My mother was murdered. I can remember stroking her auburn hair, glowing like flames in the dappled sunshine. Her eyes were always sad, yet hauntingly beautiful. Transfixed in her gaze, I could feel our souls touch. Sometimes I stare at my reflection in a deep pool to remind me. It saddens me that my eyes are now as forlorn as hers. She used to tell me stories, memories of happier times. I can’t remember any of it. I try to, so hard that it makes my head hurt. I was too young; just an infant, clasping onto my mother’s breast. I don’t remember out home being ripped out from under us. Or being chased by wild men with machetes. I must have held on tightly as she fled.
The forest was different then. Alive. My mother told me the song of the forest was deafening; an unrelenting symphony of chirping, whirring, clicking, buzzing. You can still hear fragments of the refrain, if you stay still enough. Whispering spirits rustled the leaves of trees when the wind was still. There used to be more trees. Tall ones, short ones, stout ones, spindly ones. Trees with trunks so wide that you couldn’t clasp your hands around them. Trees so tall that they blocked out the sun. It was cool under the canopy. Moist and humid, the leaves perspired in the scorching heat. It must have been fun scooting up and down their wizened barks, swinging from limb to limb.
With so many kinds of trees one was always fruiting, whatever the time of year. Stinky custardy durians after the monsoons (my favourite), wild mangoes in the dry season, crimson mangosteens, jambu and citrusy duku. A fantasy smorgasbord of fruit, honey and nuts. It’s hard to forage for berries now. I travel farther and farther for my next meal. I’m scared of water, so I don’t dare go near the river. You know how the elephant got its trunk, don’t you? The blackwater twists and turns as it weaves through the khaki foliage like a reticulated python, but the crystal waters are turning murkier and becoming clogged with waterweeds.
One day, the metal dragons came, billowing smoke and churning up the earth in their wake. Ferociously they tore down trees. Everything is gone. We are homeless, cast adrift in a desolate and barren wasteland. The old trees are gone. Flung on a pile, they look like skeletal corpses bleaching in the sun. Their memoirs, carved into the creases and wrinkles of their bark, fading. In heavy rains, the fertile topsoil washes into the river and some of the trees escape, sprinting down the river floodwaters. The rest were borne away on the back of a huge dragon. Shipped to far-off lands, their beautiful grain is admired by the soles of your feet.
The relics of prehistoric ferns and arborescent lycopsids, squeezed and heated over millions of years, fuel the dragons. An eon of creation consumed in one breath. Soggy swamps submerge fallen leaves and branches, inhibiting decay and stockpiling the carbon from which they are made. A drained peat swamp is like the head of a match. All it needs is the tiniest spark to set it alight. Sometimes they do it on purpose. Thinking it is the easiest way to clear the ground. The fires rage for days, weeks, months. Choking them and poisoning the air they breathe. Curling smoke rises high into the sky, entrapping the heat and warming the planet.
They try to replace the trees. Green lungs to suck in the toxins and yield the fuel they crave. Row upon row of palms stand upright like soldiers. The vast swathes conquer the wilderness of the forest, crushing its spirit. The lush tropical paradise is gone. Only isolated fragments remain. Remote islands suspended in a sea of oil palm. The hunters are closing in. Vulnerable and exposed, we are trapped with nowhere to run. Crossing to the next forest is fraught with peril. There is little cover in the plantations. Patrols march up and down the sterile frond-lined corridors. We only resort to eating the unpalatable kernels of their precious palms if starving.
A worker spotted us. Pests or pets? This time, we didn’t run fast enough. The unruly mob closed in, brandishing their blades and yelling “Orang utan! Orang utan!” She lunged forward. Trying to defend me. Trying to keep me from harm. I was in shock, petrified. They laughed as I swung my scrawny arms at them wildly. I have nightmares of steel fish swimming in a river of blood. A fight broke out amongst them. The winner carried me away and kept me in makeshift cage of bamboo and knotted twine. He wasn’t like the others. He’d tried to stop them.
Children poked bananas through the poles. I was too sad and frightened to eat, even when they mashed them up and tried to feed me. The stilted longhouse was home to one family; four generations under a corroded tin roof. They were Dayak, indigenous men of the forest. Their trees were raped and pillaged by the dragons. They noisily zoom up and down the river in hollow trees, travelling farther and farther to seek berries and snare boar. They only take what they need from the forest, respecting its bounty, as their father and father’s father have done before them. I can barely lift my head, as worried eyes peered in at me. Those of the wrinkly, tattooed warriors have the same melancholic expression as my mother. I tremble feebly as the dragon approaches, spewing dust all over. The little ones have tears in their eyes when I am taken away.
