Snakes and ladders and tantalising figs

… an extract from the prologue of my book Ladders to Heaven: How fig trees shaped our history, fed our imaginations and can enrich our future.

Snake-Figs-Borneo

The figs were big orange beacons that lured me from afar. The snake was lime green and venomous and just centimetres from my face.

I met them both near the top of a tree, about 35 metres above the ground in a Bornean rainforest. While the snake was safely coiled on a sturdy branch, I had only some sweat soaked fingers to save me from a fall. My heart raced. The snake’s unblinking eyes looked as patient as time.

The year was 1998 and I was falling headlong into a fascinating story. Its stars are the fig trees — the 750 or so Ficus species. Over millions of years they have shaped our world, driven our evolution, nourished our bodies and fed our imaginations.

The best could be yet to come. These plants could help us restore ravaged rainforests, limit climate change and stem the loss of wild species. They could build vital bridges between religions, and between scientific and faith-based worldviews.

Their story reminds us of what we all share and warns us of what we could lose. But these plants are under threat. We risk running out of time to learn the many lessons they have to teach us.

*

In Greek mythology a branch laden with sweet figs was among the temptations that teased the demigod Tantalus during his punishment in the Underworld. Each time Tantalus reached for the figs, a wind wrenched the tree’s bough beyond his reach. This tale gifted English the verb to tantalise.

Those dull orange figs in Borneo, with their guardian snake, seemed set to elude me too. I hungered to have them, though I had no desire to eat their flesh.

The figs adorned the stubby branches of a Ficus aurantiaca. This species relies heavily on primates to eat its figs and disperse the tiny seeds within. But in this particular forest Ficus aurantiaca was a plant with problems.

First, there were few primates left in the area. The national park I was in was an island of ancient forest at whose edges lapped a sea of oil-palm plantations, farms and logging concessions.

These man-made habitats posed dangers to primates and other wildlife. Like the national park itself, they were often visited by shotgun-toting hunters for whom a monkey or a gibbon would be a prize kill.

But even if primates had been abundant, something else was wrong. Like all fig species Ficus aurantiaca depends on a specific kind of tiny wasp to pollinate its flowers. That year, however, an intense drought killed off these insects.

Across the national park the same problem had stricken many other species of figs too. No pollinators meant no seeds to create a new generation of Ficus plants. It meant no ripe figs to feed hungry animals. And that would have knock-on effects for the other plants whose seeds these creatures dispersed, and for the other animals that depended on those plants.

The local extinction of tiny wasps had impacts that rippled across the forest ecosystem. That’s why the Ficus aurantiaca figs I spotted that day had made me incautious. I had never seen so many of that species before and I needed to know what was going on inside them. All that lay between my curiosity and the answers I sought was that poisonous snake and the risk of a long fall.

I was hanging on to a ladder that somebody had attached vertically to the trunk of the tree. The ladder was the last of seven that stood toes-to-shoulders, each one flush to the tree.

As I tried to maintain my grip on the metal rungs, an intense wave of vertigo paralysed me. For a moment I could no longer sense my own body. It was as if my mind was all that existed of me, and it scrambled to process the sudden danger. I held my breath. It was a long way down but I needed those figs and that meant I had to let go of the ladder with one hand to reach past the snake.

*

Tantalus never got his figs but I got mine. As I plucked each one and shoved it into my pocket, sticky latex —whiter than milk — oozed from the plant’s wounds. This gummy sap is common to all fig species. It deters insects from feeding on them and speeds recovery from wounds.

Throughout history people have discovered ways to make the latex work for them. They have smeared it on branches to catch birds, curdled milk with it to make cheese, processed it to make rubber and used it as an aphrodisiac.

I was glad of the latex that day. It covered my hands and strengthened my grip as I lowered myself down the chain of ladders and entered the murky forest again. The snake had not moved a single scale.

It may seem strange to spend time and take risks in search of rare figs but by the time I met that snake in 1998 I had come to understand three things: that fig trees can play critical roles in rainforests and other ecosystems; that they have influenced the development of diverse human cultures; and that today we are both destroying the former functions and forgetting the latter.

