Text and photos by Gary Friedrichsen. Other photos by Robert Lockett.
I feel extremely blessed to have visited many parts of this amazing planet, and been awed by the grandeur of both human and natural wonders. But after a near lifetime of exploration, research, and exposure to many cultures it is a fantastic pleasure to be completely taken off guard. I recently had the pleasure of accompanying a good friend on an excursion to the island of Borneo.
Phone rings…. “Hello!” “Hey there, this is Bob Lockett. Have you ever thought about going to Borneo?”
Well no, not really. My mind immediately conjured images of bones in the nose headhunters and endless miles of humid, hot rainforests. Didn’t Margaret Mead study natives there and rock our thoughts about male-female roles in society?
I did know that the rainforests there, like others around the world, were being devastated by logging and slash and burn farming and that those activities were putting many of the native birds and mammals at risk. I jumped at the chance.
Borneo is the third largest island in the world following Greenland and New Guinea (where Dr. Mead actually did her research). There are over 200 species of land mammals; more than 400 native birds, and an amazing botanical display.
This is the land of the “Old Man of the Jungle” the Orangutan. It is the home of Pygmy-Asian Elephants, Giant Flying Squirrels, the almost extinct Asian Rhinoceros, the Proboscis Monkey and eight other primates.
It was wonderful to share in seeing so much fantastic nature. Hornbills, Trogons, Broadbills, Barbets, Babblers and Bulbuls were seen in profusion. Close encounters with Macaque and Langur monkeys, Orangutans and even the big wild-eyed Western Tarsier. The latter is a very small (~12”), long-tailed primate that jumps from tree to tree feeding on smaller animals at night.
Two major environmental issues facing Bornean wildlife are unsustainable timber harvest of hardwood forests and additional deforestation for palm oil plantations. According to a recent scientific report ( Feb. 2018), Borneo has lost over 100,000 orangutans ( half its population ) in just 16 years due to habitat loss from logging and palm oil plantations.
While flying over the Kinabatangan River, we could see hundreds of miles of cleared forest and a very small buffer of native habitat along the river. The cleared area was solid palm oil production. This was an unending view of monoculture that provides very little habitat to the native animals.
Once on the river we were astonished by the richness of the thin strip of native forest. Here were Pygmy Elephants, comical Proboscis Monkeys, Smooth Otters, and an array birds that defy our imagination.
Remember my first thoughts of the inhabitants of Borneo? I was in for an education, when we visited a museum dedicated to Iban* culture Sarawak. Bob and I were both awed by the delicate tapestries and garments on display. These were artifacts of very high culture that we were totally ignorant of and that pre-dated Columbus’s voyages. We also saw Iban natives weaving patterns that have been passed down for over 700 years.
Pua kumbu is the cotton cloth woven by traditional Iban women from weavers who have past the designs and know how down for hundreds of years with no written language only hands-on training from an elder.
*Iban tribal members were one of the first settlers in Borneo. Their culture dates back over 700 years and despite no written language their verbal history recounts early interactions with other tribes vying for prime agricultural land. They adopted headhunting as a method to produce fear in their rivals yet held strong religious views. Most are now Christians and Muslims. Their production of brightly colored cloth for ceremonies and wood carvings are rich in texture and historic tradition.
We had come for the birds and mammals but our enlightenment towards this and other unknown cultures was the real reward.
Guide Service: We traveled with “Field Guides” as our tour group organizer. They were “spendy” but excellent.
Acommodations: Batik Boutique in Kuching ( www.batikboutiquehotel.com).