The month I spent in Borneo a few years back, will probably always remain amongst the most beautiful, wonderfully unexpected, disturbing, shocking, and memorable of my life. So not all the memories are good but some of them are spectacular. One day I hope to return, and I would certainly hope to see improvements.
This astonishing island is divided between Malaysian and Indonesian control, with the small country of Brunei situated near the top western corner. Although I saw much of the whole island, it was within the Malaysian areas where I spent most of my time. It could be and once was a haven of beauty and the home of some of the most glorious wildlife in the world. Parts of the island still offer this. But the haven is dwindling alarmingly.
Since being previously warned, I had expected to see large areas where illegal logging had cleared the jungle, and where the wildlife had been killed or forced to move elsewhere. But I had not expected to see the absolute desecration over thousands of acres where palm tree plantations had ruined any possibility of natural life for man or animal. Driving through the interior, miles and miles of what was once jungle rich with wildlife, all I saw were neat rows of palms, with nothing else permitted to survive.
I have heard some supporters of this devastation claiming that the people, largely poor and in desperate need of work, cannot be criticised since the logging and planting of palms over such huge areas, is the one way they can earn some much needed money and live without fear of starvation.
I now know that this excuse is false. The palm oil plantations, once established, have very little need of upkeep. Very few local people are employed, sometimes only one or two for a thousand acres. The wealthy owners of these illegal plantations are mostly resident on the mainland – both Malaysia and Indonesia, and they take virtually all the profit for themselves. These are largely important and influential political figures who have little fear of being prosecuted for their actions. Although they do not even own the land they take over, they will not be charged with breaking the law, destroying the habitat of endangered species, or taking advantage of the local people. The villagers, meanwhile, receive no benefit whatsoever.
With proper management, I believe that the local people could make considerable profit and extremely satisfying lives from a huge and successful tourism industry, but as yet the tourist trade has not been fully utilised. The quality of hotels, restaurants, campsites, and souvenirs is minimal. Some areas manage better than others, but there is little understanding of how to use tourism to break the poverty trap and dissuade the wealthy from destroying yet more habitat and slaughtering the last of the orangutans, sun bears and other glorious animals which struggle to survive there.
There is such a lot to adore in Borneo, quite apart from the sadness of the palm oil take-over. The wildlife is naturally the most outstanding memory I have of the island but there are other delights and the people are charming and most of them immensely friendly. The orangutan
sanctuary which I visited was stunning. But these wonderful and charismatic animals are all the victims of jungle clearance. The orangutans face extinction. It is the destruction of their habitat and often the slaughter of the adults which has necessitated the sanctuary where wonderful carers work to save the orphaned babies. Yet these places could all benefit from much greater quality of access for tourists, improved facilities and border management. I believe that tourism, in the end, will be the saviour. A fascinating attraction for visitors from across the world can be the answer. The nurture of nature!
I spent some days in a lodge within the remaining jungle, and this was my highlight. Long trips up those rich brown rivers were magical, and we saw wild orangutans nesting in the trees beside the banks. A variety of apes, monkeys and the most glorious birds, butterflies and other creatures was breath-taking. I had already seen many of these creatures in the past in zoos and wildlife parks, but when a proboscis monkey sits right over your head, the experience is very different. A large reticulated python, indigenous to the area, was brought into the lodge by a nearby village chief, as it had been caught trying to catch their chickens. Instead of automatically killing the snake, they saved it for future release somewhere far off. The men who worked at the lodge were brilliant, immensely knowledgeable, extremely friendly and helpful. None of the other 10 or so paying guests at the lodge wanted anything to do with serpents of any kind, so it was left to me. I love pythons and was happy to look after this one until one of the workers could arrange to relocate it. I became very fond of that snake. The reticulated python has the most beautiful markings, and although some can be snappy, this one was placid, seeming to accept that it was not under attack.
