By Robin Hanbury-Tenison
11 OCTOBER 2014 • 12:00AM
On my first morning back in the rainforest, I awoke to the familiar song of the Beethoven bird. A babbler of the genus Malacoptera, it sings, over and over, the first four notes of his 5th Symphony: da-da-da-dum, with the last note always slightly off key. I strained my ears to hear the other thrilling dawn song, that of the gibbons, but it turned out that I would have to wait several days before, far in the distance, I heard the faint ‘whoop, whoop, whoop, whooop, whoooop…’ on a gradually rising cadence, that epitomises for me the wonder of Borneo.
On the Mulu expedition 36 years ago we used to imitate that call when greeting each other from afar, and some of us still do, so that you may occasionally hear it echoing across Exhibition Road in London. It was there, at the Royal Geographical Society in 1975, that the idea of this scientific research project was conceived and I was invited to be leader of what was to become the biggest expedition yet mounted by the RGS. The need to study tropical rainforests had been recognised, and the recently gazetted Gunung Mulu National Park, the largest in Sarawak, Malaysia, provided a unique research opportunity to do this, in one of the richest and least explored environments on earth.
A small group of us lived there for 15 months. We built a replica of a traditional longhouse as our base camp on the edge of the park, and constructed a number of sub-camps in remote locations, some of which are still there. My job, and that of my small admin team, was to look after more than 120 scientists of many disciplines and nationalities, who came and went, examined, measured, considered and concluded, producing a welter of important papers on how tropical forests worked. The 50 separate projects covered forest ecology and nutrient recycling, geomorphology, hydrology and cave survey, botanical and zoological inventories, vegetation survey and a management plan. By the end, it was the best-studied rainforest in the world and our research, the resulting BBC film and our various books and articles were all instrumental in triggering global concern about the rapid destruction and disappearance of this priceless ecosystem and helped start the campaign to save it wherever it still existed; and Mulu became a World Heritage Site.
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