Bangkok, 5 October 2015

For reasons too long to explain, I was recently involved in discussions about the implementation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the several Conventions emanating from that Declaration: the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women, for instance, or the Convention on the Rights of the Child, to name but two. At some point, we got into a vivacious discussion about two issues. The first was the rights of future generations: specifically, do we, today’s generations, have the right to use up all the Earth’s resources and poison the Planet, thus taking away from future generations their right to a dignified life? The answer was fuzzy, the problem being that the Conventions deal only with the rights of existing human beings; the unborn, it would seem, have no rights. But how do we square this with international commitments to sustainable development, whose very definition recognizes the rights of future generations? This conundrum was left unresolved. The second, and to my mind much more fundamental, issue we discussed was the rights of other species: do they have any rights, or are they merely goods and chattel which we humans can dispose of as we wish? The answer was even fuzzier, with the sense in the room being that they did not (yet) have internationally recognized rights, although many countries have enacted legislation recognizing that other species do have certain rights – the prohibitions on cruelty to animals fall into this category.

Fast forward to the visit my wife and I made to the Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre and the Sun Bear Sanctuary in Sepilok, on the last day of our visit to Sabah. Both centres receive a steady stream of orphaned baby apes and bear cubs, whose mothers were either killed deliberately to make pets of their babies or died as a side effect of the steady deforestation going on in this part of the world. They also receive adult bears and apes marooned in vanishing islands of jungle. They do stirling work of trying to reinsert their charges back into the wild, or at least giving them a life of dignity if they cannot go back. They, along with the many other rehabilitation centres around the world doing the same thing with other species, deserve our thanks for this work of love.

But as I sat there, listening to what these centres do and watching their charges on the feeding platforms

or sunning themselves in enclosures
I was brought to meditate on that essential question which I had recently debated: do other species have rights, like we do? Specifically, do they have the right to life? Personally, I think they do. Of course, this right, like every right, is not absolute. I mean, if a lion jumps on me, or my wife, or my kids, then I have a right to kill that lion (as I do if it were a member of our own species who attacked us). And to eat, I need to kill species, that’s the way our biology works. This holds true even if I were vegan (carrots, just to take one vegetable, are also a species and so have the same rights as a chicken).

We could go on at length about how rights play out in real life: how about this situation? how about that situation? But the thing is, accepting that other species have rights changes the context of the discussion radically. Just to take the right to life, it’s no longer that it would be nice if we didn’t kill orang utans or sun bears, it’s that we have a duty not to kill them. And if that is the case, then we have to ask ourselves if the people of Sabah have the right, for instance, to undertake large-scale destruction of the orang utan’s and sun bear’s habitat so as to be able to plant oil palm in its place.

But this brings us on a collision course with another right, the right of the people of Sabah “to an adequate standard of living … and to the continuous improvement of living conditions” (I am quoting the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights). Is there a way out? Yes there is, at two levels. First, Sabah has to change its model of economic development; the province’s natural habitat must be viewed as an economic asset and not as a nuisance to be swept aside to make place for other economic activities. Sustainable (but truly sustainable) tourism is one possible way of making money from jungle. Sustainable (but truly sustainable) harvesting of forest products is another. Second, and much more fundamentally, Sabah, like just about every other territory on Earth, has to drastically reduce its human population. There are simply too many of us on this planet. I find the following graph one of the most frightening I know.

It shows the growth in the human population over the last nine thousand years. Note the huge, and hugely rapid, jump in our population since the start of the scientific and industrial revolutions (you have to see it on this scale because this is closer to the scales at which evolution works). The result of this growth has been that we are brutally shoving all the other species on this planet into a corner, a corner which is getting rapidly smaller and smaller. They cannot survive these huge shocks to their ecosystems. At this point, then, the right to life of other species trumps our right to create new human life. Many have criticized the Chinese Government for its one-child policy. But not me. We should all have one-child policies until the human population falls to much more acceptable levels, not more than 1 billion (and better 500 million). Yes, we will have old populations. Yes, we will have a problem of spoiled children, the princelings as the Chinese call them. Yes, we will have deflationary economies. Yes, house prices will drop. But our duty to respect the right to life of all species tells us that these are problems we simply have to accept and deal with.

I suppose I’m not painting a pretty picture of our immediate future, but I think it’s better for our species to suffer a little for a little while in the quest for a longer-term happiness than to go on as we are currently doing, destroying everything, which will ultimately destroy us too – because we actually need jungles and all the species in it for our own survival.


Orang utan at rehabilitation centre: https://sabahbooking.com/tours?actionType=details&tid=20&lang=zh_CN
Borneo bear: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sepilok_Sabah_BSBCC-photos-by-Wong-Siew-Te-02.jpg
Population chart: http://aryanism.net/politics/population-and-demographics/


Bangkok, 30 September, 2015

I’ve often used the expression “drenched with sweat” in my life, but I’ve never actually been thus drenched. This time, though, on staggering out of the jungle after a six hour trek, my wife and I were were literally soaked through. We couldn’t have been wetter if we’d stood under a shower with all our clothes on.

A bit of background is in order. We were in the Malaysia’s easternmost province of Sabah, on the island of Borneo. We were visiting the Danum Valley Conservation Area, which is in one of the few remaining tracts of primary jungle in the province. We arrived there after driving down from the town of Sandakan, passing mile after mile of oil palm plantations. So dreary! And so depressing to think that beautiful jungle stood there not that long ago. But it’s hard to sell jungle, easy sell palm oil.

Leaving all those oil palms behind us for a few days, we wanted to see some jungle – and maybe, if we were lucky, some orang utans. Danum Valley is one of the few places in Sabah where orang utans still live in the wild, along with pygmy elephants, Sumatran rhinoceroses, clouded leopards, various other species of feline, several species of monkeys, and of course hordes of more humble forms of life, botanical and zoological.

