An Inordinate Fondness For Pangolins

I’ve tied off all the work ends that needed tying, I’ve found my mosquito net and worked out a way to get hold of a pair of functioning binoculars (my beloved Bausch and Lombs had an uninsured collision with a marble floor) so, bar the malaria tablets and the leech proof socks (no, I’m not kidding), I’m almost ready.

A week tomorrow I’m going to Borneo.

Let me just say that again, more slowly this time. A week tomorrow I’m going to Borneo.

I am very excited. And I don’t mean ‘excited’ in the way that grown ups usually mean it: a- bit-more-interested-in-my-day-than-normal. I mean excited, like kids mean excited. Excited like-you-are-when-you-are-seven-and-it’s-Christmas-eve, excited, is how I mean.

Excited! Because there are lots of animals in Borneo. LOTS. Two hundred and eighty eight species of mammals before you even begin on birds or reptiles or ‘God’s Favourite group’ beetles (see below). How many British mammal species can you name? Foxes, badgers, otters, squirrels, red ones and grey ones (and one of those doesn’t really belong here). ‘Bats’ you might say – or you might actually know we have more than fifteen species of bats in the UK. In Borneo there are thirty four species of squirrel and fourteen of them can fly! There are 94 species of bat…9 Rhinolophids, members of the genus whose UK representative I used to study. There are monkeys with bright red fur and little black faces, there are pygmy elephants, there are gibbons, there are orang utans.

And pangolins. Pangolins- animals I’ve longed to see since I was three: long pine cones made animate. Short clawed otters – the cutest otters on Earth.

Today (late I know but I’ve been crazy busy) I started trying to learn about some of the animals I might see (oh yeah Lorises…did I say lorises??) and my heart raced so much and my mind jumped with delight so much, the information wouldn’t go in. I want to know it all, and I want to know it now, so that I won’t miss anything when I’m there, so that I’ll be able to identify what I see and soak it up. (sun bears…imagine? there are sun bears there!!). Scratch any naturalist and you’ll find a desire to label things, and list them. All my wildlife identification guides have nerdy little notes in them, ticks and dates and places showing where and when I saw particular species. This isn’t just train-spotery; a name is the hook you can hang other information on; it gives you a start, a way to begin to fit individual species into the mosaic of a habitat. But if I’m honest it’s more primal than that, more personal. Knowing the name of something helps to stamp it onto your soul; if I can name a creature when I see it, my experience of seeing is made more vivid, more mine. In some tiny way I posses and carry with me forever that animal. Being in a place where I can’t name anything makes me feel a bit panicky, as if my life is slipping through my fingers and I won’t hold on to any of it.

So I began today with mammals, because although birds were my first love as a child, my heart was stolen away by mammals at university and they’re the things I know most about. Also they are a kind of cop out because there aren’t very many of them relative to say, beetles. But when I saw that figure, 288 species, I knew I didn’t have a chance (provost’s squirrel…a squirrel with a bright red tummy!). I knew that I would just have to go to Borneo ignorant, label-less and I’d have to find another way of stamping things on my soul (Pink necked green pigeon – yes that’s its name, does what it says on the tin) another way of experiencing and expressing this astonishing level of diversity.  In a rain forest, where there are hundreds of different species of trees, where many of the smaller species of animals and perhaps some of the larger ones too, may not have been described by science I have no hope of being able to put a label on everything I see.  And in a way that’s a good thing because most of the people to whom I wish to communicate the life-enhancing, joyful, gorgeousness of biodiversity, would not know a latin name if it fell on them from a supermarket shelf. So if I can find a way of imprinting it on me without labels, then I have a chance of imprinting it on them without their ever having to remember anything as difficult as Vivera tangalunga (its a civet…lovely spotty, catty kind of a thing).

Because for me, and for the World Land Trust, who are sending me to Borneo to see their fantastic work there, the whole point of my trip is to share what I see when I get back with as many people as possible…people who’ll never know what mycorrhiza are or care about food webs or primary producers or subspecies or Mullerian mimicry. I need to tell the story of the world without labels, but with all the joy, all the delight, all the twenty five carat, seven million watt excitement.

Watch this space…

(just a few labels though…I mean Rhinocerous hornbill? Isn’t that another one that does what it says on the tin? Listen, you can hear my heart beating from there.)

Re Beetles…

The famous naturalist JBS Haldane, when asked what the study of nature had told him about the mind of God, replied that God clearly had ‘an inordinate fondness for beetles’.

Which is almost enough to make me enthusiastic about God… 

ALSO : When rootling around for something else I found this fabulous Pablo Neruda quote…which I’d like as an epitaph

I has never occurred to me to speak with elegant animals. I am not curious about the opinion of wasps or racing mares. Let them settle matters whilst flying, let them win decorations by running. I want to speak with flies, with that bitch that has recently littered, and to converse with snakes….I want to speak with many things and I will not leave this planet without knowing what I came to seek, without investigating this matter, and people do not suffice for me, I have to go much further and I have to go much closer.’

Actually I’d love to hear what a wasp’s opinion of the world was, but I get what he means…

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