A Greenhorn Naturalist in Borneo by Hans Breuer

A Greenhorn Naturalist in Borneo by Hans Breuer

‘…Whether savouring Hans’ great storytelling from the comforts of an armchair or in the midst of planning their own adventure to Borneo, I am confident that readers will not only be entertained but also inspired to look deeper into the true value of these irreplaceable rainforests’. Extract from Foreword by Chien Lee, Honorary Research Fellow, Institute of Biodiversity and Environmental Conservation, Universiti Malaysia Sarawak

  • Humorously presented, yet scientifically interesting adventures with exotic life forms
  • Broadens the understanding of the natural world generally and of equatorial ecosystems specifically
  • Hilarity sparkles on every page, and the author’s enjoyment of his adventures is contagious
Rufous-backed Kingfisher

A Greenhorn Naturalist in Borneo is about natural history, travel in the tropics, life sciences, and adventure, with the environment always in mind. It chronicles the nine years the author spent with his family on that equatorial island. The book’s humorous style never detracts from the focus on the science, the island of Borneo and its natural wonders.

The story begins in 2007 on top of a garage in Taiwan, where the author kept a greenhouse filled with hundreds of carnivorous tropical pitcher plants. In August of the same year, he attended a conference on these plants in Borneo and met them in the wild for the first time. This triggered an obsession with the island’s legendary rainforest fauna and flora, and he decided to move to Borneo with his family for easier access to the jungle. In a tone reminiscent of Bill Bryson, Douglas Adams, and Gerald Durrell funny, self-deprecating, but always satisfying for the science-minded reader A Greenhorn Naturalist in Borneo documents the Breuer family’s adventures with Borneo’s enormous biodiversity: flying snakes, venomous primates, parachuting frogs, pangolins, king cobras, orangutans, masters of mimicry and camouflage, the world’s rarest lizard and the world’s longest snake.

And these are just a fraction of the life forms the reader will meet. Adventure lurks behind every trail bend: toddler- sized monkeys terrorize night hikers, bearded jungle pigs hunt stray dogs, a giant python almost gets stepped on, and other encounters of the ‘not so funny when it happened’ kind. The reader will also meet the people inhabiting the island, such as Asia’s last rainforest nomads, quaint government officials, and former headhunting tribes that still proudly display their trophies above their fireplaces. Inevitably, the author’s life in Borneo also led to first-hand insight into the island’s environmental tragedy caused by decades of severe over-exploitation, a recurring topic throughout the book.

A Greenhorn Naturalist in Borneo puts the reader in a front-row seat to marvel at nature’s wonders in all their magnificence visiting places unknown and creatures unheard of; and it is also an invitation to consider the state of the planet, to take it seriously, and to act before it’s too late.

Readership: this will be of immense appeal to everyone with an interest in the natural world, wildlife, conservation, Borneo in particular and anyone who enjoys an entertaining read.

Tristaniopsis trees

Extract from A Greenhorn Naturalist in Borneo by Hans Breuer

Natural history and exotic life forms!

[Publisher’s note: As Hans Breuer’s English is of the international/US variety and his writing is so wonderfully idiosyncratic (as you’re about to find out), we’ve broken the mould of our UK English style in order to retain nearly all of his preferred spellings, vocabulary, punctuation and syntax. Vive la difference!]

Large red Tristaniopsis trees lined the opposite bank like sandstone pillars. Their color stood in perfect contrast to the dark green of their canopy. At their feet, sword-leafed bushes resembling frozen green fireworks guarded the shore in a tight row. Close to the far bank, a rock the size and shape of a bowling ball stuck out from the flow. Two large purple butterflies sat on it, their wings wagging in the breeze. Two smaller butterflies, lemon-yellow, danced close above the purple pair like winged puppies with not a care in the world. The shallow river had worried the rocks into smoothness, and the sunrays flashed on their slick surfaces to the stridulations of the cicadas. It was all achingly beautiful; a true place for poets and romantics, and I felt blessed and favored for the privilege of being here.

