The 3rd largest Island in the world after Greenland and New Guinea. Located Southeast of the Malay Peninsular and Southwest of the Philippines. The Island is split and ran between Malaysia, Indonesia and the sultanate of Brunei.
The countries population is comparatively low at around 16 million, this is due to Borneo’s hilly terrains, dense rainforests and unnavigable rivers which has meant industrial development has been difficult until relatively recently…
I have recently returned from the holiday of a lifetime in Borneo, full of adventure, beach time, wild life, nature, culture, new friendships, road trips, boat trips and also education!
Through the highlights and pure magic you are able to see as a tourist there is also a very dark and soul destroying side to the realities behind the destruction that is currently tearing down Borneo’s natural beauties which have thrived for decades! Borneo is home to the worlds oldest tropical rainforest which before mankind began to strip away its purity was dependant, sustained and managed by local farmers and hunter-gatherers as a primary source of livelihood. Natures cycles were well balanced before mass production of industrial logging and monoculture African oil palm plantations, the forest were once able to maintain the highest species diversity of any terrestrial ecosystem, supplying food, medicines, cash crops and building materials. The island is highly rich In biodiversity consisting of around 15,000 species of flowering plants, 3,000 species of tress, 221 species of terrestrial mammals and 420 species of resident birds. Vegetation is also extremely dense with hundreds of species of trees covering Borneo’s lowland forests, it is the centre of evolution and release of many endemic species of plants and animals.
Borneo’s jungles are some of the oldest undisturbed areas of the world, much of the rainforest remains undiscovered until this day! Some of the best and most spectacular areas of rainforest have been incorporated into National Parks. Two of the most popular parks are Mulu National Park in Sarawak and Mount Kinabalu in Sabah.
The general information I just gave you was not a specific topic I was already knowledgeable about… before seeking these facts and being able to put it all together into my own words it was something I had to experience, something that had to trigger my mind and give me the passion in believing that what I had seen was filling me with emotions that I knew I needed to educate myself further about. This information has to be spread worldwide, it has to be shared through the internet, social media, general conversation, it has to be shared through us! ‘Normal people’ who tell stories, share experiences, write blogs, support conservation, talk over coffee, make video blogs or people who maybe are not at all even aware of these acts. We have to rise above the monstrous activity that hasn’t left my mind since I set sight on the vast spread of manmade destruction. If this topic is one you are unaware and uneducated about, please look it up and read the articles, watch the documentaries about how these plantations are threatening our wildlife to the point of extinction and will change our ecosystem forever.
Our journey began in Kota Kinabalu, the small city of Sabah. It is a lovely, what seems ‘small’ city, far less built up than Hanoi (Where I live) and the street art is fantastic. The Malaysian people here are incredible! I have never been greeted by so many friendly, generous people everywhere I went! People are so happy to help and do not expect anything in return they do not pest you to buy or place objects in your hands, they respect your space and allow you to take on the city at ease in comparison to many other Asian cities I have visited!
We spent our first full day in Sabah, whilst we had sorted out car rental for the rest of the week to travel to different resorts we found from the port in Sabah we were able to take a speed boat out to Sapi Island located next to Gaya Island – Two very famous islands off the coast of Kota Kinabalu. We spent the day laying in the sun, swimming in the sea, picking out beautiful vibrant coloured sea shells Owh! and zip wiring from Gaya Island back to Sapi Island on the longest island to island zip wire in Asia which was defiantly adventurous and made the day even more exciting – a must do!
From the boat rides we where able to get our first whopping sight full of the very impressionable mount Kinabalu piercing through the tops of the clouds. Mount Kota Kinabalu Summits at just over 4,000 Metres high and is Malaysia’s highest mountain – its pretty cool to see. If you enjoy trekking you are able to join groups and trek the mountain over a period of 2 days and one night.
Driving in Borneo
The following day We set off early in the pouring rain towards Sepilok, a 6-7 hour car journey which surprisingly as the driver I found very peaceful and an enjoyable drive. Not only is there so much to take in and see but we found that besides the empowering sense of achievement you must feel trekking to the peak of Mount Kinabalu, we were able to enjoy the beauty and details from simply following the mountain roads which winded and weaved for hours of this journey around the mountain. We kept getting higher and closer to it as we continued to drive until eventually we were able to see the waterfalls crashing down the side of it and the contrasts in different soils and rockery covering the surface. There are many photo opportunities along the way to pull over and get a snap of the mountain that summits beyond the clouds.
