The Endangered Eyes of Malaysian Borneo
A survival safari that leaves an indelible mark.
On approach into Kuala Lumpur they stretch neatly for miles, where rainforest once stood: palm oil trees. Reconciling economic growth and natural resources is tricky; here’s a prime upset between man and nature in equatorial regions. Palm oil is lucrative for industrious Malaysia, most synonymous with transport: Proton cars and the Formula One sponsoring petrochemical giant Petronas. Almost half that imported into the EU satisfies conditions for motor biofuel blending, but more sits on your kitchen and bathroom shelves in cosmetics, soaps, biscuits, peanut butter and more. Iceland has just become the first UK supermarket to commit to removing palm oil from sale by the end of the year.
Man of the Forest
With rainforest being rapidly repurposed, orangutans in particular are forced into conflict with the locals, terrorised as pests or kept as pets. Orangutan is a conjunction of the Malay orang (man) and hutan (forest). The International Red List of species classifies them as Critically Endangered, the final stop before Extinct in the Wild.
I’m in a small reserve outside state capital Kota Kinabalu. Kota is city in Malay; the nearby 13,435’ Mt Kinabalu derives from Aki Nabalu: ancestral mountain. The locals call it ‘KK’ but contracting orangutans to orangs is considered derogatory. The real orangs are the ones responsible: us. Financed directly by visitors, the population of this reserve is semi-wild; displaced orphans smarting from human contact. Some are missing fingers. Others were chained, beaten or burnt. They also don’t get on with mosquito repellent or human viruses; direct contact with orangs is so often toxic.
There’s silence waiting for the dinner guests to arrive. The first betrayal is the sound of youngsters crashing about; that dark auburn fur blends well into the canopy. They tear around the rainforest with the eyes of impish children knowingly about to test boundaries. Dangling from a struggling bough, one lets go, as if anticipating the gasp of horror from the onlookers below. In a flash, a skinny arm extends onto a creeper, narrowly averting ground contact. They’re the most unlikely and likable pot-bellied, aerial live wires.
In contrast, the adults amble in slow formation along ropes leading down from the treetops towards a fruity buffet. At ground level their movements appear even slower and more deliberate. They build nightly nests in the canopy, traversing huge distances at height. Where progress is blocked by sections of felled forest, attempts are being made to use cargo strapping to span logging tracks and reconnect isolated pockets. They have a morose demeanour, as if aware of a precarious future. The males particularly so, dangling matted dreadlocks. You can’t get too close, but their eyes have a look that evokes deep thought and pity in the beholder.
The rainforest is appropriately named, currently soaking everything with a misty sheen. There’s nothing quite as gut-wrenchingly sad as watching a small orphan fold itself into a matted ball and appear to go to sleep clutching the boot of a ranger. Even the expression of the latter asks simply: ‘why?’ It prompts an emotive question: why is it always the species with the saddest eyes? Another orphan munches a banana from slender, grasping toes, a skinny arm draped across the back of another ranger. Never has the approximate 97% DNA similarity between orang and orangutan seemed more obvious; never has 3% seemed so small - or huge. It’s minimalist rainforest rehabilitation: success is if and when they dissolve quietly into the jungle, not history, for the last time.
On the Eastern coast of a vast, steaming interior, coastal shanties rub shoulders with the polished minarets of Sandakan. The nearby jungle conceals scars of man’s inhumanity to man, rather than just beasts. A nearby memorial sits on the site of a former POW camp, the starting point of the 1945 Sandakan Death Marches. Over 2,000 Allied personnel, many Australian, died in similar circumstances to the enforced labour and starvation of the Burma Railway.
Sandakan is the gateway to a small-scale but authentic conservation programme for the aquatic counterpart of the orangutan. The two native populations of the Turtle Islands Marine Park (half a dozen scientists and hundreds of nightly nesting sea turtles) tolerate limited visitors. There’s a fine balance between funding and protecting, hence a cap on numbers: in the planning, this was the first part to be secured. Tourism directly funds this work: Malaysian ringgit go direct to source, not lost in layers of subterfuge. The conditions: one night and one turtle only.
