During the autumn of 1991, a vast cloud of smoke hung over much of Sumatra, Malaysia, Singapore and Borneo. In parts of Indonesia, the sun was invisible. In Singapore, for months, people had trouble breathing when the wind blew the wrong way.
Destructive logging operations that dried out the land, and fires sometimes set as part of those operations, coupled with a four-month drought to produce blazing infernos, reaching 500 to 600 degrees Celsius (900 to 1100°F), in the forests of the Indonesian islands of Sumatra, Sulawesi and Kalimantan - the Indonesian part of Borneo.
Yet not far away, to the accompaniment of a symphony of unfamiliar wilderness sounds, I observed a large butterfly of exquisite beauty soar and glide in an unspoiled rain forest. Riding the air currents, only occasionally moving its transparent, black-dotted wings, this elegant, lovely creature seemed as unreal as its lush, otherworldly surroundings.
The setting was the Batu Apoi Forest Reserve in the Temburong district of the Muslim sultanate of Brunei, also on the island of Borneo. The State of Brunei Darussalam, as it's formally known - the name means Brunei, Abode of Peace - is a small country made up of two coast-and-jungle enclaves measuring 5765 square kilometers (2226 square miles) altogether, with a population a little over a quarter of a million. Although a regional power centuries ago, when it ruled all of Borneo and much of the Philippines, Brunei today is a tiny newcomer among nation-states, achieving its independence from almost 100 years as a British protectorate only in 1984. Best known for its oil wealth, the sultanate is also building a reputation as a protector of its natural resources.
Very few people, except for indigenous Iban hunters arid, recently, a few respectful scientists, have ever set foot in this rain forest. Man has not yet managed to spoil the environment here, thanks to the conservation policies of the Brunei government. And because of westerly winds, this area was also largely spared the suffocating layer of smoke that last year engulfed much of Borneo and the neighboring islands.
Batu Apoi is a remarkable place. "Here," says Dr. David Edwards, a biologist from the University of Brunei Darussalam (UBD), "in an area 100 meters long by 100 meters wide [2½ acres], there are more than 550 trees with a trunk diameter of 10 centimeters [4 inches] and over, representing more than 120 different species."
Nigel Stork of London's Natural History Museum discovered 400 beetle species living in just one tree in Batu Apoi. Indeed, a single acre (4000 square meters) of tropical rain forest like this one can be home to about 20,000 different kinds of insects and 100 varieties of plants; a typical 1000-hectare area (2560 acres) may house 1500 species of flowering plants, 750 kinds of trees, 400 bird species and 150 varieties of butterflies.
In the middle of this virtually inaccessible reserve, UBD and Britain's Royal Geographical Society (RGS) have established what could be called an "academy of the rain forest." Its real name is The Kuala Belalong Field Studies Center and its initial phase - a partnership between UBD and RGS, under the patronage of the Prince of Wales - is called the Brunei Rain Forest Project.
"We're here to provide a scientific database that will allow UBD to manage the Center as its own preserve," said the Earl of Cranbrook, leader of the project, a biologist and an expert on Southeast Asian forests. "So we're coming to grips with certain basic elements of the biology and physical geography of the area, as well as putting in weather stations, rain-gauging - all sorts of things they're likely to need for future research."
Spaced along the Belalong River, with steep, forest-covered slopes rising on both sides, are six wooden chalet-style houses on stilts. From the air, their roofs are barely visible through the tree canopy; on the ground, they are joined by wooden walkways that prevent the vegetation from being trampled. The Center also includes a large laboratory, a computer room and a dining room where two cheerful Indonesian cooks, Yulis and Martinah, serve a variety of regional dishes.
The Center can be reached only by outboard-powered longboats expertly handled by Iban tribesmen. The boat trip involves maneuvering through 25 stretches of rapids, and can take anywhere from a dry half-hour, when the river is low and the skies are clear, to a very wet two and a half hours, amid roaring white water and a drenching downpour.
Above the river banks, trees more than 60 meters (200 feet) tall cling to topsoil that is mere centimeters deep. The river affords one of the few opportunities to view the giant trees from top to bottom since, once inside the rain forest's dense greenery, you can rarely see the treetops, and still less the sky.
The boat trip also offers a rare opportunity to feel the warmth of the tropical sun on your skin. Most of the scientists and students at the Center become fit as Gurkhas because of the physical demands of their work - but they remain paler than mid-winter Londoners in the gloom of the rain forest.
Here, struggling in the wet in a remote corner of a Southeast Asian island, it would be easy to lose track of the ultimate aims of this innovative, cross-disciplinary effort in the jungle: to educate the world about the value of the tropical rain forests, to study and to preserve them.
"The world's tropical rain forests represent one of the most fragile, most diverse, and least understood of all natural ecosystems," Britain's Prince Charles, patron of the project, pointed out at its inauguration. "They are also currently perhaps the most threatened."
