IMPACT

On The Brink Of Extinct: Borneo And The Tragedy Of Deforestation

The once expansive and ancient forests of Borneo have been brought to the brink.

23/10/2017 22:48 SAST | Updated 24/10/2017 11:04 SAST

The sight of a 20kg red monkey with a huge nose balancing atop a slender electricity pole should be hilarious. Perched so precariously in the middle of a palm oil plantation and right beside a busy road, the lone monkey looks like the last surviving sailor clinging to the mast of a sinking ship. In the seconds I have to take all this in before the bus I'm travelling in has hurtled past, I recognise the animal as the proboscis monkey -- an endangered species of which there's only about 7,000 left in the wild. I'd just spent the better part of three days in the Borneo jungle looking for it.

Perhaps a week previously, I would have laughed at the bizarre image I had just been treated to, but in the few days I've been in Borneo, I've learnt and seen too much to find the humour.

Maxim K via Getty Images
The endangered proboscis monkey is endemic to Borneo.

As a guest of G Adventures and Tourism Malaysia, the eight-day trip boats an intense schedule touring through the natural highlights of Sabah -- the island's north-eastern territory controlled by Malaysia.

Our small tour group has managed to spot endangered animals in the wild, seen them up close at rehabilitation centres, cruised down the crocodile-infested Kinabagatan River and been welcomed into small local villages. We have heard the eerie pulse of the ancient jungle at night, seen baby turtles hatch before releasing them into the ocean and met some of the dedicated local rangers working tirelessly to save the myriad of endemic species facing extinction. And we've eaten so much traditional local food we probably would've gone home 10kgs heavier if we weren't sweating out our own body weight on a daily basis.

But again and again throughout these exhilirating days and nights, we have witnessed the tragedy of Borneo and Sabah from a heart-wrenchingly close proximity.

As the third largest island in the world, Borneo historically had extensive rainforest coverage, but massive deforestation since the 1960s under the timber and palm oil industries has drastically reduced native jungle to such an extent the primary rainforest is now threatened. Borneo's lucrative palm oil industry isn't slowing down either.

Palm oil is currently the world's most consumed vegetable oil and is found in about half of all packaged products found on supermarket shelves all over the world. The World Wide Fund For Nature (WWF) expects the global demand for this cheap vegetable oil to only increase over the next decade.

Palm oil plantations are expected to encroach even further on what little habitat there is left for many critically endangered species and experts believe many more species will soon be extinct in the wild.

As for Borneo's 130-million-year-old rainforest, which is part of the most ancient on earth and twice as old as the Amazon's, more than half of the island's lowland forest is gone.

Ulet Ifansasti via Getty Images
A view of one of the many palm oil plantations that have replaced Borneo's native forest, rendering it uninhabitable for many species, including the critically endangered orangutan.

AFP/Getty Images
An area in Borneo's Central Kalimantan province cleared for palm oil plantations.

In recent years, the volatile state of native animal life has brought the arguably niche but rapidly expanding eco-tourism industry to Borneo's politically divided territories. Travel companies with an ethos focused on sustainability and conservation like G Adventures don't gloss over the critical urgency or desperate situation. In fact, it's an ugliness the company's guides make a point of showing tourists.

It also turns out the ugly future for Borneo's animals isn't easy to hide.

Bazuki Muhammad / Reuters
Borneo pygmy elephants drink water from Kinabatangan river in Malaysia's state of Sabah in February 2009.

We're about to sit down to lunch at the restaurant that adjoins the orangutan sanctuary when I look up to see gory, mutilated photographs of Borneo's critically endangered pygmy elephants. They are displayed on reward posters printed in Chinese, Malay and English by the Sabah Wildlife Department, offering 10,000 ringette ($3,032 AUD) for information leading to those responsible for killing them and removing their tusks.

It doesn't say so on the posters, but later I learn that poachers often don't kill the animals before beginning the gruesome task of hacking off their tusks. Nor do they do so afterwards -- the elephants are instead left to die slow and painful deaths.

The posters with their gory images face me throughout my meal, but I'm unable to look away. It's the first and only time I 'see' pygmy elephants during my time in Borneo.

Our guide, Roxy Baringtang tells me the pygmy elephants are often killed by angry plantation owners after the animals have strayed from protected reserves into the palm oil plantations or crops that eclipse enormous areas which used to be part of their habitat, to eat the valuable fruit the palm oil is harvested from. An unforgivable transgression, even for an endangered species, it seems.

