The jungle is neutral

I worked as a fulltime tourist guide for the then largest tour operator in Malaysia in 1973. While waiting for my passengers to arrive, I often checked out the books on display in a shop at Subang Airport. Two of the books I bought were ‘Queen of the Head Hunters’ by the last Ranee of Sarawak, and ‘The Jungle is Neutral’ by Freddie Spencer Chapman, a British soldier who fought the Japanese in the Malayan jungle as a guerrilla during the Japanese Occupation.

The first memoir transported me to Sarawak between the First and Second World Wars, while the second gave an account on how the writer evaded Japanese troops and escaped capture by hiding and surviving for four years in the jungles of Malaya. I am conveniently using the name of the second book for the title of this article, as the jungle can be home or hell to many.

Other than human beings armed with weapons, it is survival of the fittest in the jungle. The biodiversity of our rainforests attracts scientists, explorers, hunters, gatherers, natives, adventurers and excursionists. Unless accompanied by experienced local guides, visitors can easily be disorientated or oblivious to the many hidden dangers. The case of 15-year-old Nora Quoirin, an Irish girl, who went missing on August 4 received international media attention.

It reminded me of Jim Thompson, known as the Thai Silk King, who went for an afternoon stroll on March 26, 1967 at Cameron Highlands and disappeared. More than 500 people combed 18 square miles of surrounding jungles but nothing was found. The number of people getting lost in our jungles is rising. In 2016, 191 cases were recorded and went up to 219 the following year.

Although there was a slight drop to 217 last year, the number rocketed to 252, including 23 foreigners, for the first seven months this year.

Are more foreign tourists visiting our rainforests or are Malaysians entering our jungles for fun? If escorted by guides, it is safe for foreign tourists to enjoy our jungles. But it would be unwise for Malaysians who grew up in concrete jungles to treat it like a walk in the city park.

Apart from mosquitos and leeches, one can easily fall by stepping on something slippery, loose or uneven, which may result in bumping the buttocks, rolling down a slope or dropping into a ravine. During heavy rains, trees prune their branches by dropping them off and this could kill or cause injuries. During raining seasons, natural dams may burst, sending tons of water downstream.

Hearing the roar of the rushing water is usually too late to reach higher ground. Leftover foods are often discarded near waterfalls and mountain streams. Among the many creatures that come to feast are rodents. But rat urine is deadly and those infected can develop leptospirosis.

Without treatment, the disease can lead to kidney damage, meningitis, liver failure, respiratory distress, and even death. In 2015, there were 8,291 leptospirosis cases and 78 deaths in the country.

One can be infected by rat urine in human settlement or in the jungle, such as gulping down water contaminated by rat urine, or wounds or cuts coming into contact with surface or soil with dried rat urine. While getting lost in our jungles is tragic, such incidences have also brought out the best in us, as search and rescue (SAR) teams risk their lives looking for the victims.

For example, 25-year-old Australian Andrew Gaskell went hiking at Mulu National Park and went missing on October 20, 2016.

He was only found on November 1 by a SAR team. The jungle is neutral. It is home to many wildlife and guerrillas like Chapman and communist insurgents in the past, and a backyard to those that frequently visit a small section. But if treated as nothing more than a playground, the consequences can be dire. In any case, it is not our Malaysian jungles that are dangerous, it is our apathy.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the New Sarawak Tribune.