Was Borneo once a land of tigers?
- The scientific consensus is that while tigers did inhabit the Indonesian islands of Java and Bali, and still live in Sumatra, they never lived in Borneo.
- Indigenous peoples in Borneo say otherwise. So-called \'tiger fangs,\' for example, often feature in traditional Dayak ceremonies.
- Some researchers wonder if the question of whether tigers lived in Borneo has gotten short shrift from experts who should be paying more attention to local communities.
One recent morning I paid a visit to Iber Djamal, a leader of the Dayak Ngaju indigenous people. He had invited us to see his mandau, a traditional Dayak weapon.
When I saw the mandau, which is a kind of machete, my attention focused not on the blade but on the fangs adorning it.
What surprised me was that they were said to be tiger fangs.
"These are tiger fangs, not leopard fangs," Iber said. "The fangs that decorate this mandau are from the animals that have been killed by the weapons inherited from my ancestors. Besides tigers, there are crocodiles, bears, leopards and boars."
What kind of tiger was killed with this mandau?
"A tiger in Kalimantan. It was killed by my ancestor. There used to be tigers in Kalimantan."
Iber's explanation certainly differs from the general understanding about tigers in Kalimantan, the Indonesian part of Borneo island.
The present scientific consensus is that no one in Kalimantan has ever found a tiger. Researchers think the only tigers in Indonesia are in Bali (now extinct), Java (thought to be extinct) and Sumatra (only a few hundred left).
Iber said that the tiger - called harimau in Indonesian and haramaung in Dayak Ngaju - was one of the animals most commonly hunted by his ancestors.
"We believe that if a man can hunt and kill a tiger when his wife is pregnant, the child will grow up to be a king or a leader," he said.
If a mandau is adorned with tiger fangs, it will endow whomever wields it with courage.
"Maybe because they're worth so much to some people, tigers in Kalimantan have been hunted to extinction," he said.
He added that if anyone in his tribe ever found a tiger, it wouldn't be hunted, "because these animals need to be protected."
Fangs from a tiger or a clouded leopard?
After encountering this phenomenon, I contacted Yoan Dinata, chairperson of Forum HarimauKita, an NGO, about the possibility of a long-lost species of Bornean tiger.
"There is no record or scholarship of tigers ever living in Kalimantan," Dinata said.
"But there is a possibility that in the past they did live there, because the islands of Java, Sumatra and Borneo were once fused with mainland Southeast Asia."
According to Dinata, in Kalimantan today there is only the Sunda clouded leopard (Neofelis diardi).
"I don't know if the fangs adorning all of those mandau blades are the fangs of tigers or clouded leopards," he said.
Dinata suggested that there should be more research as to the origin of the fangs. "If they really are tiger fangs, we should study how old they are."
Scientifically, the nonexistence of tigers in Kalimantan raises many questions among researchers. The merging in ancient times of Borneo with mainland Southeast Asia certainly brought to it a variety of Asiatic wildlife.
As a predator, the path of the tiger in the past was certainly influenced by the distribution of its prey. From a habitat perspective the characterstics of Sumatra today are similar with those of Kalimantan.
"Almost all of the animals in Kalimantan are also in Sumatra, including the orangutan and elephant. But surprisingly in Kalimantan today there aren't any tigers," Dinata said.
"Dayak people's recognition of the existence of tigers in the past would be an interesting thing to study."
On the other hand, many of the sources of scientific findings in the past century are by Western researchers - it's very rare to get information from local communities to be summarized in the scientific record.
For example, findings that the Sumatran rhinoceros (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis) might exist in Kalimantan were questioned by some researchers. Only after evidence such as horns and tracks were found did experts begin to seriously explore the existence of this species. As a result, experts finally met the Sumatran rhino in Borneo.
Maybe at a historical moment the tracks of a Bornean tiger will be revealed based on information from local communities. Who knows?
Translated by Philip Jacobson, this story originally appeared on Mongabay.