Mongabay Features

Ground-truthing satellite data in Borneo

Gold and sand mining near Mandor, West Kalimantan, Indonesian Borneo. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

Borneo has been special to me since my earliest years. As a kid, I would voraciously read books about the wilds of Borneo, with its dense rainforests inhabited by traditional indigenous peoples and wondrous animals like orangutans, clouded leopards, and pygmy elephants. As I grew older, I became aware of the environmental devastation in Borneo. Back then, in the 1980s, the story was mostly about logging. Palm oil was still a relatively nascent industry in Borneo.

When I was in high school, I had the amazing opportunity to visit Borneo in person thanks to my mother, a travel agent who specialized in international destinations. We visited forests in the state-operated Yayasan Sabah concession, in Malaysian Borneo. Some of my fondest memories are from visiting that forest: hiking under the tall trees, swimming in the crystal-clear creeks, and seeing incredible frogs, lizards, and insects. The most special moment, though, came as I sat on a log next to a creek picking leeches off my pant legs and socks. I heard some rustling and looked up to see a wild male orangutan in the trees above me. He was huge, with the fully developed face plates characteristic of adult males. He didn’t linger long, but I’ll always treasure that memory.

A few days after that experience, I returned home to California. But I kept in correspondence with Clive Marsh, the conservation biologist I met on that trip. A few months later he wrote to give me the heart-breaking news that the forest I so enjoyed had been logged for a pulp and paper scheme. That moment was an inflection point for me: born out of that sad news was a person impassioned to make a difference. Within days of getting that letter I began writing a book about tropical rainforests that would lay the groundwork for Mongabay.


By Rhett Ayers Butler

Rhett Ayers Butler is the Founder and CEO of Mongabay, a non-profit conservation and environmental science news platform. He started Mongabay in 1999 with the mission of raising interest in and appreciation of wild lands and wildlife.