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Later I take a small boat down a broad river called the Kinabatangan, then up a side channel as narrow as an alleyway. A troop of proboscis monkeys climb through the branches overhead, where they will spend the night in tall trees beside the water. The potbellied male, ridiculously outsize nose hanging from his face like a ripe fruit, is so ugly he's endearing, in a kind of bibulous-old-uncle way. Most of the pointy-nosed females under his watch cradle young at their breasts. Silvered leaf monkeys look down from above, and a bearded pig stands just inside the forest to watch us pass. As the boat drifts below an overhanging branch, a four-foot-long water monitor lizard drops into the water.

A Borneo pygmy elephant enters the river and swims in front of the boat, blowing like a whale. "Pygmy" it may be in comparison to other elephants, but when it emerges dark and shining on the opposite bank, it's as if an island is rising from the sea. I see where it's going: A herd of around 30 animals—a long-tusked bull, many adult females, and various young—munch tangled vines beside the main river, expressionless as statues and only marginally more animated.

This is the mythic Borneo, the island of the world's imagination, and it's all as wondrous as it sounds. But if you want to see the real Borneo, the Borneo of the first decade of the 21st century, it would be good to be the crested serpent-eagle perched in a tree across the river. Then you could soar high above the Kinabatangan and see how quickly the unruly forest gives way to neatly planted rows of oil palm trees, stretching for mile after mile in all directions. The palm plantation is lush and green, and the arching fronds of the trees give it an exotic beauty, and for the incomparable biodiversity of Borneo it is inexorable death.

Set between the South China and Java Seas, bisected by the Equator, the island of Borneo has served throughout human history mostly to have its natural resources exploited—many would say plundered—by a succession of peoples from around the world.

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