Alana Calvert

The pygmy elephant and proboscis monkeys' stories mirror countless other native animals that inhabit the ancient and incredibly diverse rainforests of Borneo.

The once thriving species that are located nowhere else on earth have both had their populations more than halved on the island since timber logging and palm oil plantations began in the 1960s. Yet, they are still managing to fare marginally better than others.

For Borneo's most famous tourist drawcard, the orangutan, things are absolutely dire.

In July 2016, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) announced the Borneo orangutan was "critically endangered" because of shrinking forests. In a bleak assessment the IUCN said "conservation efforts were failing" and the risk of extinction in the wild -- for this animal that humans share an incredible 97 percent of our genes with -- was "extremely high".

Pacific Press via Getty Images

The day before I spot the proboscis monkey, our small tour group was being led through the jungle to the Gomantong Caves, which we had been promised contained Jumanji-like swarms of bats, birds and a magnitude of cockroaches so extreme Roxy referred to it (with almost sadistic glee) as 'Cockroach Tower'.

Suddenly, our local guide Aloi, stopped dead in his tracks and signalled for silence with the urgency of an orchestral conductor.

He pointed high above, to a dark shape almost hidden in branches so tightly interwoven they form something like a roof over the jungle, nearly blocking out the sun. I was near enough to hear him whisper with such softness it could have been mistaken for leaves rustling in a momentary breeze.

"Orangutan."

The word spread down our single-file line in a feverish whisper as faces turn up to see one, and then another, and another orangutan in the tree branches, hundreds of feet above the jungle floor.

For days prior, Roxy and Aloi had worked hard to try and manage expectations for the seven Australian and New Zealand tourists in our group, desperate to see critically endangered orangutans in the wild. Whenever the question had arisen, the pair's response rang along the lines of "maybe" and "if we're really lucky".

Tourists had been disappointed before, and had even become angry over not getting to see them in the wild; as though the elusive creatures were attached to some invisible string guides like Roxy and Aloi had just failed to pull.

Getty Images/iStockphoto

It's a different story for us.

Our heads loll back, necks straining, with upturned faces and mouths dangling open in awe and joy over seeing an entire family of the long-limbed creatures dangling with casual precariousness at such great height.

But, we're not alone in our disbelief.

As a fisherman's son, Aloi grew up on the Kinabagtan River in Sabah, and has lived there his entire life. It's an area of Borneo that is the prime habitat for an absolute array of animal species. Or rather, it used to be.

Once, seeing an orangutan in the jungle near his home would've aroused as about as much surprise as an Australian seeing a kangaroo in the bush. Now his disbelief actually competes with that of the foreign tourists.

An accredited ranger with a dedicated passion for conservation, like all of the local guides G Adventures employ, Aloi tells us just 22,000 orangutans are left in Borneo, 11,000 of those are in Sabah. He says he hasn't seen a sun bear in the wild for nearly a decade.

Getty Images
The sun bear is classified as Vulnerable because of habitat loss which caused a 30% decrease in the global population over the last 3 bear generations.

It's hard to imagine any visitor to Borneo coming away without their own collection of surreal but uncomfortable experiences. The desperate state of things is so widespread it's impossible to turn away even if you wanted to.

Concepts like 'deforestation', 'endangered species' and 'palm oil' cease to be foreign and distant issues in Borneo. These problems aren't some other country's issue when the irreparable impact on Borneo is a result of the world's insatiable global thirst for palm oil we've all contributed to.

Being on the ground in Borneo brings home the tragedy of deforestation not in a television advert that shows a lonely orangutan wandering through a grey wasteland of felled timber or in a glossy spread in National Geographic, but through firsthand experience.

In my case, that experience took the form of seeing the aftermath of a threatened species that had been tortured alive, and another one sitting confused on the top of an electricity pole.

GETTING THERE:

G Adventures' east-Sabah Borneo Adventure is an eight-day tour which travels from Kota Kinbalau and back. Prices start at AUD $1,499 from Australia and sights and destinations include morning and evening Kinabatangan River safaris, wildlife spotting in Kinabatangan, Kota Belud village visit and stay Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre visit and Turtle Island stay with turtle hatchery visit.

Alana Calvert travelled to Borneo as a guest of G Adventures and the Sabah Tourism Board