Borneo: orangutans, sea-gypsies and the robbing of breath for all the right and wrong reasons

By Emma. Cliquez ici pour l’article de Damien. Click here for photos of there.
Growing up, Michaela Strachan was my idol. After school, I sat enthralled as she walked with elephants, dived beyond reefs in search of hammerhead sharks, rehabilitated orangutans in Borneo and crept through the rainforest to find mountain gorillas in Uganda. I thought she was incredible and well, if I couldn’t be James Bond, Michaela Strachan seemed to be a pretty good alternative option! So when the possibility travel to Borneo (and basically channel my inner -Strachan) arose, I nearly leapt out of my skin with enthusiasm. Yup, I think it’s fair to say that excitement crackled to the end of every single nerve. One word: orangutans!!


Dreams of Long Ago

And so I daydreamed of Borneo, of steamy, light-dappled jungles, of tropical lullabies, of bathing pygmy elephants, of wide-eyed Western Tarsiers, of the calls of tree-frogs, of reluctant recognition of proboscis monkeys and of the sight of patient orangutans under leafy umbrellas in the rain. It was of the orangutans I dreamt the most, a breathless enthusiasm born of a unlikely combination of Ms. Strachan’s teachings and the” gift” to my trick-acting Dad of a contemptuous gob of orangutan spittle in a zoo in France fifteen years ago. The thought of glimpsing any of these fascinating creatures in the wild had me nearly bursting out my skin with excitement. I was ready for Boreno.

I was not ready for Borneo. Hour after hour passed as we made our way through swathes of the pitted and scarred remains of the Sabbah rainforest. Landmovers and diggers over turned the red soil to create false, spiralling hills for palm oil plantations. Plantation after plantation smothered and usurped the rainforest as far as the eye could see, geometric rows and rings of curiously barren greenery. Palm oil factories belched thick black smoke and never-ending lines of lorries shuttled to and fro over what was once the richest habitat in the world.

Mattias Klum National Geo

Perfect sneezes in a corridor of life

We wandered through the narrow corridors forest that still exist on the fringes of Sabah, eyes and ears straining with attention. Unspeaking, footsteps rolling, we crept through the forest. A nearby rustling, becoming statues, becoming ears. We held our breath, we waited and we hoped. A sneeze to our right brought sighs of disappointment. Another person. A point and a gesture and disbelieving joy. Yes, a person. The Malay word orangutan means “person of the forest” and there she was, nestled in the treetop above our heads cooing and munching stems with her baby. In one of the most special moments I’ve ever experienced, we stood in silence, craning our necks, watching.


Beautiful beasties

We visit the orangutan rehabilitaion centre at Seipilok, regret missing the sun bear conservation centre and take a series of factory-style tourist cruises down the river to gaze at the pygmy elephants, proboscis monkeys and harems of pig-tailed macaques.










Questions of conscience

It is impossible not to feel sad in Borneo. Every joy at an animal sighting was tinged with worry. Every sighting had an endangered feel to it. In the first few moments of stumbling into a Bornean animal’s presence though, there is only joy. The guilt comes later, barrelling through. How many products I use have sourced their palm oil either here in Borneo or in the rainforests of Africa?  My heart plunged when I saw the results of a quick Google search:

Palm Oil Products


So you too then?


* For more information on palm oil, please see below.


Mabul, sea-gypsies and the essence of ramshackle

It is in the ramshackle, higgley-piggledy village of sea-gypsies on Mabul island that we settle down for the next few days. The Bajau are an ethnic group of sea nomads, or sea gypsies, indigenous to south-east Asia. Historically, the Bajau were born, lived and died at sea, living on houseboats and surviving by trading and subsistence fishing. Nowadays, the Bajau still live on the water, some in their traditional lepa-lepa boats, others in makeshift villages perched on the edge of islands and others still in out-to-sea wooden homes, their fragile stilts planted into shallow reefs. The Bajau are probably best known for their ability to free-dive. They purposely rupture their eardrums at an early age (!) so as to dive deeper without pain and can plunge to depths of 10 to 20 meters for 5 minutes at a time to look for sea cucumbers and pearls and to hunt fish. The village on Mabul seems to come straight from Lord of the Flies. Curious little urchins cluster wide-eyed around tourists sunbathing on the beach, pleading for sweets. Small, uncombed heads are just visible above the top of their long canoes as they expertly propel their crafts along the shoeline. By dusk, adults reappear and, smiling, give us endless directions through the maze. At the centre of every little group gathered on verandas or on the shore is a guitar. The tangle of makeshift shops, homes and music is wonderfully mysterious and …  (as seems to be the theme in Borneo) endangered. The Malyasian government is seeking to displace this stateless, marginalised people from Mabul to make way for a more streamlined, artifical tourist experience. Yes, it’s impossible not to feel sad in Borneo.





Sipadan, a field of coral and a whirlwind of jackfish

Corals shivered in the currents, reef sharks lounged still in the sand and huge whirlwinds of barracudas and jackfish shimmered between light and dark. The slow rhythm of breath, silent gestures and the magic of drifting slowly, happily alongside a giant sea-turtle. Sipadan is still the dream of Borneo.







Find more information on palm oil, sustainable palm oil, the GreenPalm Trading Scheme and reducing our consumption of palm oil here:

* Palm oil factsheet

* List of household items containing palm oil:

*The connection between palm oil and the environment

*Documentary series:

Orangutan Diaries (presented by Michaela Strachan, naturally)

Pressure works:


For more information on the Bajau people:







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