Saturday, April 18, 2015

Ethnobotany In Action and When Fish Climb Trees

Ethnobotany In Action:
A Trip to Maludam with the TK Team--
When Fish Climb Trees -- Exploring a Mangrove Swamp

Collecting plants and stories in Maludam

These last few days were a real eye-opener, a chance to go out into the field with the Traditional Knowledge (TK) team lead this week by Mr. Tu Chu Lee. Dave and I were so fortunate to get to join the TK group and see ethnobotanical work in the field!

Mr. Tu Chu Lee at work in Maludam
We went to the village of Maludam, a hard-working fishing village perched between the South China Sea and Maludam National Park. Maludam is about 100 kms ENE from Kuching and about a 4-hour trip that included three ferry crossings! The road was a relentless green blur through secondary forest & peat swamp forest, as well as wet grasslands & agricultural areas planted in coconut palms, tapioca, rice, corn, pineapples, & (the very useful) Nipa Palm (Nypa fruticans). 

On the ferry -- note the safety prayer
pasted on the motorbike!
Also, the further we got into the countryside, the more and more “swift-houses” we saw. These “houses” are designed for the birds – sparrows or swifts – who are enticed to build nests in them. The nests are harvested and sold for big money to make the famous (and expensive!) delicacy “Bird’s Nest Soup.” The ‘’houses’’ are two or three-story drab concrete boxes, with openings on one side – they are big singing barns that blast out a concentrated roar of bird songs and chirps.

Dave, Puan Dayang Hajijah, me and
Dayang's husband in the Hajijah Homestay
Maludam has about 5,000 people (composed of Iban, Malay and Chinese communities) and when our team finally arrived (there were seven of us) we unloaded our gear at the homestay run by Puan Dayang Hajijah (she teaches Zumba in Maludam!!) and her family.

The Hajijah Homestay was a roomy, comfortable Malay house, raised on "stilts" with its back legs occasionally in the water and never far from the fishing boats that chugged along the river, following it down to the sea one way or back up toward the park going the other.

I loved her kitchen!
Fishing boat on the Maludam River
TK team member Elsa recording plant
information from the community

The TK (Traditional Knowledge) group works with indigenous communities and teaches them how to preserve their age old wisdom about the plants around them and their uses. In modern times this knowledge is not always passed down to younger generations, and so it is vital to record and document this wisdom before it is gone. TK also facilitates the propagation, cultivation and management of these indigenous plants within communities where they are utilized and valued.

All over Sarawak, TK teams have been visiting indigenous communities and recording what people have to say about their local plants – how to use them, how to grow them, and how to find them.

We were fortunate enough to observe and participate in the workshop with the team, and I got to help teach the community leaders some of the basics of collecting plants.
The workshop drew about 20+ “headmen’’ (some of whom are women!) from different local communities. Everyone was brimming with enthusiasm and brought in plants to talk about and pass around.

Part of the process is to teach the community how to record the knowledge themselves. Armed with digital recorders, they set out to interrogate each other about the plants they brought in. It was a lively scene, with people good-naturedly teasing and correcting each other like a big, happy rowdy family at a reunion. It was fun to watch! You'll notice that the video does not have any audio-- we removed it so that the community gets to decide how much of their information gets shared. 

K.K. Gasing, the senior community leader
present, being interviewed by another headman.
The communities – and especially the elders – are living encyclopedias of plant wisdom and lore, and the community leaders took turns interviewing each other and capturing it on digital recorders.

Welcome to Maludam National Park:
Elsa, Tu and I and our guides
When we finished in the village, we had a chance to take a boat trip into Maludam National Park with Tu Chu Lee and Elsa. The park is famous for its crocodiles and its Proboscis Monkeys – we didn’t see either one this trip! 

I am glad we did not see any crocs!

But if you want to see the Proboscis Monkeys, just wait until the next blog!!

Pandanus andersonii
The boat trip took about two hours, through the ubiquitous Pandanus andersonii that are a big feature of this black water peat-swamp. The tide was in when we took our trip, making it easy for the boat to get around but also meaning that we could not get to any of the trails. Instead, we enjoyed a wonderful morning of boat-based botanizing!

Once we left the park we took the river out to sea. It is surreal the way that the river goes through a ribbon of mangrove swamp and then just turns into the South China Sea. 

The horizon merges into a line of river, sea, clouds and sky, with a few trees scattered around for effect!

While we were exploring the mangroves, the boat-men pointed out the Mudskippers. Mudskippers are fishes restricted to areas of Old World coastline & estuarine habitats, such as Indo-Pacific Mangrove Swamps. They not only swim as other fish do, but they can survive out of water and even climb trees! On our trip out to the Mangrove swamp, we were fortunate enough to see these mudskippers on the trunk of a Mangrove tree (Rhizophora).


Thanks for reading this far! I’ll end this blog for today, but there will be another blog soon, this time with some of the flora (Pitcher plants and sundews) and fauna (Proboscis Monkeys and Monitor Lizards) of Bako National Park!

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