Perhaps Borneo is little known in the West because the European powers came to it relatively late. Magellan’s ships paused at Brunei in 1521, and the Dutch and British had some early short-term settlements, but it wasn’t until the mid-19th century, with the White Rajah James Brooke (fictionalized by Conrad and Kipling) and the British North Borneo Company, that colonialism became entrenched. The Chinese had been trading porcelain for camphor, gold, hornbill ivory, dragon’s blood and such aphrodisiacs as rhinoceros horn, birds’ nest and the gallstones of monkeys (how did they find out?) since 700AD, but they only wanted to trade. British private enterprise, backed by the military, established it writ, set up a timber industry and rubber plantations and built cricket pitches. Colonialism finally ended in 1963, and Borneo, the third largest island in the world, now has just short of 20 million people on it, divided among the independent nations of Brunei, Indonesia and Malaysia.
Wood is at the heart of Borneo’s history. For millennia it was a source of food and shelter to its wildlife and its tribes, and then it began to be cut down and sold. Wood from Borneo built Beijing’s Temple of Heaven and today provides half the world’s annual tropical-timber harvest. What was once an enormous rainforest ringed by mangrove and golden sand now looks from the air like a head with a strangely receding hairline.
Few places on the planet evoke such a sense of biological exuberance, unbridled discovery, and nature at her most spectacular, as do the rainforests of Borneo. Though Joseph Conrad said this about the Congo, he may as well have been talking about Borneo. When one is in the heart of a Bornean dipterocarp forest, it’s as though one has slipped back in time to a world where plants and animals went about their business undisturbed by human beings and the giant trees ruled them all.
Lonely Planet describes Borneo as “the result of a grand experiment. It answers the question of what would happen if you put a giant island right on the equator, sprinkled it with a vast amount of genetic material, soaked it with heaping quantities of sunlight and water, and then waited a few million years. The result is an explosion of life in exuberant abundance – Mother Nature’s wildest fantasy.”
Borneo’s forests are some of the most biodiverse on the planet and are home to more than 15,000 species of plants. You will come across towering dipterocarp trees crowded with epiphytes and a myriad things in the rich forest leaf-litter to distract you. According to WWF, the island is estimated to have at least 222 species of mammals (44 of which are endemic), 420 resident birds (37 endemic), 100 amphibians, 394 fish (19 endemic), and 15,000 plants (6,000 endemic). Surveys have found more than 700 species of trees in a 10 hectare plot – a number equal to the total number of trees in North America combined. The rainforests of Borneo are home to amazing rainforest birds such as Rhinoceros Hornbill, Bornean Bristlehead, and Argus Pheasant, and an array of primates from the curious proboscis monkey and maroon langur, to Asia’s only great ape, the endangered orangutan.
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