Saturday, 24 November 2007

An Eurasian in Borneo

Believe it or not, the most abundant and visible birds today in our towns, villages and farms, in fact anywhere people live, are not native to Borneo. The Eurasian Tree Sparrow as it is recognised by birders the world over or Ciak Rumah or Pipit Rumah in Malay, is in fact a relatively new arrival in Borneo. I remembered that it was not included in the first edition of Bertram E. Smythies' Birds of Borneo book which I had often borrowed from my uncle as a boy, in fact as any respectable catapult-carrying kampung boy I would have known if there were sparrows living in people's houses then! I had listened enthralled to my dad telling us how he used to trapped "house sparrows" in pre-World War II Singapore!

I believe, it was in the early 1970s that I first set eyes on this species on Labuan Island, and it was much later that I saw a small flock near the port in Kota Kinabalu, from that time its spread was just phenomenal - until today there's hardly any corner of settled Borneo that it isn't found.

Passer montanus was originally native to temperate Europe and Asia but had spread to almost
all over the world including Australia and the US of A where it was said to have been introduced. In their original range Eurasian Tree Sparrows prefer rural areas and nest in trees and hedges while cities and towns are occupied by their relatives the House Sparrows. However in S E Asia where there are no native "house sparrows" they have taken on that role.

Ironically, while the immigrants to this region have continued to thrive and flourish, even to the extend of becoming pests in ricefields and in poultry and ducks farms (where they steal feeds meant for domestic fowls) their population in Europe had declined drastically and in the UK it had been classified as a Red List species, i.e. a species that's "globally threatened, whose population or range has declined rapidly in recent years, or that have declined histrorically and not shown a substantial recent recovery"!

How to Skin a Bambangan

Most Sabahans, Bruneians, and I think many Sarawakians, as well as some across the Indonesian border, would recognise this round cannonball sized fruit. However this is a rare fruit in the East Coast of Sabah and many people there find it rather strange and would not know how to open it up. My step-by-step photos show the correct way to remove the thick tough skin with a sharp knife.

The Bambangan, also known as Membangan (Mangifera panjang) is a member of the Anacardiaceae Family of plants to which the Mango also belongs. The huge trees are found scattered in rural backyards and farms and only fruit once a year, flowering usually around March and ripening in August. Most fruits are rather sour even when ripe and they are mainly made into pickles or used in cooking. However some can be quite sweet and aromatic and can be eaten fresh. When in season, tamus or weekly markets and streetsides and roadside stalls, especially along the KK-Ranau Road would be well stocked with these fruits as well as jars of the preserve (or jaruk bambangan).

Sunday, 18 November 2007

Midnight Horror!

I have often come across this interesting tree with its clusters of big long pods which rattles in the wind when dry but haven’t known its name until quite recently. And I used to just think of it as the Rattle Tree.

It came as a surprise that it’s actually called the Midnight Horror, the Tree of Damocles or Broken Bones Tree all of which suggest a sinister character of the plant. The first and third names rather baffle me, while the second name clearly alludes to the pods which look like big hanging swords like the one that supposedly hung over Damocles.

On googling for Midnight Horror, the explanation that nocturnal travellers passing by the tree were often startled when they looked upwards and saw what seems to be swords pointing down at them seems rather weak, some explained the pods looked like vultures with drooping wings. The white winged seeds which floats to the ground on ripening are said to resemble broken bones, thus the other name. My own experience is that people passing by a tree with ripe pods especially at night would certainly be alarmed when a sudden gust of wind causes the pods to make a loud rattling sound.

(Photo: The winged white seeds look like graceful butterflies when they float down to the ground.)

Menacing names aside this tree is in fact a beneficial tree whose bark and seeds are used for alleviating pain and counteracting inflammations and fever in Oriental medicine.The Chinese thus have a beautiful name – mu hu die or Tree Butterfly (木蝴蝶) for this herbal plant.

The scientific name of this quite common tree is Oroxylum indicum (Family: Bignoniaceae). It has a big natural range, being found in China, India, Burma, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, Philippines and Indonesia.

This is my favourite photo of this tree with a conveniently perched Wallace's Hawk-eagle as an indication of the size of the pods.

