In the 1970s the situation facing orangutans and the existence of rainforest seemed somewhat bleak. Little did I know! The situation in the 70s was actually the calm before the storm. Suddenly, sometime in the late 1980s, everything seemed to go haywire. The destruction of the forest around the National Park accelerated. Gold was discovered in and around the Park with literally thousands of open-pit miners flooding into the general area. But the first that we knew that something was terribly wrong was when the Park was suddenly invaded by hundreds of dragonfish poachers. The local villagers all seemed to be involved as the demand for dragonfish in China had suddenly risen to astronomical heights. Local men could make small fortunes very quickly by catching live dragonfish fry. We fought and struggled as best we could and were able to keep the Sekonyer River basin, at least on the Park side, relatively undisturbed. But it was touch and go. The small lakes on the northern boundary of the Park were practically fished out as poachers killed parent fish and took the small fry out of their mouths. We felt like we were at war. I went out at night and, with my courageous assistants, chased the dragonfish poachers in their dugout canoes with our Zodiac inflatable that we had bought from a French film crew as they left Camp Leakey. The Zodiac was very slow but it had a silent electric motor, so we could “creep up” on the poachers and surprise them. We actually apprehended a few and took them to the police in Pangkalan Bun. We also tried to educate local villagers. Ironically, as we traveled up and down the Sekonyer River accompanied by a government official and gave formal lectures at the local villages, we impeded their imminent departure to catch dragonfish. The local men would sit there practically with their fish spears in their hands, waiting for me to finish so they could rush off in their dugout canoes and catch fish. I, of course, kept on talking! That’s one of the advantages of being a professor. It’s nothing to talk for an hour straight. The local men later joked that they sat there bored (because they had heard it all before), itching to jump into their dugout canoes and make some money but couldn’t do so because the government official and I wouldn’t stop talking.
Although the dragonfish poaching crisis hit the general area of Tanjung Puting very hard, other areas in Borneo were hit even harder by illegal logging. In 1983, East Borneo was ravaged by the largest forest fire recorded up to that time in human history. Flying over Borneo in a small plane at the time left one stricken. Reports indicated that up to 50% of Borneo’s primary rainforest had been decimated by illegal logging, massive forest fires, and large-scale transmigration programs often financed by the World Bank.
What next hit Tanjung Puting very hard by the late 1980s was the discovery of gold. The gold in the Sekonyer River was in the form of gold dust from the thick gold veins in the mountains of Central Borneo which had eroded and had been deposited in alluvial plains near the coast. Thousands of gold miners streamed into the vicinity of the National Park to conduct open-pit mining. Large moonscapes of gleaming white sand were now carved out of what had been lush rainforest. The water of the left-hand fork of the Sekonyer River and the main Sekonyer River changed color to a muddy brown as the silt from open pit mines poured into the river.
We were horrified at what was happening to the local area and Tanjung Puting National Park. Little did we know that the worst was yet to come.