It’s time for the performance. The impatient crowd swarm the viewing platform, like flies buzzing around a decaying carcass, their flashy cameras poised. I lethargically descend the rope, hand over hand, to the feeding table. Bruised bananas and apples aren’t the feast of my dreams, but I come here day after day. I’m not sure if it is for solace or laziness. Click, click, and click. Enthused and excited, they’ve seen me. They’ve glimpsed the elephants and proboscis monkeys cruising down the Kinabatangan River a.k.a. the real Borneo.
They don’t grasp the irony. In living forests you don’t see us. We are high above you in the canopy or camouflaged in dense undergrowth. We smell you. We hear you coming before you set your foot down. We don’t want to be seen but, if we are crammed in together, what choice to we have? Who weeps for those that silently vanish into oblivion? The nasty creepy-crawly, the ugliest frog, the unobtrusive clump of moss. Sure, their looks don’t compare to the handsome clouded leopard or exotic orchid, but we are all the forest and the forest is all of us. I don’t mean to be ungrateful. I know I’m lucky I am an orang utan. I know that without you and your clicking cameras, I’d be dead too.
The black plastic bags the driver handed out are clutched tighter as the tapering windy road climbs higher than the puffs of cloud. Gasps emanate from the backpackers, as the menacing jagged backbone of Mount Kinabalu, the highest peak in Borneo, looms ahead. The cooler air is a refreshing change from the hot and sticky lowlands. Spindly trees laden with dangling moss and epiphytic ferns dip their feet in cascading brooks with their heads in the clouds. The spears of asparagus poking up their heads, elderflower bushes and strawberry farms are reminiscent of the English countryside, though a malodourous Rafflesia betrays where we are. The hairpin bends twist and turn, as we descend haphazardly, and the intricate botanical tapestry starts to fray. The naked hillside is carved into stepped rows. Green specks morph into continuous swathes of plantation after plantation for the remainder of the five hour drive to Sandakan – where we, like all the other tourists, are hoping to see some animals.
As an ecologist I find the sounds, smells, symbiosis, and specialist adaptations of forest dwellers fascinating. I’m content with blurry snapshots captured by camera traps and solitary footprints in the mud, as I marvel at the tiny ecosystem thriving in the gastric fluid of a pitcher plant. I understand how a visitor to a forest can leave feeling disappointed not seeing any animals, but that’s where ecotourism ventures like the Sepilok Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre and the countless lodges in the wildlife sanctuary of the Kinabatangan River come in. Animal-spotters are satisfied, raising global awareness and providing a welcome income to the villagers, plus pristine tracts of forest aren’t torn up by wayward footprints.
Cracks are surfacing amongst the locals. Some are swept along with promises of a ‘better life’ and those who raise arms in protest are easily swept aside. Indigenous tribes rarely have official documentation staking claim to their land, so have little defence when the bulldozers arrive; swapping an autonomous life of subsistence farming and sustainable harvesting of honey, rubber, and rattan to be little more than a slave on a plantation. Palm oil is not the enemy. One hectare of Elaeis guineensis yields an impressive 6000 litres of crude oil, ten times more than soybean, so it’s no surprise that oil palm plantations are springing up to boost the economies of developing countries. The question is why bulldoze primary forest when millions of hectares of abandoned land lie fallow, ripe for conversion? Well, why not pocket some extra cash from selling off the valuable timber before planting a single frond of oil palm. Money makes the world go round. To an ecologist the benefit of conserving a rainforest is priceless, but a logging conglomerate sees only cold hard cash. We have to find the middle ground, before there is no fertile ground left to stand on.
The West has plundered its resources, so a patronising “Don’t do what we do” attitude is sure to fall on deaf ears. No one likes being told what to do, especially when the alternative is a pocketful of cash and a flash car. Consumer demand cries out for sustainability in the language of the dollar, which all can understand. What if the projected future demand for palm oil can be met without converting another hectare of forest? What if productivity can be increased by implementing new harvesting techniques and replanting abandoned plantations? Why put all your eggs in the palm oil basket, so to speak? What if, rather than quick cash from timber, you can guarantee an income of ecotourism for years to come? It’s not too late, and if only the government, corporations and locals can look beyond fleeting short-term financial gain, maybe the man of the forest won’t be extinct in 20 years.