Back then the science was fascinating enough. But I was learning too about a chain of reverence towards fig trees that coils back in time for many thousands of years and encircles almost the entire globe.

Fig trees appear in mythologies in the Amazon and in Africa, across the Mediterranean and the Middle East, and from the foothills of the Himalayas to the islands of the South Pacific. They feature in some way in Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Jainism and Sikhism. They star in the stories of Krishna and Buddha, Jesus and Mohammed and a host of other gods and prophets.

Fig trees were inspiring, sustaining and even protecting our ancestors long before they invented writing or domesticated the dog. They were pivotal in the birth of agriculture nearly 12,000 years ago and are among the most nutritious of foods we eat today.

Our shared story stretches back beyond the origin of human settlements, back to before the birth of our species, and back to before the day our ape-like ancestors descended from the trees and walked upright for the first time around seven million years ago. In fact, fig species had begun to interact with our ancestors long before they climbed the trees in the first place – back when the closest things to modern humans were the small shrew-like creatures that scampered in the shadows of the dinosaurs.

Ladders to Heaven explains why. It is a story of life and death and of a deal undone. Its cast includes kings and queens, gods and prophets, flying foxes and botanical monkeys. It features scientific wonders and religious miracles, all born from biology that seems almost impossible in its elegance.

Most of all it is a story about the connections between humanity and nature, and what the loss of those links can mean. The story stretches back tens of millions of years to the age of the dinosaurs but is as relevant to our future as to our past. As our planet’s climate changes and reminds us that nature really does matter, the story has important lessons for us all.

More about the book: Unbound will publish Ladders to Heaven early in 2016. My publisher uses a crowdfunding model: Everyone who orders a copy in advance will be named in the book as a patron. To watch a short video about the book or to order a copy, visit: http://unbound.co.uk/books/ladders-to-heaven

Photo credits: Bornean Keeled Green Pit Viper (Tropidolaemus subannulatus) juvenile (Bernard Dupont/Creative Commons). Ficus aurantiaca (Ahmad Fuad Morad / Creative Commons)

A bit naughty? Secret filming exposes murky world of rainforest politics

Global Witness has released footage that exposes the way elites have carved up and sold off the tropical forests of Sarawak in Malaysian Borneo, then siphoned away millions of dollars through illegal tax dodges. Global Witness filmed the footage in secret when one of its team posed as an investor who wanted to buy up land in Sarawak so he could set up oil palm plantations.

The main targets of the investigation are Tan Sri Abdul Taib Mahmud — who has been Sarawak’s Chief Minister for over 30 years and controls access to forests there — and members of his extended family.

“This film proves for the first time what has long been suspected — that the small elite around Chief Minister Taib are systematically abusing the region’s people and natural resources to line their own pockets,” said Tom Picken, Forest Team Leader at Global Witness, in a press release. “It shows exactly how they do it and it shows the utter contempt they hold for Malaysia’s laws, people and environment.”

In Sarawak, the website FZ.com caught up with the Chief Minister today and reported his response to the claims:

“Ok I saw the so called proof. Could it not be someone who tried to promote themselves to be an agent to get favours from me?  It has nothing to do with me. I think it is a bit naughty of them.”

Taib is a master of public relations — as revealed in open letter that The Sarawak Report sent to British reality TV star Ben Fogle after he gushed good publicity about his recent trip to Sarawak. While it is clear that something “naughty” has indeed happened to Sarawak’s forests, Taib seems unconcerned by the latest salvo in an ongoing campaign against him.

Here’s the Global Witness video… The FZ.com interview follows:

Kill off the animals and you change the forest — fast

Last year I brought you the story of Lambir Hills National Park, a Bornean forest in which I used to live and work, where hunting and other pressures have forced into extinction much of the biggest wildlife species (see The near empty forest that proves conservation is failing).

