The curse that preserved the home of the orangutans – a travelogue


An old superstition, holy trees, an unusual burial ritual and a spectacular, but endangered, piece of nature. Those are just some of the things encountered by the employees of Save the Orangutan, when they visited an area of rainforest in Borneo, where researchers are fighting to protect the home of 2000 orangutans against a takeover by palm oil companies.

In the central part of Borneo there is a large, untouched forest area, which is the centre of a bizarre story. Because of a curse cast by a local chief about 50 years ago, the forest has been left untouched and is home to thousands of rare animal- and plant species. Unfortunately the future of the area is now uncertain, as it is being threatened by lumber- and palm oil companies. It was this story, that Save the Orangutan employees Bue Heckmann and Claus Staunstrup Nilsson got involved in, as we along with researchers from our local collaborators visited the area.

The curse that saved the iron trees

After sailing for 5 hours up the Rungan River in small, hollowed out logs of wood equipped with boat engines, we reached a little village called Mungku Baru, along with our researchers and nature specialists. About 50 years ago in this village, a chief called down a curse on any person, who would cut down the area’s iron trees (see description to the right). The chief believed that the spirits of the past had settled themselves in the trees, which can live for more than 1000 years, and they therefore needed to be preserved.

Although no one can remember the exact wording of the curse, everyone in the village believed, that anyone who would cut down the iron trees would suffer a terrible fait and would be punished after death with eternal agony. You can therefore understand, why this curse for more than 50 years has kept everyone in the surrounding villages from cutting down the very valuable iron trees in the area, especially as the chief was said to have possessed supernatural powers. 

Strange (re)burial ritual

When we arrived at the village, coincidence would have it that the village was in the middle of a re-burial of the actual chief, who had cast the curse. His previous burial spot had been flooded, and he therefore had to be moved to a new burial plot higher up the land. Of course this could not be done without having a big ceremony, and all surrounding villages were invited to join the festivities. Being guests in the village, we of course took part in the ceremony. We first had our faces covered by a mud-like substance, then was served a small glass of beer and was given a (very bitter!) Betel nut folded in leaves with painted mussels from the river. 

Slightly affected by this cocktail, the village’s ceremony masters, wearing festive clothes, began playing on small, handheld drums, while they chanted a wordless song with their deep voices. The melody slowly increased in speed, and once the climax was over, the former chief’s bones were brought before the chanting ceremony masters, after which the villagers could bring the bones presents and show him respect by rubbing perfume on his bones and comb the non-existing hair on the skull. A strange ritual, which left me very curious. Unfortunately I was unsuccessful in finding a reason for this strange tradition. Once everyone had had an opportunity to show the chief their respect, he was laid to rest in his new grave, high above any potential flooding areas.

We visited the sacred forest threatened by timber companies

For us this meant that we could now go to the nearby forest, and see the place where the researchers will establish a research base. On the way there we saw several special plants, heard a lot of birds and one time had to run several hundred meters in to the rainforest, as we had crossed a living area of fire ants. Eventually we did arrive to a small, bare spot in the forest, located by a river, and this is where the researchers from all over the world is going to be based, as they collect data about this unique piece of nature.

Information about the area’s biodiversity is essential for when we one day will request that the 150,000 hectares forest area be protected by the Indonesian government. We will then be required to prove that the rainforest is worthy of preservation. Our initial findings have shown that the forest may contain Borneo’s largest number of iron trees, up to 2000 wild orangutans and several other species that are on IUCN’s list of critically endangered species.

However it is a race against the clock – or really against multinational lumber- and palm oil companies – to ensure that this unique rainforest area is protected. The lumber- and palm oil companies also have their eyes set on the area and have begun to move in on the outskirts of the area. Recently the lumber companies have started to apply for permits to allow them to cut down trees in the areas, where the rare iron trees are.

That is why Save the Orangutan is cooperating with our local partner BNF (Borneo Nature Foundation) and the village of Mungku Baru to try and ensure, that the legal rights to the forest area is given to the village, which will preserve this, to them, sacred area. If this race for the rights to the area is lost, there is unfortunately a big possibility that instead of being an area of beautiful nature and strange stories, it will be nothing but palm trees as far as the eye can see, when you visit the cursed forest.

Fortunately you can help make a difference to Borneo’s rainforest. Become an SOS Borneo partner, and help protect areas like Rungan, here >>

By Bue Heckmann, Head of Communication at Save the Orangutan

Did you know that by supporting SOS Borneo, you are not only securing more rainforest and saving orangutan habitat? Many of the forest areas that SOS Borneo focus on is in peatlands, which contains up to 20 times more CO2, than normal rainforests! Read more about peatland here >>

Facts about iron trees:

  • Iron tree is a common name for trees that have a greater mass than other trees and therefore does not float
  • In Borneo there is a special species of iron trees, called Ulin-trees (Eusideroxylon zwageri), which is very rare
  • Most iron trees in Borneo has already been cut down by lumber companies which can make a lot of money on the beautiful tree
  • An iron tree can live for over 1000 years and have a diameter of more than 2 meters

Save the Orangutan is working to restore and replant destroyed rainfores area's on Borneo through our SOS Borneo programme. Read more about our work to save the rainforest here >>