We drove a few long distance drives in the time we were on the Island travelling from Sabah to Sepilok, Sepilok to Kota Belud, Kota Belud back to Kota Kinabalu and with many short burst journeys between. On our drive from Sepilok to Kota Belud we decided to take a different route to the road that brought us into Sepilok through the plantations (we were sick of the sight of it by now) instead we ended up on a beautiful mountain road which lead us right through the middle of some of the remaining rainforest, it felt a lot more exotic and tropical with beautiful sights and mountainous views. We even had a wild Baboon stroll across the road right in front of our car whilst to our left was a huge wild monitor lizard! Seeing the wildlife in their natural habitats during this drive certainly made it exciting! My experience of driving in Borneo was highly enjoyable and for around $25 a day I would recommend care hire to anyone who wishes to cover Borneo’s diverse opportunities.
Palm oil plantations and logging
So continuing with our first journey towards Sepilok… the last 2 hours of the journey became shocking and hard to bare as we entered the land of the famous Palm Oil plantations. We stuck to a long open road for an hour and 45 minutes driving miles through the same scenery of tropical palm tree (Elaeis Guineensis – NOT the same as coconut palm trees), which is native to the tropical areas of Africa, where it grows wild, not farmed as a cash crop over thousands and thousands of acres of land in Asia. We realised that we were now driving through the worlds 3rd biggest palm oil plantation in the world which blew my mind thinking that in mainland Malaysia and Indonesia there was plantations even bigger and vaster spread than the one I was experiencing. The sight of the same tree over and over again in perfect lines, stood tall and straight like you’d imagine an army to be formed became eerie and heavy upon us as we began researching information about these plantations in the car the minute we realised that this was a huge matter.
In the 1980s and 1990s the forests of Borneo underwent a dramatic transition. They were levelled at a rate unparalleled in human history, burned, logged and cleared, and commonly replaced with agricultural land, or palm oil plantations. Half of the annual global tropical timber currently comes from Borneo. Furthermore, palm oil plantations are rapidly encroaching on the last remnants of primary rainforest.
We also drove past a factory placed in the middle of the plantations and had to hold our noses! I have never smelt such a peculiar, putrid smell in my life! The factories like all, let out clouds of pollution into the air – just another damaging factor of the industry.
Forest fires and who’s to blame?!
Much of the forest clearance is illegal. Satellite mapping has revealed that commercial development for large-scale land conversion – in particular oil palm plantations – was the largest single cause of the infamous 1997–1998 fires. Today fires are still set annually for land clearing in agricultural areas and degraded forests. When conditions are dry, these fires can easily spread to adjacent forest land and burn out of control. Increasingly, the frequency and intensity of fires is causing political tensions in the region. Neighbouring countries, in particular Malaysia and Singapore, blame Indonesia for failing to control the fires. In turn, Indonesia accuses Malaysian firms of starting many of the fire for land-clearing process. There is a need for a sustainable management of the forest’s resources, in particular the aspect of logging. But in order for that to materialise, there is a need to recognise that protection and conservation of the forest do not solely lie in the hands of Indonesia and/or Malaysia. It is unreasonable to assume that the few highly indebted countries that contain the majority of remaining rainforest should be responsible for single-handedly providing this global public good. It is a global effort to protect the rainforest which in turn, will then help to solve the development problems Indonesia and Malaysia face with regards to the Borneo rainforest.
Products and low budget profits
Consumer demand, or maybe that should be manufacturer demand… Palm oil has resulted in one of every two packaged products in the super market! You can find it in baked goods, cereals, crisps, sweets, margarine and popular soaps and cosmetics – to name a few. Often listed under a variety of names, like palmate and Sodium Lauryl Sulphate, it’s not always easy to spot. Red palm oil has become very popular among the more affluent, both for its taste, cool red colour, and superior antioxidant load. The Red palm oil is derived from the fleshy part of the fruit – hence its red colour – while the clear stuff comes from the white extract in the centre. So how is this something we can even avoid when it has become such a reliable source of our day to days lives in most things we use and do?! Surely if we cut out palm oil, man would only find a way of replacing it with another substance which would be farmed in high mass and who knows what effect on our planet that could take alongside the damage already done. Though are we to blame in these matters as it all comes down to low budget profits supported by most our comforting worldwide brands such as Nestle, Kelloggs, L’Oréal and MANY more!
Green house gases and wild life – Orangutans and Proboscis monkeys
We were driving to Sepilok as we heard about the Orangutan rehabilitation centre and wanted to take a visit and learn a bit more about what was going on in this department and why was it that our Native Bornean Orangutan was at threat of extinction… I think we had answered our own questions before we had even arrived. We stayed on a Gorgeous jungle resort where we were accompanied by an Australian single mother and her 10 year old Son Daniel who we quickly had become friendly with and arranged to travel onwards together! During our time in Sepilok we visited the Rainforest discovery centre, Orangutans and the Proboscis Monkeys famously known for their bulbous noses and unique voice which mimics the sound of disgust ‘Eurgh!’ – Hilarious.