All signs of dry land soon disappear over the horizon on the boat ride towards the Philippines. A skeletal flotilla of deserted wooden fishing platforms towers out of the water. A tiny smudge of green begins to resolve in the distance. Turtle Island is an unashamedly rugged venue: the interior thick with creepers and infrastructure being slowly overtaken by nature. The beaches are webbed with huge flipper trails and matching craters. Sea turtles aren’t picky and will adopt the first hole they find for their valuable cargo. I lie in one with limbs outstretched and remain beneath beach level.
By day, the occasional hatchling erupts from the sand and races off into the water. Thanks to predation, fishing and pollution, the odds of surviving to return and repeat are slender. As a reminder, a handful of dead spin in the surf, picked at by fish. This is prehistoric biology that man has only recently toppled. In urbanised areas, hatchlings march towards the light: roads, housing and swimming pools.
By night, a handful of guests regroup after dark in a traditional Borneo longhouse. We’re on tenterhooks awaiting our summons from the rangers. There’s a small museum of huge shell skeletons and exhibits of bizarre turtle digestion. It’s a wild night and the wind tears at the palms outside, the bulbs dimming periodically as the power struggles.
We’ve been prepped with the right words – and finally they come: “Turtle Time! Turtle Time!” We race around trees, following shadowy torchlight ahead. There’s a contrast of stinging, wind-whipped sand and warm rain. I’d imagined our leathery heroine lumbering towards an immaculate palm but this plucky green turtle has picked the scrubbiest stretch of beach on a murky night. She’s a huge, battered wheelbarrow, with glassy, trancelike eyes. Already tagged, she’s a repeat customer, 1.3m long and weighing about 140kgs.
One hundred and fourteen ping-pong ball eggs are collected for the hatchery. Protection has to be carefully managed: many reptilian egg species begin gender neutral, higher temperatures increasing the female proportion. There’s a sense of loading the dice for a fighting chance, acknowledging the wider food chain too.
Then, the highlight: we release an earlier batch of hatchlings, excitedly churning for the off. It’s important this first solo is uninterrupted, thought to imprint the sense that permits a lifetime of navigation back home…sound familiar? Like an army of clockwork bath toys they march down the beach, vanishing into the dark surf. In this moment, despite the power of instinct and evolution, it is almost impossible to believe that most will not survive to return.
Is it as easy as turning up and supporting alleged conservation? Genuine protection heavily involves scientific staff in a balance with tourism. Hatchlings would never be held for days, exhausted in tanks of toxic water for the benefit of $5 selfies. Ditto, locals should be involved and shown that species are worth more safeguarded than as commodities, poached delicacies or vermin. Any protection method would only be a means to an end; if long-term conservation works, hatcheries or forest reserves wouldn’t be needed.
True conservation also keeps records: each morning at Turtle Island, a board displays the hefty overnight census. Alas, there’s another tally: armfuls of bleached plastic ejected from the waters overnight. Departing guests help collect and remove it; are they affected enough to break the cycle at source? We’re only just starting to reduce plastic bags, cosmetic micro-beads and drinking straws. The beaches of glossy, coastal hotels often appear pristine - because they’re swept before dawn.
The return journey to Borneo brings thoughts of the conflict unfolding over disputed territorial waters of the nearby South China Sea. Five nations are currently squabbling over tactical sovereignty of the reefs inside the ‘nine-dash-line’. One is the aptly named Fiery Cross Reef; when does a reef become a hastily dredged and aggressively defended Chinese missile base?
You don’t tend to forget poignant meetings like these: I leave buoyed, not depressed. No disrespect to Malaysian street food, temples or beaches (all impressive) but these are reliable constants. Malaysian travel has perhaps also taken a knock, synonymous with the triple whammy of MH17, MH370 and AirAsia 8501. Our industry is a little sadder and much wiser after this trio. In a parallel between machine and beast, encountering turtles and orangutans suggests the same. If you have the fortune to see one of these amazing animals, regardless of species, those plaintive eyes seem to suggest that perhaps we can all look after stuff a little better.
Sepilok Orangutan Sanctuary https://www.orangutan-appeal.org.uk
Crystal Quest – Turtle Islands Marine Park http://turtleislandborneo.com
Connect to Sandakan (SDK/WBKS) and Kota Kinabalu (BKI/WBKK) via Kuala Lumpur
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