Rafflesia arnoldii. Source: wayfaring travel guide
Saving the environment has become a cause celeb over the last couple of decades. From protecting rain forests to guarding oceans and animals, there are legions of people trying to make a difference. Seeing these people doing all these good things for nature makes me grateful they are there, but what about nature itself? How does nature feel about these heroic people and their dedication? Is nature grateful for all this? Can nature appreciate a helping hand and offer some thanks in return?
I never thought about this question until a recent trip to southern Borneo. I was heading up the Sekonyer River not far from a town called Kumai to see some semi-wild Orangutans that live in the swamp forests of a national park known as Tanjung Puting. It is the largest protected forest in southern Borneo.
“We just lost a ‘Ranger’ in this area,” my guide Manny told me as he pointed at a small dock on the edge of the forest. Manny wasn’t much older than 20 and had a look of sincerity on his face. He had been guiding tourists through this area of Borneo for only a few years.
“What do you mean,” I asked innocently. It was hard to fathom anything going seriously wrong from where I sat – eating banana fritters on top of a brightly colored tourist boat named after a famous Orangutan.
“He just disappeared,” Manny told me. “About a month ago from the ranger station at Pesalat.”
The missing ranger, I quickly learned was a 27 year old named Digman from a nearby village. He was the new recruit to a 50 member team of eco-rangers who are assigned with protecting the flora and fauna of the Park. These rangers occupy a number of stations scattered throughout the park for a month at a time. Sometimes they are alone and sometimes they have 1 or 2 other rangers with them. They officially work for a re-forestry program called “One Man One Tree” that is run by the Indonesian Government. But they are also there to protect just about everything from ravages of illegal loggers, poachers, and colonists.
Digman always wanted to work in this area. Ever since he was a young man, he had a yearning to protect the environment. He grew up during a period of massive deforestation throughout the 90′s, and did everything he could to find a career protecting the environment from further decline. When he got a job as an ranger in the park, he was thrilled. He happily packed the few belongings he could take, and dedicated himself to his training. He then proceeded to his first post at Pesalat for a month’s stay.
Two weeks after Digman took up his guard duties at Pesalat, another ranger, Ledan, stopped to check up on Digman. But Digman was gone. Ledan looked around and found a local villager who said the new ranger gave up the lonely job and went home. But Ledan didn’t believe it. Digman’s wallet with money and all his clothes were still there. Ledan sent out the word that something was wrong.
The tale reminded me of the stereotypical stories you hear coming from the rain forest. When an ecological do-gooder gets between illegal loggers and their timber, or poachers and their prey, the do-gooder is the one who usually ends hurt or even killed. But that didn’t seem to be the case here. As my guide Manny explained, all the illegal loggers and poachers had been removed from the national park and given other lands to exploit so there was no real conflict there.
“So then what do you think happened to this Digam ranger?” I asked.
“There are lots of things that could have happened to him, ” Manny said.
Manny told me the local villagers had a few theories about what happened to Digman. Most thought Digman had been eaten by a crocodile. The area is teaming with them and every so often, the crocs are able to get their teeth into a human. Manny told me that a few years before my arrival, a British tourist who was on a boat just like mine got a little carried away and went swimming. Despite warnings from the boat’s captain to stay out of the water, this crazy tourist just couldn’t hold back his inner Steve Irwin and eventually got eaten by a crocodile.
According to Manny, the police came out to investigate the death of the tourist. They wanted to find the body and then kill the croc before it struck again. But before they could accomplish their task, one of the policeman was killed by a croc and the investigation was abandoned.
“Wow,”I said in amazement. ” I feel bad for the people who were killed, but it blows my mind to think of the crocs winning over the police. ”
Manny nodded his head and told me that the police no longer came out to look for missing people. “If you want them to come out, you have to pay them,” he said.
“You mean the police didn’t come out to look for Digman?”
“No, just the other rangers and Digman’s family,” Manny confessed.
“And they didn’t find anything. No croc, no remains?”
“Not really. There was a moment when they thought Digman might have been eaten by a Python but that didn’t pan out.”
“Are you talking about a snake?”
“Yes, Borneo has some of the largest Python’s in the world. Not long after Digman went missing, someone captured an 18 meter python with human remains inside of it.”
I was incredulous. “18 meters… Are you telling me they caught a Python snake that was almost 50 feet long?”
Manny knew it was hard to believe so he pulled out his mobile phone and scanned through some pictures. He stopped on one showing a huge python draped over a crane arm. The crane arm was fully extended and the snake dwarfed it. I couldn’t believe my eyes.
“They caught it using a chicken on a rope. But once they killed it and opened it up, they discovered it was a security guard from a local palm oil plantation who also went missing.”
The security guard was naked except for his underwear. This led investigators to believe that he was bathing in a nearby river just before being attacked by the Python. The photo Manny showed me of the dissected snake was horrifying. You could see the skin of the snake cut open and inside, the torso of human. The head was already partially decomposed from the snakes digestive acids but still defined enough to make a preliminary identification that it was the missing security guard. But an arm was still very recognizable as it crossed over the top of the stomach area.
I was barely over the terrible thought of being devoured by a 50 ft Python when Manny went on to mention other things that might have happened to Digman. “There are also leopards in the area who are known to attack humans,” he said. “Only a few months ago, a ranger was attacked by a leopard. Luckily, he survived. But it is also to easy to get killed that way.”
Our conversation eventually went on to Orangutans since it was the purpose of our trip. But the thought of poor Digman and his certain demise at the hands of hungry animals stuck with me all day. It seemed so odd that a young man so filled with a passion to help protect nature would be treated so poorly by it.
If only the animals knew that he was there for their benefit, perhaps they would have chosen to thank him instead of devouring him. How ungrateful I thought. Nature is so lacking in empathy, conscience or morals. It seems to only know one thing – eat or be eaten. I guess that is something to remember if you ever decide to join the cause to protect nature in the wild. Don’t do it if your desire is to be appreciated for your behavior more than your flesh.
SO WHAT DID HAPPEN TO DIGMAN?
Nobody knows for sure what happened to Digman since he was never found. The family, frustrated by lack of help from local authorities, eventually turned to a village witchdoctor for help. The witchdoctor investigated and told the family their son had been abducted by the forest spirit called Hantu Utan, a half ape, half human creature. Please sign up for the email list (at the top of the page) to be alerted when I publish the next part of this story. Thanks for reading!