By Mark Rusli
And what a month it has been.
It is with a heavy heart that I leave Borneo with. Typing this entry in the steely, air-conditioned interior of the Kota Kinabalu airport, I find a sudden desire to trade all these comforts for another day in the rainforests of Sepilok. This is not an entry meant to gloat about my experience, or brandish the limits of my vocabulary. Rather, this post is meant to do Borneo justice: a post to raise awareness of a precious gem hiding quietly within Southeast Asia. And yet this gem is slowly fading into obscurity, struggling against the many facets of humanity.
I hope this post inspires you to visit Borneo and discover the Eden so close to home. Borneo will speak to you, just like she did to me. And her words are tinged with urgency.
I : The People.
Inspiring: the one word to describe the people I’ve met. It’s one thing to watch conservationists on television, or read about them in the National Geographic - but to watch them get down and dirty really puts things to perspective.
Within Sepilok we witnessed first-hand the mechanisms of a conservation centre. We met Wai Pak, a perky individual, always brimming with enthusiasm - in my 30 days there he’s never taken an off day. I’ve never seen David in a foul mood: if he’s not joking about life, he’s usually occupied with occupying the bears. Sylvia’s a tough cookie: one woman with several men under her charge, and yet she always has time for a smile, even for volunteers. Victor and Jomius hike for 20 minutes to feed the semi-rehabilitated orangutans at platform 4 everyday. And hike another 20 minutes back. They do this twice a day. And the scores of other characters: the foreign volunteers, so displaced in this country, but never letting the culture shock nor heat get to them. We’ve never met Wong personally, but snippets of his life as told from his close friends have created a robust impression.
There are so many more of such individuals, each equally inspiring. You find that it’s never about reputation or glamour. In the conservation arena, it’s mostly selflessness that brings results. And these people I’ve mentioned have all made extensive sacrifices, some more intense than the rest. But whether you’re willing to make that first step into an unstable, foreign world with an unpredictable future - that requires courage of great proportions. They don’t teach you this in school. In Singapore everyone strives to work in a bank.
If and when the time comes, I can only hope I find similar courage to make these sacrifices. I hope I make the right decisions.
And the indigenous people I met at Sukau: I’ve almost always complained about the negativities of eco-tourism, but one thing I strongly advocate is getting locals involved. You need their full support to sustain the industry.
II : The Animals.
The people were inspiring, the animals even more so. And even if we shared no common mode of communication, their presence alone did the talking.
One impactful event still resounding in me would be our afternoon at Platform 4. There we were introduced to Sogo-sogo’s rehabilitated orangutan family, and they had the right to refuse us, to reject strangers into their territory. But they did not.
And it was this benevolence and almost-blind trust that reached me. Sitting down in the middle of a forest with a family of orangutans, and holding hands with one - perhaps one of the most emotional memories I will have. And this memory will serve as a reminder for my direction in life. Strong words, but I intend to fulfill them.
And who could forget the bears? The primary reason for my stay. I got to meet some of the most boisterous personalities of my life at BSBCC: the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre. All 12 of them. I’ll be honest: from day one Jelita offered me her paw, and while I’ve always been fair to all the bears, Jelita usually gets an extra snakefruit. Or three. The day I was able to tell the adult females apart, Keningau’s character stood out from the rest, her gentle nature impossible to resist. And the other bears: Manis, Chong, Suria…. it’s impossible to not play favourites, because the bears each have their own personalities.
Within the bears, their individual stories mirror a conservationist’s list of trials and tribulations. Of errant husbandry and captive conditions, of abuse, of Man’s naked power…. Realizing the pain and mishandling some of these bears have gone through makes me ashamed to be human. Manis is a very sweet bear with a very loving personality that she’ll show you - if she’s there. Her past history growing up in a zoo must have been traumatic, and her glazed look she gives you says it all. She spends more than half her day escaping and retreating into her own world, pacing around until her claws crack and her paws bleed. Even now, with a bigger den and plenty of enrichments, she still finds solace and comfort in that dark corner of her conscious. I fear she is unable to distinguish reality.
And it is stories of such that give purpose to what people like Wong, Wai Pak and Sylvia are doing.
III : BSBCC.
The Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre aims to be a primary hub for sun bear rescue, rehab and conservation. They’re only in their initial stages, and need all the help they can get. During our visit here, we shared with them our experiences working in a zoo. I’ve typed one month’s worth of entries regarding these bears, please read the rest of my blog if you want to find out more in-depth descriptions. I urge you to.
Right now, their first phase is completed: dens for 20 bears, and outdoor exercise pens to rehabilitate them into the wild. The second phase is of utmost importance: a visitor centre, where awareness and education can then be focused on. Sun bears are relatively unknown, and given little attention in the conservation spotlight. I would say raising awareness is the most basic anyone can go right now, because once people are aware of these bears existing in their forests, and the plight they face, they would want to be more involved.
Phase Two needs funds. Please visit www.bsbcc.org.my to donate. Once the visitor centre is set up, BSBCC can then be self-sustainable, and then pump funds into research and rehabilitation.
IV : Last Words.
I’ve only covered a small area within Borneo, most of it within Sandakan. I’ve only scratched the surface of this fascinating place.
Borneo is a beautiful country. She holds so much beauty, so many treasures - a lot of them delicate and fragile, most hanging by a thread. And yet She shared all these with me so readily: from the forests of Sepilok, to the nocturnal rainforest world at the RDC, and the great Kinabatangan River with his rich shores that hide a dark secret. I’ve devoted blog posts regarding each and every experience, and I hope that I’ve given adequate representations and illustrations of truly unbelievable experiences. Experiences that may ceast to exist the next time I visit.
From the very get-go, I’ve been dealt one lesson after another. Some of which I wanted to learn about; others I had no intention of knowing.
Ultimately, I’ve a greater appreciation for the natural world, and a deeper understanding for why conservationists do what they do. The challenge of the world today would be IS that of sustainable development: striving to find a balance between economic growth and maintaining the environment.
2 hours left in Borneo, but so much more required to reflect and make some sense of the past month. I’m probably gonna have several more conclusions over the next few days. Some of the things I’ll probably never fully grasp.
Goodbye, Borneo. Thank you for an enthralling 30 days. I’ll be back for more.
Friday, June 11th 2010 1:06pm