Paddling through Borneo’s peat swamp forest

Sitting in a tiny canoe surrounded by dense swamp forest and listening to the cacophony of birds and insects, I found myself wondering what sorts of creatures lived in the water beneath me.

Luckily I hadn’t yet seen the photos of the gigantic crocodiles that are known to lurk hidden in the bushes…

I knew that orang-utans and proboscis monkeys lived in the trees above my head and the prospect of hearing or seeing these endangered species filled me with tingly excitement as I inhaled the verdant, exotic smells.

A last remnant

I was visiting a Fauna & Flora International (FFI) project site in the Ketapang District of West Kalimantan, Indonesian Borneo. The forest all around me was filled with a staggering array of wildlife.

The area was also one of the last remnants of peat swamp forest in the lowland area near the coast. As I was paddled along by a local fisherman, I learned why this kind of forest is so important.

Peat is a type of water-logged soil that stores a huge amount of carbon. It is made up of trees that grew thousands of years ago – the carbon is trapped thanks to the water.

Passionate about building community support

We came out into a huge, watery clearing, which silenced us all. I let out a gasp as two large hornbills gracefully swooped directly over our canoe.

They were a male and female that were courting, gently gliding over the water together in a silent display of what I might call love if I let myself anthropomorphize. I managed to snap a few shots before they flew off into the denser forest in the distance.

In fact, I couldn’t keep up with the number of birds we saw while out in the canoe – our guide was a devoted bird-lover and proudly recited their Latin names as we saw them. As a former village leader, he was passionate about building community support for forest conservation.

FFI is helping him and his village, as well as two other nearby villages, to protect the forest we were meandering through. The carbon-rich habitat could bring in urgently needed income from international carbon markets, which could pay for forest protection and community development. Forest clearance and peat drainage for agriculture, from small-scale rice to large palm oil plantations, is a major threat here.

A pair of fluffy arms

We started to paddle back, heading back up the river. All of a sudden, our guide shouted “orang-utan!” I swivelled around, desperately trying to spot it at the top of a tree along the river.

“There! It’s a male!” The tree was shaking and I squinted through the top branches to see the fluffy red arms of the orang-utan.

It was alone – they are solitary creatures – and hiding from us. Sadly, these gentle apes have become frightened of humans, who often kill or steal them for the pet trade.

I didn’t manage to see the mysterious male’s face – to glimpse his fleshy cheekpads or his human-like eyes. But just having seen his burly limbs made me proud to be working for an organisation that is working tirelessly to protect his home.

We continued further upriver and all of a sudden the guide whispered “proboscis monkeys!”

I couldn’t believe my luck! I certainly hadn’t raised my expectations to see either species, let alone both!

There were two adults in one of the larger trees around, watching us avidly. These were even harder to spot, being better camouflaged than the orang-utan.

After these two primate experiences, I was more than satisfied. Except, what was round another bend but a large colony of long-tailed macaques? Though not an endangered species, it was still a delight to watch the nimble, cheeky monkeys jump from branch to branch.

Inspired and inspiring

The sun was setting, casting shadows across the water. I felt tired – not a physical tiredness, but more a mental one. Taking in so much in just a few hours was certainly different from my normal desk job.

Though FFI’s project there has only just started and there is much more to do, I came away inspired. The team and the villagers are keen to work together to find pragmatic ways to save this rich forest.

The concept of helping these tiny communities tap into a global market for carbon credits is both innovative and challenging. But I am confident that we will pull it off, managing to protect not only the forest, but its wildlife, carbon and the livelihoods it supports.

Watch the video below to learn more about the project’s achievements so far:

With thanks to British Airways and their Communities and Conservation Initiative for supplying complimentary flights for this trip