So it was that we attached ourselves to a group of young people, part of that army of gap-yearists*, between-jobbers**, and others, who are all on the move these days across every continent, living cheap, telling tall stories about their travels, and swapping information on the good places to eat, sleep, and have fun along the road. They had hired a ranger from the Danum Valley Field Centre, where we were all staying, to take them on one of the shorter trails. Early the next morning, we took our place in the line which filed across a rickety suspension bridge and set off briskly into the jungle. At first, we commented appreciatively on the surroundings, looked eagerly into the undergrowth for signs of pygmy elephants (they had left dung piles and shattered tree limbs along the track), and inspected fearfully every overhanging leaf for leeches (there had been much excited chatter on the net about the presence of these horrible animals along the trails and we sported a set of bright green leech socks for the occasion). But gradually, in the sauna-like heat of the jungle, as we climbed up and down over successive ridges, our breathing grew raspy, the sweat stains on our clothes grew and coalesced until clothes and stains were one, our speed slowed to a crawl. We neither saw nor cared anymore about what was around us (which in truth was not much; at the very last minute, a macaque monkey was sighted high above us, otherwise a few millipedes and some leeches were the total of our bag). The only thing that mattered was to make sure that we lifted our legs high enough to step over the roots, branches, and other jungle paraphernalia that littered the trail. Some of the group kindly held back so that we didn’t get completely separated from the rest, otherwise we would still be in that jungle stumbling around in a total daze. When we got back to our room, we unsteadily peeled off our sodden clothes, stood for a minute under the shower, and then collapsed onto the bed, lying there in a stupor for a few hours.

So when we heard at dinner that our young friends had booked a ranger for an even longer walk the next day, we smiled and promised to be on hand to wave them off at breakfast. We kept our promise, wishing them a safe journey over our fried eggs. And then, after some more tea, toast and marmalade to fortify us, we ambled slowly back into the jungle to an observation tower, from which we had decided to watch jungle life in peace and tranquillity. Observation tower is a misnomer. It was actually simply an aluminium ladder encased in an iron safety cage, attached to one of the tall, tall trees that dot the jungle.
The ladder led to a wooden observation deck at the top and another half way up. It must have been all of 60 meters to the top deck (110 rungs; I counted). One of our young friends, between jobs, had shinned up the ladder as we lay, inert, on our beds the previous afternoon. His last job was as tester of the mechanical soundness of pipelines, and he informed us at dinner that it was his professional opinion that the whole contraption was exceedingly corroded and ready to peel off the tree at any moment.

With these words still ringing in my ears, I commended my soul to Jesus, Mary, and all the Saints, and started climbing, fixedly looking at the bark in front of me and pulling myself up rung by counted rung. My wife followed. We stopped at the mid-level observation deck for a breather before continuing on. Again, fix the bark and pull up rung by counted rung. We made it in one piece. We took a photo down the ladder we had just climbed.

But the view compensated for all the fear and the sweat to get there.


I like being in jungle canopy. At ground level, I find jungle quite monotonous. There are no sweeping vistas through the thick vegetation, and unless you are into insects there is precious little animal life on the jungle floor. Even the plant life is not that interesting, unless you like fungi (are they even plants?). If you happen to spot something in the trees, it’s hard to watch through all the intervening foliage. But in the canopy, or above it as was our case, it’s completely different. You appreciate the grand sweep of the jungle: the tall trees, the Lords of the place, the smaller trees greedily growing towards the light and waiting for their moment of glory when the Lords will be toppled by wind, rain, or sheer old age, the parasitical plants of all descriptions – lianas, vines, ferns – using these trees as their path towards the light, strangling, suffocating, and sucking their life juices from them; flowers, coloured leaves, and fruit peppering the whole. And above and through all this botanical profusion you see the silent flitting of animals. As we stood there, looking out over the canopy, we saw a butterfly which did a long glide past rather than flying drunkenly along as do most butterflies, the bright aquamarine streak of a bird shooting over the canopy (a kingfisher?)
several black squirrels, which scurried fearlessly up tree trunks and out along branches
and at the end, a troop of red leaf monkeys, who suddenly appeared out of the vines loading down a tree, gracefully jumped over onto the next tree, disappeared into the foliage, and then reappeared further along the canopy.
It was time to go. A new prayer, and down we went, rung by rung, all 110 of them.


* young persons, normally school leavers waiting to go on to University, who have decided to take a year off and travel the world. It can also apply to somewhat older persons who have decided to take the year off between undergraduate and graduate schools.
** even older, but still young, persons who have decided that they are fed up with the boring job they have and want to see the world, or have decided to change jobs and want to see the world before they start working again, or simply decide that it’s now or never if they want to see the world.

Dipterocarp: http://images.travelpod.com/tw_slides/ta00/da3/d08/towering-dipterocarp-bilit.jpg (in http://tripwow.tripadvisor.com/slideshow-photo/towering-dipterocarp-by-travelpod-member-dan-melanie-bilit-malaysia.html?sid=14302472&fid=tp-8)
Kingfisher: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/a6/Ein_Eisvogel_im_Schwebflug.jpg (in https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kingfisher)
Black squirrel: https://worldbirdwatching.files.wordpress.com/2013/04/mamilanutria.jpg?w=500&h=374 (in https://worldbirdwatching.wordpress.com)
Red leaf monkeys: http://il2.picdn.net/shutterstock/videos/5039030/thumb/1.jpg?i10c=img.resize(height:160) (in http://www.shutterstock.com/video/clip-5038946-stock-footage-rare-red-or-maroon-leaf-monkey-presbytis-rubicunda-in-the-jungles-of-borneo-this-is-a-beautiful.html)
Other pictures: ours