Pangolins and the Penan

Yesterday we undertook a long journey to Sukang to meet the last Penan tribe living in Brunei. These people live their lives in tune with the forest, talking what they need when they need it.

When I comes to the impact of hunting of local tribes conservationists hold many different viewpoints. Some stand on the side of enforcement, others on the side of offering alternative livelihoods and some talk of sustainable livelihoods, but, echoing the theme of the previous post, how many people have gone and seen these people? Have you looked at how they live? Have you spent time with them? Have you taken an interest in their opinions? You may say yes, but can you say you’ve managed it without judging or criticizing the fact that they may, occasionally, kill something that we are desperately trying to protect?

This was the aim of yesterday’s trip.


The road to Sukan is bad, we can testify, we got stuck in it. There is no electricity supply to the long house and the wooden floors are falling apart. Any supplies they need must be arranged a month before and done by good old fashioned talking, no mobiles or landlines. They are kind hearted and welcoming, not hesitating to help us when we were in trouble and needing shelter for the night.

However, they hunt. They set traps and use blow pipes to catch and eat monkeys, pangolins, wild boar mouse deer and anything else they catch. We asked them how often they hunt, and they replied, simply whenever they need to. The last time they got a pangolin was a long time ago, and it is very rare that they get them.

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Yet the forest seems healthy, with a long list of species they have seen in there. This is sustainable off-take without any need for outside intervention. People, without greed, taking what is needed, taking enough to satisfy the demand. The difference being, the demand here, is for their own basic need.

So, when the demand is higher, you can guess what happens next. This was echoed by one of the people living the long house who spends some months of the year here and others in Sarawak. He said that no one in Brunei is asking for animals, whereas in Sarawak, there are more people asking for certain animals – and as a hunter who can get them, why would you turn down business? And just to clarify, this is also in an area where a homestay has been set up bringing in money to the village (which, he told us, they are happy with).

This is the same tribe, the same person, acting differently depending on the situation. Is this really what we as conservationist are doing? Are we honestly all being as flexible and adaptable in our ideas and actions?

I am not even going to suggest a solution to this. One trip, to one long house, that’s not enough. However, I certainly don’t think any less of them for hunting wild animals, I eat meat, who am I to judge? I’m certainly not offended by the fact that they have eaten pangolin, but this doesn’t mean I care any less about their plight. In this area, looking at the swathes of forest surrounding the single long house, I feel comforted that they are, for the meantime, guardians of this forest.


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