With funding from National Geographic we are retracing the footsteps of Henry Cushier Raven, a specimen collector who travelled extensively in East Kalimantan, Indonesia between 1912 and 1914.
We want to know which species Raven found and whether we can still find these species today.
In April 2016, we already covered the Berau and East Kutai parts of Raven’s journey. This is the story of his Mahakam travels.
The story is published in four parts. This is part III.
Continued from part 2.
We have now entered the taller forest parts of the Mahakam area. The river sides are covered in increasingly dense forests and villages are few and far between. This starts showing in the wildlife we encounter. Surveying before dusk we see a group of monkeys every few minutes, including long-tailed macaques, silvered leaf monkeys, and proboscis monkeys. They are not even that shy and most just stare at us as our boat glides past their sleeping trees and don’t bother to move. This is a good sign. In areas with high hunting pressure, species like primates tend to get very flighty.
The next day starts misty. We spent the night anchored near the town of Melak. An area of long-term human use because it sits on dark and fertile volcanic soils, something Raven noticed too. People on Borneo are not randomly distributed across the map, as one might think. They worked out a long time ago which soils were best for growing crops and where the climate was ideal. Borneo has several such population concentrations, even deep in the interior, where access is much limited by the almost impassable rapids in the upper river areas.
In more recent times, Borneo has increasingly started to look outward though. The overseas trade in coal, oil, palm oil and timber has resulted in more and more people in the coastal parts of the island, where the big cities are now located. Few people realize, however, how new these cities are and that a few hundred years ago few of them even existed. Fortunately, this outward movement of people is taking some pressure of the wildlife in Borneo’s interior, giving hope for future conservation there.
One conservation value that has declined a lot since Raven’s days is the large number of crocodiles that once lived in the Mahakam and its tributaries. Crocodiles used to be everywhere. One village head told Raven that in the past year 10 people from his village had been killed and eaten by crocodiles while fishing or bathing. It must have been a real concern for the people and wildlife of Borneo. Every approach of the river came with the significant risk of a giant set of teeth jumping out of the water to snatch at you. That danger has now largely gone. Crocodiles are still around, but we are not concerned and even swim in the river.
It does make me think though. In the global West, we are always eager to call out to countries like Indonesia to protect its tigers, elephants, bears, crocodiles and other potentially dangerous animals. When a rogue wolf or bear, however, enters one of our towns, it is most likely to get shot. Reintroducing extinct predators into Europe and America generates massive societal resistance. If we want solutions in environmental conservation we need to be more prepared to “not do onto others that you would others do onto you”.
On March 5, 1914, Raven arrived in the town of Long Iram where he spent some time in the local guesthouse and the Dutch Controller’s office. Both buildings still stand today, although we can’t quite make out from the stories locals tell us, which one is which. One building has been a hospital for a long time, the other is a dilapidated wooden building in the Dutch colonial style, currently used by the local army garrison for drying their laundry. I carefully enter the latter building after a soldier warns me that the floors are rotten. I look for a possible text scratched on the wall, “ Henry Raven was here, 1914”, but, alas, no such evidence. Maybe graffiti wasn’t quite Raven’s thing, or maybe 100 years or tropical wear and tear obliterated any signs from the past.
There are increasingly tall forest stands now. These are the parts of Borneo that have not yet been fully converted to plantations. The Heart of Borneo, as it is. But this does not mean that we see more wildlife. Even in 1914, Raven noted how little wildlife there was around some of the villages he visited. Where further downstream on the Mahakam we counted some 25 primate groups in the two hours before sunset, we now see one macaque in the same time frame. The forests are there but the wildlife isn’t.
Two factors probably play a role in the wildlife’s absence. First, lower down the Mahakam there is very little natural forest left. Only some riverine forests remain that are unsuitable for agriculture because of frequent flooding. Any remaining primates are compressed in these strips of forest where they are easily spotted from boats. The second factor is hunting. Lower down the Mahakam the people are mostly Muslim fishermen and traders. These people don’t normally hunt primates because their religion prohibits the consumption of monkeys and other species like pigs. Inland, however, Christian Dayak groups predominate, and they love a good monkey steak and most are keen hunters.
In a study I once conducted elsewhere in East Kalimantan, an average village of 35 households consumed 19,500 kilos of bushmeat per year. Allow people to do that for long enough and what remains are empty forests: the trees still stand but many of the larger birds and mammals are gone. It is one of the paradoxes of Borneo and other tropical areas and a major conservation challenge. How do we stop people from doing something they have done for thousands of years? Some very convincing examples of sustainable hunting programs and effective law enforcement would be needed to convince people that shooting everything in sight ultimately undermines their own livelihoods.
One bird species that Raven paid little attention to is probably impacted by this kind of indiscriminate hunting. Raven shot one of these birds and casually wrote that he saw “several black ibises”. Little did he know that these ibises are now among the most endangered bird species on earth. This is the white-shouldered ibis, of which two small populations now remain, one in the Mekong lakes area in Cambodia and Laos, and one here on the upper Mahakam River. All other populations are gone.
We know very little about this striking large bird. I have seen it twice in the past on previous Mahakam trips, often feeding on pebbly river beaches or muddy river banks. According to one local source, this makes the bird particularly vulnerable to hunting. It needs the river to feed but that’s also where a lot of the hunters travel. Taking out one of these birds with a shotgun is easy.
Whether hunting is the main cause of their apparent decline remains unclear though. Other factors could be the reduced access to undisturbed nest sites, changes in food availability, water pollution, or maybe even the increased frequency and severity of flooding that goes hand in hand with deforestation. The population in the nearby Barito River became extinct in the early 20th century, before any large-scale deforestation, so forest loss itself might not be the main cause of the ibis’s decline. Unfortunately, unlike Raven we don’t manage to see any of these birds this time, despite our entire being on watch. Urgent research and conservation action is needed to prevent this species from going extinct in Indonesia.
Detailed species lists are available here.