Few places on this planet seem as mysterious to the would-be traveler as Borneo. The romance and imagery of the tropical rain forest has intrigued humans since the first European explorers visited in the late 1500's. The jungle invoked visions of impenetrable vegetation, drenched with rain and overflowing with unfamiliar and perhaps dangerous animals! It was overpowering and apparently untamable, a strange yet mysterious place. But, even today, a trip into the rain forest still provides a sense of questing for knowledge and exploring the unknown. Join me for a brief look at Borneo's exotic landscape which continues to inspire wonder.

Dawn in the primary rainforest

Many of Borneo's forest trees rise straight up from the jungle floor for 150 feet or more before spreading out into the leafy crowns that support the rolling green surface of the canopy. Using the canopy catwalk, we are able to view the lofty domain of the Hornbill as well as other birds and plants. The rain forest canopy has been described as an entire plant community above ground. Numerous animals found in this habitat are born and die without ever touching the ground.

As usual in the rain forest, no mammals are visible except for an occasional squirrel scurrying along a low branch and there are only quick flashes of birds in the canopy. Yet the sounds of unseen creatures surround us. The Bornean rain forest is rarely silent. The wash of forest sounds seem random at first, however, the background drone is an incessant almost irritating whine of cicadas set against the endless "ttok-took-tarook-took-took" of barbets up in the canopy. Punctuating the bird songs are mysterious guttural grunts, roars and barks: monkeys, orangutan, barking deer??

These sounds always come from just around the bend. It is never easy to tell exactly from where or what is calling. Close your eyes and try to imagine the sounds of the rain forest!!!

Creatures of the Rain Forest

On viewing the ORANG UTEN, Borneo's only great ape, it is startling to see how "human-like" they seem! They are mostly solitary and one of our closest relatives. Like humans, they have evolved remarkable intelligence. They are mainly fruit-eaters and make nightly "nests" at the end of the day. Found throughout the island, it is estimated that only 30,000 remain in the wild.

The RHINOCEROS HORNBILLS are found throughout Borneo. Hornbills are critical to the dispersal of the figs because they eat the entire fruit, including the seed, and then fly long distances dispersing the seeds widely. When the female is ready to lay her eggs, she imprisons herself in her nest in the hollow of a tree by plastering the opening with mud and does not emerge for the next three months. The male delivers food to her when the hornbill chick is partly reared, the female breaks down the nest wall and emerges. Thus her chicks are protected against marauding snakes and other tree-dwelling predators!

It is early afternoon as we travel down the Kinabatangan River in eastern Sabah mainly to see Borneo's endemic PROBOSCIS MONKEYS. Although they are confined to mangrove forest and coastal habitats, these monkeys can be found living hundreds of kilometers upstream along fresh-water rivers.

And that is exactly where we spotted them, along the river banks, looking for succulent young leaves and shoots! Proboscis monkeys are largely arboreal but will swim across rivers. His trademark huge nose hangs on his reddish bare face like a pendulous fruit. He is the rarest of the leaf-eating monkeys and is one of the world's strangest primates!!

About Leech Socks

One of the first encounters in the rain forest, though not the most pleasant, is the forest leech. Leeches are predatory blood-sucking animals which are found in the humid forest understory. I'm pictured here wearing my "green leech socks" in the hope that I will not fall prey to one of their bites. Since leeches are found on low lying plants, the socks prevent them from attaching themselves at that level. Luckily, I did not receive any leech bites!


One of the rarest and most astonishing flowers in the world, including the very largest, is found only in Borneo and Sumatra! The Rafflesia flower starts as a small bud and can take over a year to flower. Rafflesia plants are parasitic, lacking both leaves and roots. The flower is not designed for beauty. In fact, the five fleshy, petal like lobes, marbled red and white, resemble dead meat and through chemical reaction the flower generates a strong odor of rotting flesh. This attracts carrion feeders drawn by the fleshy color pattern and the stench! After a few days, the Rafflesia flower turns brown and rots. Thus the world's rarest plant lives for a few days making it extremely difficult to see in the wild.


Much of Borneo is as mysterious now as it was a hundred years ago and much may be forever a mystery. Magnificent forests are being destroyed that contain plants and animals we will never know. In Borneo, as with much of the natural world, there is a critical race between preservation and development. Large areas of forest have been set aside as wildlife reserves, but dwindling forest reserves and growing populations surrounding these areas will threaten even the best-managed parks with encroachments from logging, slash-and-burn farming, and overhunting.

I feel lucky to have visited these magnificent rainforests, and I'll always remember my early morning walks in the forest, being greeted by the rich whooping calls of the Bornean Gibbons as well as the symphony of sound from the millions of insects and birds. The great diversity of plants makes Borneo a botanical paradise. However, the policies of Indonesian Kalimantan and of Malaysian Sarawak and Sabah will determine whether or not enough forest is preserved to support the island's incredible diversity of wildlife. Let us hope that the rain forest will remain with us forever.

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