I wolf down my breakfast. I can hear the rumble in the distance and I want to get there in time. The last spoonful shoved into an already full mouth and I am out the door. The dogs jump up, their nails click on the veranda floor, and chase me along the dirt track. We get there in time to see a giant yellow bulldozer pushing red earth into the swamp. It pivots, rumbles up the hill, scoops up more earth and trundles back down to choke the swamp and all the life in it. Slowly we watch as the green is blotted out by red. And finally, the cracking and creaking as the Berembang tree fruitlessly resists the iron claws that push it to the ground. It’s over. The terrain is completely changed.
The air is thick with the smell of upturned earth and the dogs go wandering here and there, sniffing excitedly. The blazing sun coaxes the workers down from their vehicles and off to have their lunch break. No longer fearing that I will be told to clear off, I walk up to the metal beasts. They smell of grease and diesel. Mud has clotted here and there on their rusting paintwork. I move away from them. There is nothing but red earth speckled with little stones. Turning them over I find some clear ones and others with pretty shapes and colours. I stash my treasure in my pocket. It’s getting really hot without the shade the torn trees used to provide so I follow the dogs to the stream. It used to run clear and then dark into the swamp but now is was a milky red. I can’t hunt for tadpoles or shrimp here anymore.
We decide to seek refuge from the heat in a nearby durian orchard. I have to be careful because once a durian fell on my leg! There was no one sitting in the guard house, a platform with thatched roofing raised on stilts, watching the orchard, so I let the dogs eat one or two fallen fruits. They prise the cracked skin open with their paws skilfully avoiding the sharp spikes and feast greedily on the flesh within. Dog breath is only slightly better than durian breath.
Suddenly we hear shouts and I panic thinking that we have been caught! But then there is the sound of groaning branches and whooping men. Too curious to keep eating, we quietly make our way towards the noises. Where the orchard meets the rainforest, we glimpse swinging trunks and the odd wrinkly bottom of a pygmy elephant. The villagers who worked in the orchard are yelling and shooing the elephants away from their precious durian trees. The hungry elephants hold their ground. A big one even loses his temper a bit and rushes at a villager. For a moment I think they might shoot him. But at the last moment the elephant has a change of heart and turns around, loping back into the rainforest.
Excitement over, the dogs rush back to their feast. Worried we might get in trouble I pick up a few durians and call the dogs out of the orchard. We go into the rainforest and follow the trail of flattened ferns and plants until I hear the familiar groaning of branches. The elephants are in a muddy clearing. I put the half-eaten durians down except for a whole one. While the dogs descend on them I pick my way towards the giants. There are four pygmy elephants; a mother, father, big brother and baby girl. I throw the durian towards the baby and hide among the roots of a strangling fig tree.
The brother picks it up with his trunk but the father gives him a bit of a shove and he drops it. The baby then picks the durian up with her trunk, rolls it in mud and eats it whole! Just like that. Wow. I watch and watch until finally the family move off, parting the vines and disappearing behind the green curtain. I turn around to find the dogs lying in the shade in a durian induced stupor. My dogs love durian almost as much as elephants do.
This story is based on the real clashes that take place between the pygmy elephants and locals. Illegal logging and fires for palm oil plantations and agriculture fragment continuous forests threatening the elephants’ nomadic life.
As consumers, let’s avoid purchasing products containing palm oil. Check your processed foods and cooking oil (usually labelled as vegetable oil or fat), cosmetics (labelled Elaeis guineensis) and detergents. Choose furniture, wooden and paper products that are certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) to support selective logging and reforested wildlife corridors. We can also choose ecotourism to provide local communities with an alternative way to generate income while protecting the Borneo rainforest.