It describes how recent surveys had failed to find 20 percent of the park’s resident bird species and 22 percent of its mammal species. The forest is emptying fast. The losses include half of the park’s primate species and six out of seven hornbill species —  all important dispersers of rainforest seeds. Sun bears and gibbons, bearded pigs and flying foxes all once called Lambir Hills home. Today it is hard to find an animal that weighs more than a kilogram in the national park.

Now researchers have shown what these extinctions mean for the forest itself. Rhett Harrison and colleagues tracked the fates of over 470,000 trees of more than 1,100 species for a 15-year period since intense hunting began there.

In a new study published in Ecology Letters, they have shown that the forest has changed markedly. There are far more trees now — the density of saplings increased by over 25 per cent between 1992 and 2008 — probably because there are fewer deer and other mammals to eat the young plants. But overall the diversity of trees has fallen. And compared to species that rely on gravity or wind to spread their seeds, there has been a relative decline in the number of new trees from species that depend on animals to disperse their seeds.

Species with animal-dispersed seeds — especially those with bigger seeds — are also more clustered than they were before hunting took off. This is probably because the loss of large fruit-eating animals means that seeds, on average, now travel shorter distances. There was no increase in clustering among species that need no animal assistance to spread their seeds.

The author’s write: “Fruit that would formerly have been eaten by hornbills, gibbons or fruit pigeons, all of which are efficient long-distance seed dispersers, are now unlikely to be fed on by anything larger than a bulbul or a barbet”. For those of you who don’t know the birds of Borneo, members of the latter two types are both small enough to fit in a trouser pocket.

The researchers could draw their conclusions because Lambir is home to one of the world’s longest running forest studies. In 1992, scientists marked out a 52 hectare patch of the forest and then tagged, measured, mapped and identified every tree bigger than 1 cm diameter at breast height. In 1997, 2003 and 2008 they went back and repeated the exercise, each time taking several months to complete the task.

Their massive datasets, which track the identity and positions of around half a million trees every 5-6 years can animate the forest’s history. Like the photographs that form time-lapse videos, these periodic census snapshots reveal the patterns of life over time.  The next census of the 52-hectare plot, which is due to take place soon, will add a critical fifth image that further refines the picture of a forest in flux.

The results are already striking but, as the authors note: “the full impacts of defaunation at Lambir are only likely to be realised over several plant generations.” So far, none of the species that depends on big animals to disperse its seeds has gone extinct. That’s just a matter of time.

Reference:

Harrison, R. D. et al. 2013. Consequences of defaunation for a tropical tree community. Ecology Letters. Article first published online: 12 MAR 2013 DOI: 10.1111/ele.12102

Confession: I ate shark fin soup

Photo by Albert Kok http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Tiger_shark.jpg

Late in 1998 a man hauled a shark out of the sea. With a sharp knife he hacked off its fins and put them somewhere safe, then he tossed the mutilated fish back into the ocean. Its blood clouded the salty sea. Unable to swim, the shark sank to the sea bed where it died a slow death… all so I could eat a bowl of soup.

No… No… No. That won’t do. I never saw the shark die. I don’t know its final moments. I don’t know who caught it, and where or when or how. But, yes, I did eat the soup, and whenever I think of that meal I paint the above picture in my mind. It is possible that it is a perfect portrayal but I just don’t know for sure. Continue reading

The near empty forest that proves conservation is failing

Boleh makan… Boleh… Boleh.” As I turned the pages of my copy of Mammals of Borneo to reveal more images of wildlife, Siba anak Aji said the same thing each time. “Can eat… Can… Can.”

It was 1998 and I was doing ecological research in Lambir Hills National Park in Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo. Siba, my research assistant, was explaining which of the wild species his Iban community would consider eating. The list was long.

The only animal off the menu was the moonrat. Little wonder — this weird white creature, which is not a rat but a cousin of the hedgehog, stinks of ammonia. Everything else, said Siba, was fair game.

Hunting was of course banned in Lambir Hills and for Siba and many other members of his community the park was a source of jobs not meat.

But for others the forest was a larder. Continue reading