Both the rehabilitation centres were highly enjoyable and allowed us to approach to the animal very closely without personal contact, especially the Proboscis monkeys who during feeding time were springing from platform to fence post all around us – mind you, they are a decent sized monkey! The palm oil plantations reached all the way to the doorstep of the centres and it was frightening to see how intrusive it all had become to the small percentage of natural rainforest that the remaining wildlife had left. Entering the rainforest on our canopy walk was the closest I feel I could have ever felt to being a time traveller, its the same as 150 million years a go because there has never been an ice age there! its as if time has stood still.
The fires of 1997 and 1998, and more recently in 2006, caused terrible destruction to Indonesia’s forests and killed, orphaned and displaced many Orangutans. A combination of factors; dry debris from logging; use of fire by palm oil companies; and El Nino (which resulted in a longer than normal dry season) caused the fire to devastate a huge area of forest. Indonesia is the world’s third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases with 75% of its emissions as a result of deforestation. Forest fires and decomposition add approximately 2,000 million tons of CO2 to the atmosphere a year.
Orangutans and the pet trade
The main threat to orangutans is habitat loss. However, this process of land clearing exposes wild orangutans, who are considered as pests and consequently some are shot. If infant orangutans survive the death of their mothers, they either end up as orphans in one of the rehabilitation centres or enter the pet trade. Young Orphans are in high demand for a flourishing pet trade, with each animal fetching several hundreds of dollars in city markets on near by Islands. Studies show that 1200-500 Orangutans from Indonesian Borneo alone enter the pet trade each year. This represents a real threat to the Orangutan population as they have an extremely low reproductive rate with a single child reared by the mother for the first 10 years of its life. There are also unimaginable situations where female orangutans are captured and shaved then used for sex by sick men working on the plantations – something even I can not go too far into, but unfortunately it happens.
From Kota Kina Belud we headed to the port where we took the hour long boat journey over the Mantanani Island which was a perfect paradise! Ourselves the Australian family and a Malaysian couple, in total 6 people were all that were staying on this part of the island, it felt like a private island that we had all to ourselves! The 6 of us became very good friends and again continued our travels together for the remaining period of our holiday!
Mantanani consists of 3 islands, namely, Mantanani Besar (the biggest) Island, Mantanani Kecil (Kechil) Island and Lingisan Island (smallest). Approaching Mantanani on the boat it was incredible to see how the water changed from a deep blue colour to this pure aqua tone where the water was so clear you could see straight through to the sea bed! It created an illusion that we were always over shallow water. Mantanani spoilt us with beautiful weather, golden sand, lovely people, great accommodation, great food, the most mesmerizing sunsets and also fantastic snorkelling!
Snorkelling in the Coral Reef
We were taken out on the boat with a mask, snorkel and flippers for 45 minutes exploring the coral reefs – I have never seen anything so beautiful! I have snorkelled in some beautiful places but here was something else. Coral the size of houses under the water with endless sea life attached and thriving from these reefs bursting with colours, different textures and shapes! We saw countless amounts of different coloured and patterned fish all in different sizes, bright blue star fish and Anemones full of clown fish bringing ‘Finding Nemo’ to life! On the boat journey back we were even lucky enough to spot 2 sea turtles which really made the trip that little bit more magical being that the sea turtles are also now sadly endangered.
Since the setup of a police base on Mantanani Besar, the fish bombing is greatly reduced. Some fishing boats like to come here to fish. There are over 15 dive sites in Mantanani, more adventurous divers can try out muck diving and wreck diving. You would see turtles, bump head parrot fish, big stingray, giant clam, moray and eagle eel, nudibranch, finger corals and many other marine life.
Dugongs – Mermaids
Mantanani Island used to be dugong wonderland, but the number of dugong has decreased rapidly by years. Dugong is the only fully aquatic, herbivorous mammal that inhabits swamps, rivers, estuaries, marine wetlands, and coastal marine waters. The Dugong is heavily dependent on a type of sea grasses for subsistence, of which Mantanani Island is rich of. Dugong is said to be interrelated to the mermaid and that’s where Mantanani receives its name other wise known as Mermaid Island.
However, the numbers of Dugong have dwindled to a number of between 12 to 15 that roam the area of Mantanani Island. The excessive use of gillnets, coastal development and dynamite bombing to catch fish are among the factors that cut down the number of dugong at Mantanani Island.
Tourist developments – the negative impacts
However I have not written the above to encourage tourist to go, I am aware that, like myself people hear about this unknown paradise and want to see what its all about, unfortunately for me I learnt more about this place after my time there and would like to make people aware of the damaging side to the tourism development on the Island. Selfishly a part of me is hoping Mantanani Island will go unnoticed and be kept a “secret” from tourism activities which will be devastating to the rich ecosystem and the people living there – Like the dugongs which used to play around the island, they are rarely seen again. Signs of a bleak future are here because tourist resorts are sprouting up with parts of the island sold! I’m not sure if the locals are given a fair deal to sell their piece of Eden.
The wildlife and its habitat cannot speak, so we must and we will…
– Theodore Roosevelt.
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