My quarry stood not ten meters into the jungle. The hunt was on. I crept off the trail and performed a contortionist’s walk through tangled vines with ensnaring hooks, my path lit by the torch on my head. Soon I was creeping up on my target, which stood still, unaware of my approach. Silently, I brought up my right arm and took aim. I began to film as the frog hopped along the vine it had been perched on. Next, a sharp explosion like a gunshot rang out incongruously over the top of the rainforest hum. The din of rainforest cicadas, crickets and frogs didn’t miss a beat, but I suspected that nearby some jungle animal had just taken a hit.

Intermittent explosions punctuated my family’s visit to Mulu World Heritage Area in Sarawak, in Malaysian Borneo. The rangers consistently suggested these bangs, sounding very like a shotgun, were actually fireworks left over from new-year’s eve. Their explanations lacked conviction. The empty shotgun cartridge I found in a remote part of the park suggested an alternative explanation for the disconcerting bangs. I asked our guide about it, and he explained that hunting continued to be a problem in the park, with poachers and local tribes hunting in areas zoned exclusively for conservation.

Harlequin tree frog

Spotting creatures larger than this harlequin tree frog (Rhacophorus pardalis) is near impossible in many areas of Borneo.

In fact, hunting in Mulu World Heritage Area, and in most protected areas in Malaysian Borneo is a complex social problem, born of rainforest destruction, corruption and modernisation. In the Mulu area, rainforest logging in the 1970s and 80s destroyed the traditional lives of the Penan and other indigenous tribes. “Save the Penan” campaigns in Australia and other western countries notwithstanding, the Penan were “invited” out of the forest and communities were set up in permanent long houses. Displaced indigenous tribes retain hunting rights over many parts of the protected area system. They are armed with new weapons, their sedentary populations are growing, and they have deep cultural links to hunting wild animals. This is proving to be a deadly combination; hunting by indigenous people is having enormous impacts on wildlife populations. There are no orangutan in Mulu, and like almost all of Borneo, rhinoceros have been hunted to extinction. Latest reports put the number of rhinos left in Borneo at three. The only non-human primates we encountered in Mulu were two red leaf monkeys and we heard two groups of gibbons in the distance during our trek to the Mulu summit in remote parts of the park. Wildlife was hard to see, and the bigger animals didn’t waste any time deciding if you were a harmless tourist or a hungry Penan. Animals fled.

Hunting in Mulu is not just an enforcement issue, it is a major social challenge. We travelled down-river on a longboat with a powerful outboard motor to visit a Penan long house. Their village had just been flooded and the obviously already-poor community was working to recover their small field of crops, repair damaged motorbikes and muck out ground-floor housing. Soaked children’s books moldered around the concrete walkways. Our village guide explained that people earned some money from tourists like us, some who spoke English could get work with the national park, but generally, their income was too low to buy the basics. They couldn’t even afford fuel for their kids to travel to and from school, so generally the children stayed away, in the towns, for long periods of time. In these impoverished conditions, hunting is an essential supplement to their subsistence. It wouldn’t cost much to solve that problem, but a Mulu Penan village is a long way from the growing economies in Kuching or Kota Kinabalu.

Motivation to solve the over-hunting problem is weak, even among many rangers. That is understandable among the Penan rangers (who used to regard killing a rhinoceros as a rite of passage to manhood), though it’s still problematic. Corruption, however, remains a key driver of wildlife destruction in Malaysian Borneo. We discovered this first hand when we visited the iconic Kinabalu National Park in Sabah. Climbing the summit of Kinabalu has become a tourist must-do and is the most popular natural attraction in Sabah, ahead of the Sepilok orangutan sanctuary. We stayed with a local tourist operator, intending to explore lower reaches of the park. I was surprised to find that I wasn’t allowed to use trails into the park, and when I asked the operator about this, he explained what had happened. Their staff had caught Park Rangers poaching wildlife, red handed (without meaning to be too graphic). When the tourist operator challenged park staff about this, park staff closed ranks and ruled that the tour guide and his visitors could no longer enter the park. No more risk of rangers being caught poaching. This story made sense of my observations in the park. I had expected this long-standing and large national park to be home to a broad range of primates and other native mammals. Instead, we didn’t see a single mammal or large bird during our two-night visit. For us wildlife lovers, it was extremely disappointing. For biodiversity, it is an ongoing train wreck.

Proboscis monkeys

Proboscis monkeys (Nasalis larvatus), just one example of the many beautiful species that can be found in Borneo’s protected areas.

In stark contrast to the jungles bereft of large animals at Mulu and Kinabalu, Danum Valley in southern Sabah was dripping with wildlife. Families of red leaf monkeys sat in trees above the river, untroubled by my fascinated family raising binoculars and cameras. Troupes of macaques, flocks of crested firebacks and a large pheasant would all maraud among the houses of the small settlement. There were reports of clouded leopards being observed nearby, and this is not surprising given the large numbers of deer that emerge to graze the lawns during the night. Gibbons hooted in the fruiting fig tree outside our accommodation as they swung amid branches festooned with civets and birds including tasty-looking pigeons and hornbills. We were extremely privileged to encounter wild orangutans, and even more excited to talk with field staff who reported observing a rhinoceros with their camera traps.

What was so different at Danum Valley compared with the other places we visited? There was no hunting.

The lack of hunting was not attributed to better management alone, although that was definitely an important component. We entered the reserve through a boom gate manned by armed guards and an enormous warning sign that rangers carried weapons. One of the rangers we spoke to explained that a large part of his job was to regularly patrol the reserve at night and send off would-be poachers.

The other key reason that Danum Valley retains most of its fauna is that it is not a traditional hunting area. The local Orange Sungai tribe lived closer to the coast, travelling upriver only for ceremonies, including burials, where elaborately decorated wooden coffins and large ceramic jars were placed in caves overlooking the river.

Stopping the hunting culture that thrives throughout most of Borneo requires continuous effort on the part of the rangers, both in armed defence of the reserve, but also ongoing cultural defence. At the Danum Valley office in Lahad Datu, the nearest town, we noticed one of the staff wearing a t-shirt “Friends not Food”, but instead of the usual vegan images of friendly livestock, this t-shirt was a montage of Borneo’s endangered mammals and birds.

As a conservation biologist in Australia, I don’t really think of hunting as a major threatening process. In Australia, threats to our wildlife are most often associated with habitat loss, introduced plants, invasive animals and new diseases. When I think of major conservation issues in Borneo, I think of habitat destruction through logging, and the rampant expansion of palm oil plantations. Logging and palm oil have devastating impacts over vast areas, but on my visit I was expecting to see that. What I found shocking was that the pristine parts, the jungle set aside for nature conservation, had been pillaged. The amazing fauna that I expected to see had been shot, carried off and eaten. Poverty, tradition and corruption continue to drive these impacts, even in areas where most of the large animals are long gone.

The solutions to the problem will be diverse to match the complex drivers of hunting in Borneo. Enforcement will always have a role, particularly for high-value fauna. Managing human population size in areas around national parks would be valuable, but it’s hard to make suggestions like this from Australia where our population growth rate exceeds growth in Malaysia and is higher than the world average. As a tourist, I paid a lot of money to visit remote national parks, and I would be prepared to pay more to help fund alternative food sources for the Penan so they are not forced to hunt. If the economic necessity to hunt can be diminished, perhaps programs to encourage changes in attitudes towards wildlife, from food to friend, might have a chance.

Don Driscoll is a professor of ecology at Deakin University.