By Noris Ledesma
My first glimpse into the primeval land of Limbang, Sarawak, Malaysia; its people, and ultimately the wild mangos of Borneo, woke up the hidden memories from my past in the Colombian Amazonian. The heat and the humidity made everything so green and exuberant. I was still jet-lagged from my travels, when I came to my senses within this foreign, yet hauntingly familiar landscape. The different shapes and textures of the leaves and fronds brought me back to the realization that I was indeed in the tropics, just in a different place and time.
Wild mangos (Mangifera species)
I had to come to Borneo to better understand the origin of mango by first-hand observation of its wild relatives that grow in the jungles of Southeast Asia. Further I wanted to delve into the Bornean jungle from a fruit perspective, where durian, langsat, rambutan and of course wild mangos share the same territory. The expedition to Borneooffered the opportunity for a more in-depth look at Asian tropical fruit, and a chance to solidify contacts in the region. Although we were outside of the peak season for wild mangos (Mangifera species), I was able to see, taste and experience a surprising diversity of native fruit.
In order to get my boots muddy in the native forest, we were required to take long boat trip up river. This was the best part for me because I was able to get away from the pavement and deep into the real Borneo. The river went from a wide channel down to narrow passages shrouded in deep shade. As we continued into the jungle we approached the interior highlands, with their stands of remnant jungle, where the forest giants remain to carry one back to the times of old. An orangutan stood watch in the branches overhead, announcing our arrival upriver. They maintained their guard day and night from their watchtower of leaf and bough in wild mangos and durians that grew along the water’s edge. We stop by to visit some of the local tribes to learn their appreciation for the wild mangos.
The orangutan building its nightly nest in top of the wild mango tree
We arrive in an indigenous village and I immediately take note of the many pajang (Mangifera pajang) trees in the back yard of the traditional long house. In this long house about 20 families share the same roof. The village was almost empty. An old man covered with tattoos, his ear lobes elongated as was the custom of times past, spoke to me in his native tongue. The translator tells me that it’s the rice season, and the younger and able-bodied are busy with the harvest. I ask for the children and he explains that they go on Monday to school and come back home during the weekend. It is too far and just the little ones stay home.
The long house is surrounded by durians, langsats, and rambutans. It’s easy to find the pajang tree here; they are everywhere. I was taken by a friendly lady; smiling, she showed me something quite different. This was a binjai tree (Mangifera caesia), the same tree we found in our last expedition toIndonesia (Bali), where they call it “wani”. She explained that she sold last season’s entire crop for a good price. I was happy for her and her village, but saddened to have missed the fruiting.
We walked about an hour into the forest with her to see one of the village’s mother trees. Two more ladies from the village joined us, walking beneath the dense and pleasant canopy. They start showing us all the different fruits and plants that they eat in the forest, including different type of ferns, jungle mushrooms and even some types of worms (just like back home in Colombia). They ask me if I want to see a very rare durian that fruits from the base of the trunk and roots. I immediately realize that they are speaking of the kura kura durian (Durio testudinarium). We have a kura kura growing within the Whitman Fruit Pavilion that was collected years earlier quite near to this vey spot. The kura kura is one of the most endangered durian species inBorneo and I was thrilled to get a chance to see it in the wild.
Kura kura durian (Durio testudinarium).
We crossed little streams and in a dense bamboo thicket a majestic tree jutted up to an astounding height - we stood at the foot of the mother mango tree for the village. No one spoke, we were in awe. We admired the tree for a few minutes, trying to identify the species – still no one dared utter a word. This forest giant had a presence unlike anything that I had ever witnessed. I ask some of the local people to get a branch from the tree. No one wanted to climb it. It was too risky they said. They discussed about it and finally my friend Yair Aron stepped up, ready to get it for me. The locals helped him up using to a rope to pull him to the top of the tree. He finally reached the first branch and was able to cut the sample. We still are not sure if it’s a Mangifera quadrifida or Mangifera griffithii. It had no fruit, but the locals described it as a small deep purple skinned fruit, than grows in dense bunches with an orange flesh – and smooth and very fragrant. The description coincided with Rancha rancha than Dr. David Fairchild described in some of his reports and Dr. Campbell revisited in his last expedition to Borneo in 2000.
Mother mango tree 'Rancha rancha' (Mangifera quadrifida)
We left the tree for the river before the tide went down. We were close to the South China Sea and even quite a ways up river we were tidally-influenced, so we had to go as soon as possible. Meanwhile our local guide reinforced to us that there were many rare mango trees close to the border with Brunei Darussalam, a stone’s throw to our north. She described how she uses the wild mango. “The young ones are best for salad”, she explained. Besides the fruit, she also uses the new leaves of the pajang as a vegetable. Borneo is well known for its diversity of plants. It is considered second only to the Amazon in importance as a tropical rain forest; yet what is its fate and that of the wild mangos of Borneo?
Oil palm monoculture (Landing Miri). The destructive march across Borneo
It is, I fear, a race against time, as the oil palm continues its destructive march across Borneo. We have much to learn about the wild mangos. In the coming years we hope to use this genetic resource as fruit in their own right, as ornamentals and also as breeding stock. But, will they still exist? I wish some action could be taken before it is too late; to make sure that the orangutan has a place to build its nightly nest and fruit to eat; that we have the opportunity to further study and advance with the wild mangos and other fruit of Borneo; and that my new friends in Borneo have the opportunity to live in harmony with their mango mother tree.