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Thursday September 25, 2008

The Wild Woman of Borneo

Well, appallingly, I see that I have failed to submit a piece to my own website for some months. Tsk Tsk. What kind of writer am I? Still, I hope I might fall on your mercy, dear reader, given that I have just arrived back, jet lagged and grimy (40 hours in transit-4 flights and 13 hours on bumpy tracks) from a long planned scientific expedition to Borneo. Having survived the rigors of life in a tent in deep Sabah rainforest, I now know where that famed expression ‘wild man of Borneo’ probably came from. Dishevelled and wild eyed we would emerge from the bracken into unremitting rains and pulsating heat (45 degrees) in search of equally wild herds of elephants. We did track them down but it was rather like looking for a sock in my son’s jumble sale of an underwear drawer. Elephants may appear large in a zoo but in vhast rainforests they seem ito shrink and you barely hear a murmur from them. I often envisaged them creeping around on tip toe, whispering ‘Shhhh..’ to each other on furtive trunk calls whenever we came near.

From morning to dusk as we sashayed through dense and steamy undergrowth, an unpleasant little tribe of black leeches followed our every move, dropping from branches, crawling on to our boots and generally being a total pest, burrowing into our skin. The tiger leeches which sported a dazzling yellow strip, were particularly aggressive and had a nasty bite. Locals happening upon us would let out a gasp as we’d stumble onto a track like bit parts from a vampire movie, seeping blood from our leech attacks.

Much as I loved the rainforests and my encounters with elephants, orangutan, gibbons and a whole host of delectable creatures, I despaired about the logging and palm plantations. For the last forty years logging has all but decimated the forests and squat and ugly palm plantations now replace primary forest once occupied by elegant diprocarps. The repercussions for the animal kingdom are grim and yet no one seems to be able to stop the rot. We in Europe use huge quantities of palm oil, so are, maybe unwittingly, part of the whole problem. I was delighted to see that Paterson’s has taken a stand against palm oil and is now using olive oil in its oat cakes. Let’s hope other responsible European companies follow. In just 20 years 80 percent of the orangutan habitat has disappeared in South East Asia-a frightening statistic. On a positive note, Danum Valley Scientific Field Centre in Sabah is initiating a nursery and replanting programme which will try to replace what man has destroyed. In all the gloom, it’s good to know there’s a small chink of light.

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