We have kept our supply chain running via the labor of one particular porter, Pak Long, affectionately known as “Mister Short.” Pak Long hikes the five hour route with a 20 kg load, and then hikes back to the village the same afternoon, repeating the trip every other day. We originally set the price for the trip expecting suppliers to take two days for the round trip, so Pak Long is making a very good local wage by being so quick. He used to come in alone, with only his hunting dog for company—after meeting an aggressive bear, though, he decided to ask his son to join him as another porter. While he’s not totally sure of his age, it seems that Pak Long is in his late sixties or early seventies; he remembers the Japanese occupation during World War II. He also smokes a pack of cigarettes a day. But he always arrives in good spirits at one or two in the afternoon, has a bite to eat, and then heads back. On his “off days,” he’s been harvesting sugar cane to send to Ketapang, the nearest big town.
When we’re not around, Pak Long is also a serious hunter, primarily of small deer and wild pig. However, he appears to have been leaving his (homemade) rifle at home on his trips in to see us. While I wouldn’t refuse some fresh venison, we obviously have no desire to encourage hunting. The practice is becoming more and more of a problem at Gunung Palung, to the extent that you seldom encounter deer at the Cabang Panti research station, which is more accessible than our current site. The most important brake on the local extinction of large mammals and birds at Gunung Palung is that the majority of the people surrounding the park are Muslim Malays, and most bushmeat is forbidden to them. However, as the population in nearby villages has steadily increased, so has the non-Muslim sector, and with it the market for bushmeat of all kinds. Orangutans are now included on the hitlist. As long as 15 years ago, while visiting Gunung Niut Park north of Pontianak, I didn’t hear a single primate or hornbill in the forest for three days. That park is surrounded by Dayak communities; Dayaks are the original peoples of Borneo, and they greatly enjoy hunting for anything that moves. So far, Gunung Palung has been spared this ‘silent forest’ syndrome, but last year a boat of Dayak hunters was apprehended on one of the rivers into to the park, loaded with hundreds of kilos of bushmeat. The hunters were apparently from hundreds of kilometers away, but had heard there was still meat available at Gunung Palung.
We do not yet know how animal loss affects the tree community, but it is likely to cause changes in species composition over time, favoring those species that can effectively disperse their seeds and germinate without animal assistance. Work I did on the seedling community for my thesis at Gunung Palung led to the surprising discovery that 46% of the seedlings in the forest occur too far from a potential mother tree to have germinated on their own, and thus, in an animal-filled forest, active seed dispersal is common. While it does not follow that loss of seed dispersal will lead to a general failure of regeneration, we do suspect that many tree species may go extinct locally if the large birds and mammals are hunted out.