Three years and one pandemic ago, we at The Borneo Project sat down with Indigenous Penan and Kenyah field technicians to create the Baram Heritage Survey, including a list of animals that were important to their villages. However, when we asked our technicians which animals are the most crucial for the forests they call home, they were stumped for an answer. Although we as a foreign organization had our own list of animals we deemed as having a certain importance, such as famous endangered species or others sometimes served up on the dinner table, the concept of ‘important’ and ‘unimportant’ species was peculiar to our Indigenous friends.
Every creature great and small plays its role, providing ecosystem services that cannot be overlooked: from the sun bears that scratch up Borneo’s trees creating holes for small mammals to live in, to pangolins who eat thousands of insects as the pest-controllers of the forest, to the hornbills that disperse seeds across disparate landscapes, to the gibbons that know which fruit to eat at what time of year to keep the forest healthy.
We ended up including in a smartphone app we created for the project every animal identified as important by the community. What we ended up with was the largest survey of its kind ever conducted in the Baram River Basin. Over nine months of data collection along forest transects, our technicians completed the first species diversity analysis in what is undoubtedly one of the world’s foremost biodiversity hotspots.
In the end, our team monitored 120 bird species, including the spectacular great argus, the rather silly looking Bulwer’s pheasant and the critically endangered helmeted hornbill. They looked for sightings and signs of 67 mammals species, including five endangered and vulnerable primates, a half-dozen elusive felines, three types of otter and lots of non-headline-grabbing species like the binturong, western tarsier, civets, weasels and martens. The technicians looked for 24 reptile and amphibian species, including several adorable frogs, impressive water monitors and the reticulated python, one of the world’s largest snakes, which can grow up to 20 feet in length and can weigh 75 kilograms.
Transect work is not for the faint of heart, and not just because you might run into some of these creatures. The field technicians of the survey − who mostly moonlight as hunters − are exceptionally fit, scrabbling up and down uneven, dense terrain and across rivers in often unforgiving weather. One transect was so remote it took a day of walking through the rainforest to reach the start point, beyond the hunting grounds of any community. Not only had no one ever studied this area, but there were be parts of the forest where the only prior human disturbances in thousands of years had been the occasional nomadic Penan family wandering through.
Because our technicians know the land better than anyone, they were able to identify animals based on signs and sounds, applying their exceptional hunting skills to acadamic use. And because they had a good and steady income for their work on the survey, they weren’t reliant on hunting for their livelihood during this time.
Despite the dizzying array of wildlife in the area, the remote interior of Sarawak seldom attracts research or tourism dollars and is instead slated for logging with little thought given to nature and the people that rely on it here. Licenses are doled out to companies with incomplete ground research and woefully inadequate consultations conducted with communities that live there.
Flying in the face of these environmental impact assessments, communities went ahead and collected more than 5,000 transect data entries for the survey. The forests are simply teeming with wildlife, including 39 rare, threatened and endangered species, many corresponding with populations in the national park across the Indonesian border. The results are compelling, undeniable evidence that the Baram must be protected. It is not hyperbolic to say that undiscovered species will be wiped out before they are found if logging is permitted. In an extinction and climate crisis, we need more work like the Baram Heritage Survey that understands that placing traditional ecological knowledge in the driver’s seat yields the best results.
The communities looked not only at wildlife, but on community reliance on forest and river resources and land-use management. What resulted is a 90-page atlas tailored to each community, documenting rare, threatened and endangered species, high conservation value areas, hunting maps, and a clear breakdown of opinions about conservation of land. These atlases can be used by the communities to challenge social impact assessments that write off their reliance on forest resources as unimportant, categorizing hunting and fishing as hobby pastimes rather than essential pursuits for nutrition and survival.
The survey shows that local input into the design and execution of scientific and social research can garner spectacular results. Hiring local communities to conduct the work means challenges like the COVID-19 pandemic didn’t extinguish the project, and the normal barriers to working in remote communities were not a factor. We’re looking forward to further examining the results and creating more opportunities for research and investment in this landscape of incalculable value.