Published: November 2008

Borneo

An Orangutang gazes at its reflection.

Borneo's Moment of Truth

The majestic forests are vanishing in smoke and sawdust, but there's still hope for the island's fabled biodiversity—if the palm oil rush can be slowed.

By Mel White
Photograph by Mattias Klum

First, I will tell you about the Borneo of your dreams.

The day starts well before dawn with the lunatic hooting of gibbons, the rain forest's alarm clock, lovers and rivals wooing and warning each other from the treetops in an urgent ape language that I, their terrestrial relative, can only guess at.

From my camp a creekside trail leads into forest past trees whose massive trunks rise a hundred feet to the lowest branches. As sunlight makes its feeble way through the dense green canopy, another primate, a long-tailed macaque, walks along the stream below, hoping for a breakfast of fish or frog. Whether it's successful or not, its expression of perpetual irritation will never change. No sooner has the monkey disappeared upstream than a pair of short-tailed mongooses bound down to the bank, seemingly more intent on fun than food.

At a clearing, a pair of rhinoceros hornbills fly to a fruiting tree on loud-whooshing wings and begin to feed. Mostly black, nearly the size of turkeys, they have huge red-and-yellow casques on their bills that gleam in the sun like polished lacquer. The birds outshine everything else in the forest until a hand-size shape flits erratically past at waist level, deep velvety black, but also crimson and electric green, screaming neon green, a color as gaudy as the name of this creature: Rajah Brooke's birdwing. At almost seven inches across, it's one of the largest butterflies in the world. If the rhinoceros hornbill doesn't take your breath away—if the Rajah Brooke's birdwing doesn't—have someone hold your wrist and check for a pulse.

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