These are the chronicles of two trips/expeditions/walkabouts in Borneo, in winter 2013/2014 (three weeks) and in winter 2015/2016 (four months), respectively.
Split between Malaysia and Indonesia, Borneo is the third largest island on the planet. Its biodiversity is stunning: it hosts some ~15 000 plant species including the giant-flowered Rafflesia; more than 400 birds species including the spectacular hornbills; and more than 200 mammals including rhinos, pigmy elephants, the orangutan and the creepy tarsier.
I visited Borneo for the first time on a short trip in the winter 2013/2014. On that first visit, Borneo struck me as a land of contrasts. Large extensions of its primeval forests have been and are being cut by logging companies. The forest is being replaced by oil palm plantations, with loss of plant diversity and of habitat for animals. In the process, native tribes that were traditionally nomadic have been relocated and forced to become sedentary. Yet, there are successful examples of natural conservation, in which patches of primeval forests are preserved together with their human and animal inhabitant. These conservation areas attract tourism and related profits, suggesting an ecologically sustainable and economically viable alternative to logging and planting oil palm.
I went back to Borneo for four months in the winter 2015/2016 with two goals. One was to document the exploitation of Bornean land and nature, and its consequences on the life and culture of native people. The other was to document the efforts of researchers and conservationists at studying and protecting this island. This trip was inspired by “Stranger in the Forest”, a book I read during my first trip to Borneo. The book tells the adventures of Eric Hansen, a journalist who in 1982 walked across the island on foot. “Stranger in the Forest”, based on the notes and pictures from Hansen’s seven-month-long expedition, paints a fascinating and priceless picture of the nature and the cultures of Borneo at a time when the extensive exploitation of the island’s resources was just starting. On my second trip, twenty-three years after Hansen’s, I tried to understand how and how much Borneo has changed. In doing so I benefited of my background as an ecologist, as well as of my personal knowledge of ecologists active in Borneo, both locals and foreigners. First, I visited friends and colleagues working as researchers and conservationists in Borneo. In the second and more challenging part of my trip I attempted at retracing Eric Hansen’s steps while crossing Borneo west to east, visiting the same areas he passed by in the eighties and comparing what he described with what I saw.