaysia. Kuching, in bahasa Malaysia, means "cat", and they are everywhere in this city. Cat statues adorn various parks and cat fountains litter the sidewalks. There is even a cat museum, which Gilles refused to visit on the grounds that until he had a subscription to "Cat Fancy" he wouldn't be caught dead at something like that.

Sarawak was actually ruled for 100 years as a personal fiefdom of the Brooke family after being rewarded to James Brooke in 1841. It was given as a reward for the help Mr. Brooke had given to the Sultan of Brunei to prevent an uprising in the region. In 1941 Sarawak was invaded by Japanese forces and was held for 3 years and 8 months until their defeat. The third "white rajah", Sir Charles Vinyar Brooke, ceded Sarawak to the British crown at this point and it remained a colony until 1963 when Malaysia was formed.

While here we took the opportunity to visit the Sarawak Cultural Village. At the village were 7 different types of long houses, which represented the traditional way of living for the major tribes that reside on the island. Borneo, as well has having immense ecological diversity, also has 30 distinct ethnic groups, some containing no more than 100 living individuals at the present time. Amongst the ethnic groups is the Iban, one of the most well known tribes of head hunters. Amongst this tribe a young man would have to obtain the head of a revered enemy prior to being allowed to marry. Once the head was taken and ritually displayed, the young man would get a tattoo on his hand and wrist, showing to all his warrior status.

In addition to the traditional long houses, there was an area set aside to demonstrate a Chinese farm that would have been common in the late 1800's on the island. Here a young lady demonstrated to us the extraction of the jelly like saliva of the swiftlet bird from their nests. This saliva, which is formed into a small elliptical patty, is some of the most expensive animal product consumed by humans, and sells for about 52€ for 32 ounces. It is used to make the traditional chinese dish of bird's nest soup. The soup is supposedly good for improving digestion, raising libido, relieving asthmatics and a whole host of other problems. The nests are gathered from off of small niches set high up on cave walls in the area. Gatherers put themselves at considerable risk by climbing rickety bamboo ladders hundreds of feet off the ground to get them. Supposedly the gatherers are supposed to take only old nests, that the fledglings have already left, but given the high prices many are collected randomly, causing a recent decline in the swiftlet population.

After wandering through the various long houses and getting demonstrations of traditional crafting, such as the making of blowdarts and basket weaving, we sat down in the theatre to enjoy a 45 minute long show that combined the various traditional dances from the major tribal groups. Afterwards we made the short walk out the beach of the nearby Holiday Inn to enjoy a little R'n'R before heading back to Kuching.

The next thing we did was catch a boat out to the isolated Bako National Park. This is Sarawak oldest national park, and is made up of a mere 27 square kilometres, and can be reached only by sea. There are a few cabins to stay in and 16 well maintained walking trails varying from 2 kilometres to 15 kilometres long. This park (for the fans out there) was the final pit stop of "The Amazing Race 1". Here you can see the endangered probiscus monkey (Gilles thinks they look like drunk, old men passed out on Parliment Hill, so wasn't inclined to really enjoy photographing them), bearded pigs, tree vipers, monitor lizards and DOZENS of macaque monkeys.

These guys, while incredibly cute on first glance, would be holy terrors to live with. They are fast, intelligent and numerous. Put anything edible down for an instant and it is gone. Some of the older monkeys are bold enough to try and grab things right out of your hand. We saw a group of them manage to rip open an upper window vent in someone's cabin, get into their kitchen, and make off with pretty much all the edible food they could find. Another monkey got locked in a neighbour's cabin when a staff member kindly closed a window they had left open. The poor trapped monkey, a young one by the look of it, was throwing himself at the window trying to get to the rest of his group, which was sitting on the porch. The resulting mess of monkey pee and less nice solid substances required a second cabin cleaning for the poor staff members, who first had to fend off angry monkeys with broomsticks from the porch.

While here for 3 days we spent several hours a day hiking the trails on the look out for probiscus monkeys and other more common animals. But it was HOT, HOT, HOT, HOT!!! I think this may have been the most humid place I have ever visited in my life (my expectations for what I can survive in terms of heat and humidity are constantly being tested on this trip). You would literally be soaked with sweat within 20 minutes of being outside. A true rain forest, there was also monster rain storms most nights, making your trip through the jungle muddy and slippery along with the heat. Still, it was an interesting side trip. My only regret, those orangutans.................

Soon it was back to KL. Our reason for returning so quickly................Sepang, Formula 1.

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