And British Secretary of State for the Environment Chris Patten, now governor of Hong Kong, offered some good reasons why such biological diversity should be protected: "Species of plants and animals are disappearing fast, some of them before we have even registered their existence. As natural products have been a major source of medicines and pharmaceuticals, we should be investigating the other shelves in the larder, rather than sweeping things off them."
In fact, about one-quarter of the prescription medicines on the market today are derived from plants, but less than one percent of tropical rain forest species have been examined for possible medicinal value. Seventy percent of plants identified as useful in the treatment of cancer are found only in rain forests - which are being destroyed worldwide at a rate of 32 hectares (80 acres) every minute.
The floor of the Batu Apoi rain forest is crawling with life: leeches, millipedes, centipedes, scorpions, ants great and small, yellow-throated king cobras and pit vipers - as well as the sodden Ph.D. students and full-fledged scientists who bravely attempt to conserve them.
Snakes, though very abundant - and welcome as a good indicator of undisturbed rain forest - mostly keep out of sight. The leeches, the wetness, and the steepness of the terrain are the scientists' biggest problems.
Straight-and-level walking is impossible here; there is hardly a straight or level stretch anywhere within the 50 square kilometers (20 square miles) of the reserve. You climb, slip and skid along the forest slopes in a strange twilight broken only by rare shafts of sunlight where a giant tree has crashed to the ground and left a temporary hole in the forest canopy.
Although the Equator passes across the island of Borneo just four degrees south of Brunei Darussalam, there is no intense heat in Batu Apoi: Temperatures hover in the 30's Celsius (around 80°F). But there is 100 percent humidity, and any physical effort is enough to make the sweat glands pump furiously. Even without rain, one is constantly dripping wet - hair, glasses, instruments, cameras are all wet. Clothes never seem to dry out.
Perhaps the wettest of all the scientists is Alan Dykes, a tall, lanky Ph.D. candidate and physical geographer from the University of Bristol in England. On the go day and night, Dykes's task is nothing less than finding out what rain does to the rain forest - specifically, what it does to the topography and drainage patterns of the area.
One of his studies is a perfect hands-on lesson in what happens to rain-forest soil when it is disturbed. On a slope, Dykes fenced in with solid timber three plots of jungle, each 2½ meters by five meters (eight by 16 feet), in order to create controlled areas.
In the first plot, he cleared out all the living and dead plant matter on and in the soil, leaving just bare earth. In the second, all the loose leaves and branches were taken out, leaving behind just roots and soil. In the third, he left the ordinary forest floor undisturbed - rotting leaves, roots, everything.
After a heavy rain, we went to observe the results. From the first cleared plot, a large bagful of sediment, so heavy we could hardly lift it, had washed out into a measuring device. From the second area, not nearly as much topsoil had been lost. From the third, only a large fistful of soil had been washed off, demonstrating that leaves and roots are perfect protection for the scarce few centimeters of topsoil that are both characteristic and essential in a rain forest.
After those precious five to 10 centimeters (two to four inches) of topsoil are gone, absolutely nothing grows in the underlying clay or on the rock below. Dykes's experiment makes it clear that logging, unless carefully controlled, would eventually make a desert out of such an area. An estimated one billion people around the world are now suffering the effects of this kind of exploitation in terms of lost water resources, homes, food, fuel and other raw materials.
Dr. Joe Charles of the Department of Biology of UBD, assisted by Samhan bin Nyawa, warden of the Field Studies Center and expert woodsman, studies the distribution and abundance of mammals and birds in the forests at Belalong.
"We cover the whole range of animals," said Charles. "Mouse deer, Bornean gibbons, langurs, civets, sun bears, barking deer, hornbills, giant squirrels, pheasants, pig-tailed macaques - whatever large animal happens to come our way."
I told him I didn't see any animals in the forest - I just heard things. "You have to be theje at first light," said Charles. "Sometimes you just need to sit still at some vantage point. Yesterday I saw a barking deer just 10 meters [30 feet] away from me. It came right up, not knowing I was there. It was a beautiful male, lovely horns. Suddenly it stopped in its tracks. It began to clack its teeth - an alarm call. Abruptly, it bounded away, barking. Then it stopped and roared, and shot off."
Another striking animal here is the giant squirrel, about one meter (three feet) long from nose to tail-tip. Flying lizards are also common. Said Charles: "The lizards are very cryptic - the same color as the bark of a tree. You'll never see one unless it moves. It has two sheets of skin between the forelegs and hind legs which it uses to maneuver in the air when it launches itself from a high place to lower ground."
From the cat family, there are the marten, the Malay weasel and the clouded leopard, which is on the endangered species list. And there are monkeys - invisible in the canopy but very audible.
Carlo Hansen, intrepid curator and researcher from the Botanical Museum of the University of Copenhagen, is there to study the taxonomy of Melastomataceae, a plant family better known as the Singapore rhododendrons. Wearing shorts and a beat-up pair of old sneakers without socks, clinging to roots, trees and lianas, Hansen climbs straight up and down the slipperiest of slopes searching for plants. While his colleagues wear boots and long trousers tucked into socks for protection against leeches, Hansen prefers just to pull the leeches off.
