National Geographic : 2008 Nov
The day starts well before dawn with the luna tic hooting of gibbons, the rain forest's alarm clock, lovers and rivals wooing and warning each other from the treetops in an urgent ape language that I, their terrestrial relative, can only guess at. From my camp a creekside trail leads into forest past trees whose massive trunks rise a hundred feet to the lowest branches. As sunlight makes its feeble way through the dense green canopy, another primate, a long-tailed macaque, walks along the stream below, hoping for a breakfast of fish or frog. Whether it's success ful or not, its expression of perpetual irritation will never change. No sooner has the monkey disappeared upstream than a pair of short-tailed mongooses bound down to the bank, seemingly more intent on fun than food. At a clearing, a pair of rhinoceros hornbills fly to a fruiting tree on loud-whooshing wings and begin to feed. Mostly black, nearly the size of turkeys, they have huge red-and-yellow casques on their bills that gleam in the sun like polished lacquer. The birds outshine everything else in the forest until a hand-size shape flits erratically past at waist level, deep velvety black, but also crimson and electric green, screaming neon green, a color as gaudy as the name of this crea ture: Rajah Brooke's birdwing. At almost seven inches across, it's one of the largest butterflies in the world. If the rhinoceros hornbill doesn't take your breath away-if the Rajah Brooke's bird wing doesn't-have someone hold your wrist and check for a pulse. Later I take a small boat down a broad river called the Kinabatangan, then up a side chan nel as narrow as an alleyway. A troop of pro boscis monkeys climb through the branches 42 NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC * NOVEMBER 2008 overhead, where they will spend the night in tall trees beside the water. The potbellied male, ridiculously outsize nose hanging from his face like a ripe fruit, is so ugly he's endearing, in a kind of bibulous-old-uncle way. Most of the pointy-nosed females under his watch cradle young at their breasts. Silvered leaf monkeys look down from above, and a bearded pig stands just inside the forest to watch us pass. As the boat drifts below an overhanging branch, a four-foot-long water monitor lizard drops into the water. A Borneo pygmy elephant enters the river and swims in front of the boat, blowing like a whale. "Pygmy" it may be in comparison to other elephants, but when it emerges dark and shining on the opposite bank, it's as if an island is rising from the sea. I see where it's going: A herd of around 30 animals-a long-tusked bull, many adult females, and various young munch tangled vines beside the main river, expressionless as statues and only marginally more animated. This is the mythic Borneo, the island of the world's imagination, and it's all as wondrous as it sounds. But if you want to see the real Borneo, the Borneo of the first decade of the 21st century, it would be good to be the crested serpent-eagle perched in a tree across the river. Then you could soar high above the Kinaba tangan and see how quickly the unruly forest gives way to neatly planted rows of oil palm trees, stretching for mile after mile in all direc tions. The palm plantation is lush and green, Only about a thousand Borneo pygmy elephants survive in the wild. Their optimal habitat is lowland forest-much now lost to development.