Feast your eyes on the forest’s green dreamscape


“To be in the jungle is a biological consummation,” wrote botanist EJH Corner in 1930. “To stumble among the riot of enormous trees and to cut a path through the tangle of creepers, which knit the life of the rainforest into one gigantic web, is like a dream.”

Twenty years ago, I lived that dream. My home was a house on stilts in Lambir Hills National Park in Sarawak, in the Malaysian part of Borneo. My workplace was the forest. It blew my mind on a daily basis.


The variety of life there was staggering — in one 52-hectare patch, scientists had found 1175 tree species. I was there to study dozens of the forest’s nearly 80 fig species, whose remarkable biology and importance to diverse cultures would inspire me to write a book.* The photos above are shots from my daily commute deep into the forest. This is how I described it in my book:

Each time I stepped into that forest I entered another world. It was hot and humid and full of mosquitoes. The forest’s palette of greens and browns flooded my vision. Countless trees crowded in on me. Vines crept and corkscrewed their way skywards at every possible angle. Some were as thick as a thigh. Strange sounds tricked my ears. Strange shapes moved then vanished. There were musty scents whose sources I never found.

Most of the trees were just a few centimetres thick but were so numerous I could only take a couple of steps off a trail before hitting one. Others were giants, as broad as a small car. And none was as spookily beautiful as the first free-standing strangler fig I saw there. Its host tree had long since died and rotted away and the strangler’s roots now formed a scaffold with a hollow core. I stepped inside and looked up. Shafts of light shone down at me from far above. This Ficus kerkhovenii became my favourite landmark in the forest.

Here is that strangler fig. These weird plants are super-important in tropical forests as they produce figs year-round and so sustain a huge variety of birds and mammals.


I was able to get a bird’s-eye view of strangler figs and the animals eating them thanks to a system of tree towers and a vertigo-inducing walkway that crossed the canopy.


Here’s another taster from my book:

‘If you drop, you are dead,’ said Siba anak Aji. I had met him just an hour earlier and already I liked his sense of humour. But he was right about the drop. A fall would provide plenty of opportunities to snap my neck. We were 30 metres high, dangling on a walkway that blazed an aerial trail through the rainforest canopy in Lambir Hills National Park in northern Borneo. The walkway was little more than a series of planks suspended in mid-air by a mesh of plastic coated cables anchored around big trees. With every step I took, the structure jolted, slid and creaked.

I tasted fear that first day. A safety harness tethered me to the walkway but I did not trust it yet. Nor the insects. Little black bees hauled their bodies over my bare arms, thirsty for my sweat. Giant ants scuttled across my hands and boots. My skin crawled. What vanquished my nerves was the view. It was a vision of a distant past. Thick forests had dominated this landscape for a hundred million years. From the walkway we could see the crowns of thousands of trees of hundreds of species. The tallest had burst through the canopy and reached 80 metres into the sky.

Colourful sunbirds and spiderhunters, barbets and flowerpeckers accompanied us as we traversed the 300-metre walkway. Squirrels crashed from tree to tree, their fur a blur of russet and cream. They sought what I sought – a pulse of life from the forest’s beating heart. Siba found it first, a strangler fig whose branches bore thousands of orange figs. Within days they would be red and ripe. I would be shackled to the walkway, alone before dawn, waiting to discover what ate them.

I wrote in my diary that day that —  strapped to the walkway, watching the dawn break over the forest, surrounded by the cacophany of waking birds — I had never felt more at ease. This is the view I got.

2017-03-21 14.23.42third

That was 20 years ago. Much has changed. The forest has lost most of its bigger birds and mammals. As a result, its structure is changing. But I doubt its capacity to induce awe is diminished. I have not been back, but I often visit it in my dreams. Or perhaps it visits me.


* My book was published in the UK as Ladders to Heaven: How fig trees shaped our history, fed our imaginations and can enrich our future. The hardback is out now and the paperback is out in September but is now available to pre-order. The US/Canada edition is called Gods, Wasps and Stranglers: The secret history and redemptive future of fig trees. The hardback is out now and the paperback is out in April 2018 (pre-order here).



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 authors 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.


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