Growing up in rural Canada, I was always surrounded by forest. From a young age, I learned how to protect myself from wild animals, identify edible plants, deconstruct bear poop, and navigate in the wild. In the 1990s, we didn’t worry so much about global warming, deforestation, and pollution. The forest was always abundant in my life, and I never once worried about the possibility of it vanishing.
Decades later, I’ve driven by my old house in the country and have seen the massive deforestation which has occurred — making way for new highways and logging.
Living in Asia, I miss being so close to the forest. Until recently, I never once thought about the rainforest — somewhere so exotic and foreign to me. But rainforests, which are amazingly biodiverse, are decreasing at an alarming rate. So a few months ago, I decided to visit Borneo and witness the last remaining parts of the rainforest there. In a previous post, I wrote about my time in Brunei, the country containing the largest amount of protected rainforest in Borneo. But what about the rest of the island of Borneo?
Facts About The Bornean Rainforest
- Borneo’s rainforest is estimated to be about 140 million years old, making it the oldest in the world.
- Borneo and Sumatra are the only places in the world where you can find orangutans, which are now listed as critically endangered.
- There are over 15 000 different species of plants to be found in the Bornean rainforest.
- Borneo is home to Mount Kinabalu, the highest peak in South East Asia. It’s an amazing sight to see from the window of the plane (if you’re not adventurous enough to hike up!)
- On Mount Kinabalu, you can see the Rafflesia Arnoldii flower, which smells like rotting flesh and is coincidentally the largest flower in the world, measuring over 1 metre wide!
- According to the WWF, the deforestation rate of Borneo’s forest is 1.3 million hectares per year. It is estimated that by 2020, only 24% of the forest cover will remain.
- Factors contributing to deforestation are palm oil plantations, rubber plantations, pulp plantations, forest fires, and illegal logging.
Visiting the Rainforest Discovery Centre
Although seeing the orangutans was a delight in Sepilok Rehabilitation Centre, I still wanted to find out more about the rainforest itself. What amazing plant species could be found there? Why was it being cut down at an alarming rate? What could I do to help its conservation?
I decided to visit the Rainforest Discovery Centre (RDC) which is only 2 km from the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre. RDC is run by the Sabah Forestry Department and aims to raise aware awareness of forest conservation and sustainable use of forest resources.
Things to do in the Rainforest Discovery Centre:
- Visit the Exhibition Hall, where you can learn about the animals and plants to be found in Sabah’s different forest types.
- Stroll through the Plant Discovery Garden, you can see various tropical plants, pitcher plants (my favourite!), over 250 species of native orchids, and much more.
- Walk along the Canopy Walkway, which is 347m long and 25m high, where you can get an amazing view of the rainforest of Sepilok. If you’re lucky, you might see some wild animals, including over 300 species of birds (and the rare Bornean bristlehead), giant squirrels, snakes, and orangutans. I was so fortunate to see two orangutans from the canopy walkway!
- Take a boat across the lake (only availble during weekends and public holidays)
- Wrap your arms in vain around the huge Sepilok Giant tree, or admire the vegetation in the Jungle Pond
The reason why I loved visiting RDC so much is because it was quiet, unlike the Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre which was crowded with tourists. It was peaceful and calming to walk through the beautiful gardens, and truly magical to witness two wild orangutans while I was completely alone. The only thing to be careful of are snakes! There were signs everywhere alerting guests to the various venomous snakes in the forest. I didn’t see one staff member throughout my visit to the RDC, so I was well aware of the fact that I would very likely die alone if I was bitten by a snake!
Bornean Sun Bears
Most people haven’t heard of sun bears, which are currently threatened with extinction. There are two different types of sun bears. The Malayan sun bears are found on the Asian Mainland (e.g. Eastern India, Southern China, Cambodia, Laos, etc.) and the Bornean sun bears can only be found in Borneo. The Bornean sun bears are the smallest bears in the world, reaching only 120-150cm in height, half the size of Malayan sun bears. Scientists think this is an evolutionary adaptation to a lack of food. They also have a unique yellow/orange chest mark, which almost looks like they’re wearing a necklace.
Sun bears have extremely long tongues (20-25cm long), curved claws, and short legs. Although they’re considered meat eaters, they actually have a omnivorous diet, consisting of fruits, insects, invertebrates, small animals, and honey. Figs are the most important fruit for the sun bear as they are available all year round. Their long claws and tongues are particularly useful for procuring honey or insects from trees or logs.
Interestingly, sun bears disperse seeds around the forest through the partially digested fruit seeds in their poop! They’re also called “forest doctors” and “forest farmers” because they eat termites, which feed on and kill trees, but also mix nutrient rich soil with non-nutrient rich soil as they search for insects. Thus, sun bears help to keep the forest healthy.
Besides deforestation, sun bears have become incredibly endangered because of poaching. Although it is illegal to hunt sun bears in Borneo, their meat has been traditionally eaten by the indigenous people. Their body parts, like bile from the gall bladder, have been used in traditional Chinese medicine. Besides, people also use their claws and teeth as decorations. Shockingly, many have attempted (and still attempt) to keep these animals as pets, which is definitely not a good idea.
You can visit the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre, which was established in 2008, and houses almost 40 bears. You can watch the bears forage for food in their forest enclosures from a canopy walkway. The centre’s aim is for the bears to live as normal a life as possible (as healthy wild bears) and one day release them into the wild. All the sun bears in the BSBCC are rescued former pets. This is a great sanctuary to support, although visiting the centre may not provide amazing photo opportunities. Since the viewing platform is from a canopy walkway, and the bears constantly have their faces in the ground, looking for insects, it’s almost impossible to get a good photo of the bears. But remember, you should visit the centre to support conservation — not for photo opportunities!
How You Can Help Save the Rainforest
- Avoid consuming products with palm oil, which has a direct impact on the rainforest and orangutans that live there. If you do purchase products that contain palm oil, choose products made from certified sustainable palm oil. See our previous post, Orangutans and The Problem with Palm Oil for more info.
- If you plan on visiting Borneo, do your research to visit legitimate sanctuaries and not tourist attractions. There are many fake sanctuaries out there, such as the Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary, where the monkeys are displaced because of a palm oil plantation, so a local farmer decided to turn it into a “sanctuary,” which does not provide adequate care for these animals.
- Adopt an orangutan through Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, where you can make monthly donations to save the animals, or donate to charities like the WWF, which has been working on orangutan conservation since the 1970s.
- Lessen your carbon footprint and avoid contributing to climate change, which directly impacts the thousands of threatened species in the rainforest. Going vegan is the simple, most effective way to combat climate change!
I was never someone who gave much thought about the rainforest, especially in Borneo, but now I realize how important it is to protect this rapidly shrinking, yet incredibly important area of biodiversity. In a way, it connects me to my childhood in Canada. Perhaps taking an interest in the rainforest can help connect me to the ever-shrinking forests near my childhood home also.
Check out the links below to learn more about the rainforest in Borneo, and do your part to protect it — before it’s gone for good.