Borneoculars: Observations from a Scientific Expedition in Borneo

Guest Author: Nicole Kravec

Indiana Jones would be proud of the entire scientific expedition team.  For two weeks we trekked through the jungles of Malaysia’s Imbak Canyon, the “biological gene bank” in the heart of the Malaysian state of Sabah in northern Borneo.  It was one of the best – and most adventurous – trips of my life.

The all-day drive to Base Camp was filled with a smile-inducing sense of adventure and a deeper dive into the conservation issues I so craved to understand.  Several hours after our departure ceremony in Sabah’s capital, Kota Kinabalu (aka “KK”), the trucks drove down paved roads through different oil palm plantations.

Oil palm goes into a wide variety of products, including these.  The growing demand for many of these products around the world is increasing production of oil palm, and, as a result, devastating local terrestrial ecosystems and species throughout Borneo (including the orang-utan) among other parts of the world.

The paved roads eventually turned to dirt as we went deeper into the “Heart of Borneo”, and the adventure picked up.  We crossed a river under moonlight just before reaching Base Camp.

I learned an uber-apt new Malay word early on during the subsequent 2-day hike to the Sub-Base Camp: Pacat, aka leechThey were EVERYWHERE for the expedition.  In the wooden shower stalls, in belly buttons and crotches, in sleeping bags, in the toilets, in our ramen dinner when mountain climbing, in my pockets!  I am now a firm believer in the power of pantyhose as the best leech-protective clothing; it worked wonders.

My mission on the expedition?  To investigate and analyze the area’s potential for ecotourism.  There is hope for the site to eventually become a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  I was part of a team of 8, although altogether there were about 100 people on the expedition.  I was the only non-Malay.

Each day involved 6-10 hours of trekking: Sometimes via boat to local kampung  villages hours away; sometimes trekking (and slipping) in the pouring rain; sometimes literally blazing new trails; sometimes climbing mountains; sometimes wading through rivers to check out waterfalls.

Food was delivered to the group daily by helicopter, and we had our blood pressure checked at least twice a day.  Every night different teams would present their findings – what a rush to see newly discovered species, and to see different types of frogs, snakes, orchids, and other jungle-ular goodies!  I loved collapsing into sound slumber each night.  The beds (tree-branch frames with tarp wrapped around) turned out to be surprisingly comfortable.

On the way back to KK, our truck had to cross a log bridge that had been steadily crumbling since our arrival.  On the morning of our drive out, it collapsed.  Luckily there was a “long way” to take back to the capital.

I have left some implications out of my story to let you draw your own conclusions. Terima kasih banyak banyak (“thank you very much” in Malay) for reading and I look forward to any comments or questions to discuss!

About the author: Perpetually curious about the nexus between genuine environmental conservation, community wellbeing and tourism, Nicole has worked with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural (UNESCO) World Heritage Centre’s Sustainable Tourism Programme, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), Harvard Business School and the Campi ya Kanzi community eco-lodge in Kenya. She has lived in/visited 6 continents and attended Cornell University and The Fletcher School of International Affairs.

5 thoughts on “Borneoculars: Observations from a Scientific Expedition in Borneo

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