The Danum Valley is the still-beating heart of Borneo, untouched but constantly in danger; it is where the soul of the island has taken refuge, and a traveler can look back in time to how things used to be. It is tucked deep into the interior of the Malaysian state of Sabah, which has shielded it over the years from the clamor of chainsaws that have clear-cut most of the coastal forests, but every year logging companies build roads deeper into the jungle, closer to these remaining wildlife sanctuaries.
These roads creep through the ecosystem like an injection of venom into a vein, branching out like a river onto a flood plain, into the capillaries of the island, poisoning its ecology. In 1973 roughly 76% of Borneo was covered in primary growth forest, and exotic tales of its beauty traveled around the world. However, for roughly two decades in the 1980s and 1990s, more timber was exported from the Island of Borneo than from all of Africa and the Amazon combined.
The scale of destruction was industrial. Bulldozers were shipped onto the island shores, flanked by mafias of men with ragged-toothed chainsaws who rolled the wilderness out onto barges and into the global economy. While selective logging can be a welcomed engine for economic growth, deforestation at this scale destroys the very ecosystem which allows trees to grow, and is not economically viable in the long term.
In 2009, researchers used satellite imagery to determine that 80% of the forest had been a victim of high-impact logging in both the Malaysian and Indonesian portions of the island. The most common casualty has been the dipterocarp trees, which dominate the low land forests, growing to heights of 90 meters (300 feet). After fighting for over a hundred years through monsoon rains, and forest fires, they at least deserve the noble death of a woodsman’s axe — not this chainsaw massacre.
Fortunately, the Danum Valley is still wild and thriving with life. It has often been described as the lost world, but it is actually the valley that was never found. Veiled flying dragon lizards sail between timeless trees, which due to the lack of seasons, do not grow the age revealing rings of trees in other climates. The ironwood trees only grow a millimeter a year, and some are over a thousand years old, dense enough to sink, and old enough to remember when the Viking Leif Erikson landed on North America 500 years before Columbus.
This valley is some of the only primary forest remaining on the island, and one of the last sanctuaries for the Asian rhino, the clouded leopard, the Bornean sun bear, the pygmy elephant, and two of the world’s five great apes — the orangutan, and the gibbon. The Danum River runs through it, and giant hornbills swoop over it, squawking in the canopy above.
It is certainly a sight to be seen, especially from the sky walkways that have been suspended in the canopies, the base of Fairy Falls, and the middle of the natural Jacuzzi pools. It is an idyllic place to watch the animals go about their day, as if it were still world without roads, chainsaws, and concrete. It is a world we should all know and appreciate, even if only for a couple days.