Every evening as we all sat in the open-walled communal hall, the geckos began to call from the rafters, and the surrounding jungle with its huge trees and winding creepers echoed with the calls of the birds and night creatures. We could look down and see crocodiles along the river banks. There were also large numbers of leeches too, not my favourite by any means, but still a part of the unique and exotic experience. I would strongly recommend this to anyone who wants the holiday of a lifetime. It was not wildly expensive and there was more to see than could be imagined.
I would also strongly encourage everyone to attempt to avoid the thousands of products which are now made containing this insidious palm oil. Foods, ice creams, toothpastes, plastics and other unexpected items are made with this, so finding those free of this vile sugary oil are extremely hard to pin down. But it’s worth the effort. By changing the brands you buy, you might be directly saving the life of an orangutan infant. Some companies advertise as being palm-oil free. Only by eradicating the demand will the illegal logging and destructive palm plantations finally become worthless and we will we save the orangutan and many, many other beautiful creatures.
I adored my holiday in Borneo, but I nearly ended up in tears. I contribute to the charities which try and help, but it needs more political pressure. I simply hope we are all able to try and encourage change in Borneo and other vulnerable areas of the world.
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If I was younger and lived in a different location, I would take up falconry. When I was young I spent some time watching raptor flight shows, and getting to know the birds both by study, and some personal acquaintance. But I had neither the time nor the concentrated dedication necessary to become seriously involved.
Now that my dedication has increased, I live in Australia where the art of the falconer, and the possibility of becoming involved on a part-time basis seems to be out of the question.
As for getting younger, sadly that seems a little beyond me.
I have frequently seen these glorious birds in the wild and watched them fly in many countries, but only when I was younger in England was I able to meet such birds close up. I was friendly with the owner of an estate in Kent, where they had their own mews and the falconer flew his birds regularly for tourists. Since I was more a friend than a tourist, I was able to introduce myself to some of the birds, and fly one or two. The Spanish Fishing Eagle (Bugsy, I remember him well but, although he is probably still living, I doubt he remembers me) loved to have the top of his head scratched. It was so lumpy and bony beneath the feathers, and he half closed his eyes in rapture. A raptor in rapture is a sight to see.
The fascination of birds of prey may be considered a minority interest, but they are so beautiful, I am surprised that not more of us are tempted to become falconers. Falconry in medieval times was exceedingly popular, particularly amongst the nobility. The sport probably originated in the middle or Far East (both China and Persia are credited with the first recorded accounts of falconry nearly two thousand years ago, but it may be even older) while the earliest known practise in England occurred well before the arrival of the Normans. In medieval times, the mews was a quiet and ordered place where the birds perched in silence on their individual stands, tethered by their jesses, and their heads hooded (thus the word hoodwinked was adopted). A hooded bird sleeps, as do birds in the wild when they tuck their heads beneath their wings.
It is now realised that birds are the direct descendants of the theropod dinosaurs, (including T Rex) and of course eagles and other birds of prey are the most direct line. To be able to stride out with a dinosaur on your wrist, is certainly a rare and special pleasure.
Many of these magnificent birds have been killed particularly by farmers who suspect them of decimating their stock animals, but even the largest eagles rarely take anything larger than a chicken, although will feed on animals already dead. Farmers, seeing eagles eating lambs on their land, mistakenly think they have killed them. However, now most birds of prey are a protected species, and falconers only rear their own fledglings from their own breeding programmes, and never take eggs from the wild.
I have included such birds in many of my books. The incredible harpy eagle, one of the most majestic of all birds, plays a large part in my novel “Between”, and the glorious Northern Sea Eagle (often called the White Tailed Eagle) plays an even more important part in my fantasy trilogy “Stars and a Wind” , although this is more apparent in the second and third books. Indeed, birds in general frequently appear in most of my books. What world is complete without birds, they were more common during the medieval period when the human population was smaller, wild habitat was less destroyed and contaminated, and industrial pollution was unknown.
So when I once again live in an appropriate area, and when I grow a little younger, I fully intend to take up falconry as a serious hobby, even occupation.