"There are," said Hansen, "perhaps 50 species of Singapore rhododendron in the area. It never ceases to amaze me when I return to the jungle how few flowers one actually sees. You know the place is teeming with life, but 99 percent of it you cannot see. Most of it, of course, happens up in the canopy. That's another world."
Another scientist, Dr. Kamariah Abu Salim of UBD, is working with tribal medicine men to extract and record some of their wisdom before it is lost. "The Malay people still use traditional medicine," she says, "but the Iban, the people of the rain forest, now just go to the hospital, since it is effective and free. One has to be very careful in such situations or irreplaceable information gets lost."
So far Abu Salim and her informants have identified 162 plants with nutritional or medicinal uses. "I've brought with me medicine men from three different tribes," she said. "They just walk through the forest and say, 'Oh, this is the plant we use for so-and-so.' And we collect it. Then they give me the local name. So far I've collected more than a hundred species of plants that haven't yet been classified scientifically on a species level, but only identified on that indigenous level."
Dr. David Edwards of UBD, deputy director of the Brunei Rain Forest Project, is doing a survey of ferns in the Belalong area: "We have something like 400 different ferns in Brunei and about 250 in Belalong. So far there are about four species I cannot identify, so there's a good chance those are new."
Edwards's fascination with ferns is easy to understand. "They're an ancient group, about 350 million years old. They have outlasted just about everything. They were there before the great cycad forests of the dinosaur era, which gave way to the flowering plant forests we have in the tropics now. The ferns successfully lingered on in dark and damp areas - the latter restriction because ferns need free water for their sperm to swim through."
As the scientists worked, two artists were recording remarkably life-like images of the rain forest. But the one thing their paintings could not capture was the amazing sounds of the forest.
At dawn every morning, amid myriad sounds from near and far, the voice of one lonely bird caught our attention, as it attempted a simple melody that it never seemed to complete. Trumpet-like blasts from a type of cicada began soon afterward, while others whined like high-speed chain saws. Other insects just whirred on anonymously. Throughout the morning, unseen gibbons whooped and screeched from the treetops, while punctually every evening, the "Six O'Clock Cicada" let its presence be known - just before the hour.
What are the Center's findings at this stage? "Most of our findings so far are fairly superficial," said David Edwards. "They're limited to things like unusual plants and animals. The more scientific findings will come from the longer-term studies: Things like Colin Pendry's study of nutrient cycling and Alan Dykes's study of water run-off and hydrology. That's going to be more important in the longer term, and that's the sort of work we want to encourage in the future - rather than pure survey work. These people will remain associated with our university after the short-term study is over."
Another highly sophisticated new tool will ease the task of future visiting scientists: John Wills and Kam Tin Seong have set up a computer-based Geographical Information System - a way of putting all the accumulated information onto one map.
"First we enter all the topographical data," Wills says. "Then, overlaid, come all the other facts from the scientists about soil, vegetation, climate, animal life and so on. This means that the next line of scientists will be presented with all the groundwork - and their own work will be added in turn."
The University of Brunei Darussalam is now developing its own research plan for the next 10 years, involving scholars from all over the world.
"What we want to do is to create a major international center of excellence for rain forest research and education," said Professor Sharom Ahmat of UBD. "The Sultanate of Brunei will ensure that there is no human encroachment in the area, and [the Field Studies Center] is going to be adjacent to the national park that will now be created here."
Another task is to win the support of Bruneians themselves, who generally have little interest in their forest. Already, though, groups of about 14 Bruneian schoolchildren at a time make their way to the Center four days a week, accompanied by teachers. They are taken on trails through the forest where the wonders of nature are pointed out and explained to them. At stops along the way, they make drawings and do other projects.
Outfitted with life jackets, the children are also taken upriver in longboats. "From the reports we have been getting back," says Catriona Prebble, Brunei project officer of the RCS, "it seems to be extremely popular, and the camp is booked up for ages! The children seem to be enjoying themselves thoroughly, as well as learning, which is very encouraging."
In light of the unrestrained destruction of rain forests in many countries around the world, I asked Lord Cran-brook whether he saw any impending threat to the Brunei rain forest around us.
Said he: "Quite the reverse. The Sultan's government has declared its firm intention to dedicate the whole of this Upper Timburong Valley, including the Belalong Valley, as a national park. This means an area of over 50,000 hectares [almost 124,000 acres]."
But the protection of the rain forest is necessarily a long-term project. Perhaps, among the schoolchildren now visiting the "academy of the rain forest," there are future leaders of Brunei who will carry on in the same vein. Clearly, the more they - and we - learn now about the rain forest and its ecological role, the better the chances that future generations will be able to assure its long-time survival.
Photojournalist Tor Eigeland, a long-time contributor to Aramco World and now soon to be a father, is based in London.