Borneo’s troubles taint its wild beauty

There are thousands of incredible images that come to mind when asked about my trip to Borneo. Turtles hatching and fluttering off to freedom on Libaran Island, orangutans swinging from branch to branch across Sepilok’s jungle, the piercing yellow eyes of a baby crocodile glaring above the surface of the Sabah’s longest river.

But no matter how hard I try to think about the incredible animals witnessed in Malaysian Borneo’s wild, there are certain images that almost taint the entire experience.

After four or so hours on a bumpy ride to Tambatuon Village, we jump out and stretch our legs. Pangaloi, or “uncle”, who owns the local homestay where we are due to unpack for the night, greets us and shortly after gives us a tour of the village he calls home. He is proud of his town and highly respected by the local Dusun people.

The path is freshly painted with tyre marks from those who drive from the village to Kota Kinabalu for work, food supplies and school. The road outlines a neighbourhood of brightly painted wooden homes and bamboo huts surrounded by rice paddies organised in perfect lines, and bordered by the jungle and the river.

Along the walk, uncle points out the different plants and seeds the local people use for food, including salad leaves, jungle ferns, wild ginger and cocoa. As he touches the different plants and ferns, the rainforest speaks back to us as if inviting us to join in on its chaos. I bump a mimosa pudica, a “shy lady”, and watch as its leaves fold inward and droop. It re-opens 15 minutes later, but by this stage we have well moved on.

The river at the base of Mount Kinabalu doesn’t wait for us either. It rushes past using the momentum of the soaring mountain above it. Giggles float in the air from a group of children and are only silenced by a large splash as they jump off a tall, wide rock into the gushing river. One, two, three of them run tirelessly in circles. Giggle. Jump. Splash. Giggle. Jump. Splash. Giggle. Jump. Splash. The joy is mesmerising and has me falling well behind the rest of the group who have already turned a corner down the path. I crave the water as the humidity drips off my skin.

I’ve lost those ahead but it gives me time to take in my surroundings a bit better. Local stray cats and dogs look thinner than the usual pets around my neighbourhood in Sydney. The cats are easily frightened and the dogs fidget and drag their bottoms along the ground. Worms? It must be. It makes me feel uncomfortable but it’s not an image I haven’t seen before.

I turn the last corner and re-connect with the group. Uncle is pointing to a vegetable he says we will use to make our dinner later tonight. On the final stretch something catches my eye and raises the hair on my arms despite the overwhelming heat.

A macaque monkey is jailed in a small bird cage. Its face is lowered as if embarrassed and its body is limp. A few steps away another macaque monkey is strangled by a metal chain leash locked around its neck. The animal paces back and forth. It’s agitated and as we move forward it pounces at us only to be immediately snapped back by the chain.

The images are unforgettable – and not in a good way.

Owning a monkey as a pet is about status in Borneo, Roxy our G Adventures guides says. While the government is cracking down on locals capturing monkeys to domesticate them, the illegal action is still prominent in some regional villages.

It is no use talking to the apparent “owners”, Roxy tells us. In a bid to comfort, she suggests we write to the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) who carry out work in the nearby regions in a bid to educate local villagers.

We do. But despite the good intention one can’t help but to think – have our concerns fallen on deaf ears?

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