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Chinese traders came for rhinoceros horn, the aromatic wood called gaharu, and birds' nests for soup. Later, Muslim and Portuguese traders joined them to export pepper and gold. Britain and the Netherlands controlled the island during the colonial period of the 19th and early 20th centuries, when loggers began cutting the tropical hardwood forest covering the island. The current political division of Borneo—the southern three-quarters belongs to Indonesia, most of the rest to Malaysia, with slivers that make up Brunei—reflects alliances of the British and Dutch colonial era, which ended with independence after World War II.

In recent decades, companies from Europe, the United States, and Australia have drilled for abundant oil and natural gas and strip-mined coal. There are mansions from Amsterdam to Melbourne, from Singapore to Houston, that were built with wealth from Borneo. Mansions built with Borneo wealth stand in Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur, too, because Indonesia and Malaysia, or at least the political and economic elite, have been the biggest plunderers of all.

A different kind of richness has attracted others, including the great naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace, who spent time here in the mid-1850s while he developed theories important to modern understanding of evolution and biogeography. Wallace collected more than a thousand species new to science, including Rajah Brooke's birdwing. Scientists have continued making discoveries ever since, demonstrating that the rain forest of Borneo ranks with the most biologically diverse places on Earth.

Borneo has more than 15,000 known species of plants, including more than 2,500 species of orchids. Southeast Asia's lowland forests, including Borneo's, are the tallest tropical rain forests in the world, and may have as many as 240 species of trees on a single four-acre site. Borneo is home to the world's largest flower, the world's largest orchid, the world's largest carnivorous plants, and the world's largest moth. In the multilevel structure of Borneo's rain forest lives the world's largest collection of gliding animals: Apart from several species of flying squirrels there are flying lizards, flying colugos, flying frogs, and—the stuff of nightmares for some—flying snakes.

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