The afternoon heat was losing its bite now, and some birds had already returned from their siesta. A greater racket-tailed drongo in shimmering black sat on a nearby branch. Its tail consisted of two long wires with a small round feather at the end. It would dive off its perch to snatch insects in midflight, then return to its ambush spot to eat its prey, then preen until the next attack. From the trees on the other side came a long-drawn trill, slow at first, then quickly increasing in pitch and tremolo until it ended in a drill-like whirr. The caller was a black-and-yellow broadbill, one of Borneo’s most striking birds. It was about the size of a house sparrow and looked as if a stoned Pixar artist had done a number on it with pastel crayons. The black head was accented by yellow eyes, a thick, white neck ring, and an almost comically broad turquoise beak. Long, fringed epaulets in canary yellow marked the bird’s black shoulders, while chest and belly were kept in a tender peach tone. As we broke camp, an orange shuttlecock bulleted up the river, a Rufous-backed Kingfisher alarming the forest about the human danger with shrill staccato calls.

On the way back we discovered six little durians stacked up between two buttress roots. Durian isu, as it is locally known, is a wild species. The fruit, smaller than regular durians, are round and greenish, with long thin spikes. They also lack the typical durian aroma; their flesh is less sweet, and is reminiscent of walnuts. Somebody had found these fruits somewhere in the forest and stored them here for later collection. While we were still speculating on the nature of the owners, three Bidayuh men appeared on the trail, soundless like jungle cats. They had the lithe muscles of track athletes and wore bandannas, parangs, and mismatched camouflage clothes. Their feet were shod in black shoes made from stiff, thick rubber.

Nicknamed Adidas kampung, these are designed like soccer boots but with fat rubber cleats for walking on muddy terrain, and holes for good drainage during river crossings. In terms of durability and water resistance, no high-tech Western footwear compares. Adidas kampung are the ultimate jungle shoes—but, as detractors like to point out, only if you have wooden feet. The men’s rattan baskets held Ziploc bags with fresh plant cuttings. We had a brief friendly chat, and they told us they were in the employ of a local nursery for exotic plants. They had been inside the national park further up the trail, looking for new material to cultivate, and they proudly showed us their swag: gingers, orchids, begonias, and a rare red variety of Nepenthes ampullaria. One of the men had a hunting rifle over his shoulder. I didn’t ask why he had brought it. There was no dangerous wildlife here that would warrant armed protection. Neither did I ask whether they had collection permits. They would just lie about it. But then they knew I wouldn’t return to Kuching and sic (incite or command to attack) law enforcement on their nursery, because it would be pointless. And I knew they knew, so peace and harmony were maintained. As a farewell gift, they gave us two of their wild durians.

It’s a platitude: on a cosmic scale, we’re insignificant specks in space and time. Yet we are perfectly able to destroy most of our cohabitants before our own eventual demise. Much has been written about nature’s indomitability and our perceived frailty in the face of her powers. John McPhee felt “the raw, convincing irrelevance of the visitor” in Alaska, and to Alexander von Humboldt the Amazon rainforest was a world in which “man is nothing.”

In the 21st century, few places are left where this still holds true. Maybe Antarctica, or the Himalayan upper ranges. But on the island of Borneo, former home to mighty jungles bigger than many European countries, legally protected nature is getting hammered by illegal human activity. The chainsaw is just one actor in the tragedy’s large cast. I cannot remember the last time I was in a forest at night and heard no gunshots. Hunters with dog packs roam the national parks to the point that the park rangers will try to keep you from going on night walks. And thanks to the rise of budget airlines, Airbnb and CouchSurfing, there is a planet-wide boom of biopiracy involving foreigners who often cooperate with locals. These collectors—without any sort of collection permit—travel to remote corners of the globe to remove and bring home any exotic form of life that can be grown, kept, or mounted. My personal experience includes Russian orchid poachers, Japanese butterfly thieves, and Czech lizard larcenists, but those were just a tiny part of an endless worldwide cavalcade of self-styled nature lovers who know the price of everything and the value of nothing.

Today, an old joke holds truer than ever: What happens when a new species is discovered? Two Germans buy a plane ticket.

A Greenhorn Naturalist in Borneo by Hans Breuer book cover

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