Here's the original story of Damocles' Sword, in its original language....
Quamquam hic quidem tyrannus ipse iudicavit, quam esset beatus. Nam cum quidam ex eius adsentatoribus, Damocles, commemoraret in sermone copias eius, opes, maiestatem.... OK, OK, here it is in English:

Dionysius was a fourth century B.C. tyrant of Syracuse. To all appearances he was very rich and comfortable, with all the luxuries money could buy, tasteful clothing and jewelry, and delectable food. He even had court flatterers (adsentatores) to inflate his ego. One of these ingratiators was the court sycophant Damocles. Damocles used to make comments to the king about his wealth and luxurious life. One day when Damocles complimented the tyrant on his abundance and power, Dionysius turned to Damocles and said, "If you think I'm so lucky, how would you like to try out my life?"

Damocles readily agreed, and so Dionysius ordered everything to be prepared for Damocles to experience what life as Dionysius was like.

Damocles was enjoying himself immensely until he noticed a sharp sword hovering over his head, which was suspended from the ceiling by a horse hair. This, the tyrant explained to Damocles, was what life as ruler was really like.

Damocles, alarmed and quickly revising his idea of what made up a good life, asked to be excused. He then eagerly returned to his poorer, but safer life.

Quoted from this website:

Saturday, 17 November 2007

Pangolin - Eater of Ants

To most Borneans the meat of wild animals used to be a natural and  a considerable part of daily fare, but today with the near-decimation of our jungles, bushmeat (a term that seems to have gained popularity nowadays) is harder to come by and is still a very welcome occasional treat. One particularly relished meat was that of the pangolin (sometimes called the scaly anteater) which in the old days were quite common in jungles as well as in rubber and cocoa plantations. (This photo of a mother with young riding piggy-back on her tail was taken in a cocoa plantation in Tawau around 1980)
In those days hunters do not go out to hunt pangolins in particular, usually their quarry were larger animals like the sambar deer (payau), muntjak (kijang) or wild pigs. Pangolins were sort of  like “side-catch” together with civets (musang), pelandoks and the equally tasty porcupines. People also take the occasional pangolin that they accidentally met. At this rate of “harvesting” there was little danger of wiping out any species.
However when people are overcome by greed, species like the pangolin are all in danger and become threatened with extinction. After having over-exploited their own pangolins to the point of virtual extinction in their regions, the Chinese are buying these animals from other countries where different species are found. All too often we are bombarded by the media with news of truckloads of pangolins being seized at national boundaries by wildlife enforcement people – truckloads – hundreds of these poor animals being sent to their slaughter. These reports were only of those cases when the enforcers were lucky, one dreads to think of those that got away, how many thousands were and are still being taken?
Borneo is not spared this illegal activity, and although we hear less about it it doesn’t mean that there is less threat here. Here’s a recent Sabah case – see the attached newspaper clipping. (Click it to see a larger image and read the newspaper report.)
Personally, not so long ago I have heard of illegal wildlife procurers going around oil palm plantations in the East Coast of Sabah offering up to RM60 per kilo of live pangolin to workers. When I got wind of this I immediately told my staff and workers that anyone caught dealing with these criminals risk immediate dismissal.
I have no objection to people catching (non-protected) wild animals in plantations and farms for their own dinner, but doing so for financial profit (supporting illegal trafficking) at the expence of the animal is definitely not acceptable. I admit that I have tasted stewed pangolins in the past and unashamedly totally enjoyed it (I can tell you it tastes like porcupine, which is much nicer than chickens!), but those were the days when it seemed it would take another Ice Age to make these animals extinct!
Here are some facts about the species of pangolin found in our region:
Species name: Manis javanica
Common English name: Sunda Pangolin or Javan, also sometimes Malayan Pangolin
Local names: Tenggiling (Malay), bulukun or mangkotong (Kadazan/Dusun), I think it's called bulukun in Murut also, while in Iban it's Tenggiling. Please correct me if I am wrong. In Chinese it is chuan san jia 穿山甲 which roughly means mountain-digging amour!

Saturday, 10 November 2007

Green Crested Lizard

DUE to its ability to change colour the relatively common Green Crested Lizard (Bronchocela cristatella) is often mistakenly called a chameleon by many. I’ve even seen a photo of it so labelled in a display in one of our state parks! Also by the same virtue of its seemingly magical ability, many Borneons, being a superstitious lot, unfortunately believe that this shy lizard is highly venomous and so should be killed on sight or at least avoided.

Of course, myth and mistaken identity aside, this is a perfectly harmless insect-eating lizard that is not closely related to the true chameleons of Africa.

I found this young specimen in the process of shedding its old skin along a forest road.