Keeping alive folktales of orang-utans September 6, 2015, Sunday Lian Cheng, firstname.lastname@example.org
Niga Jenau (left) of Rumah Ngumbong, Ng Sumpa, Ulu Menyang, tells of how her grandfather Sambai was kidnapped by a giant orang-utan in the 1940’s. (Centre) Labang Buja of Rumah Liam, Rantau Kemayau Manis, Ulu Engkari relates the story of an encounter between a longboat builder and an orang-utan and Berunsai Ijau of Rumah Brown, Ng Stapang, Ulu Engkari, believes her grandfather died and was reincarnated as orang-utan. — Photos courtesy of WCS
LONG ago, while looking for game deep in the jungle, an Iban hunter saw a pair of orang-utans on top of a tall tree called perawan.
The female orang-utan was giving birth while the male was crushing the roots of some plants.
When the Iban hunter passed under the tree where the orang-utans were nesting, some chunks of roots fell on him.
“What are these things?” he asked.
He took a sniff but could not tell what the roots were.
The hunter was not put off, however. He took the roots back to his longhouse and planted them. And in time, the roots yielded what is known ginger.
When the hunter’s wife gave birth, he applied the ginger on her body — like he saw how the orang-utan was doing.
According to Kebong Manggum of Rumah David Ujan, Ng Sepaya (Ulu Engkari), that was how the Ibans learned about the medicinal values of ginger and the knowledge was passed down and is still being used to these days.
The story of how the Ibans learned to use ginger as a medicine is featured in one of the 37 folktales of Ulu Engkari and Ulu Menyang, collected in the book titled Ensera Mayas Enggau Bansa Iban — Orang-utan folklore and the Iban Communities.
The Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), in its involvement with the Iban communities and conservation works at Batang Ai, discovered that not only the Iban communities in the two areas — Ulu Engkari and Ulu Menyang — are different, their folklores handed down the generations are also distinct from other Iban communities in Sarawak.
While the Ibans from the other areas may regard orang-utans, especially those encroaching onto their gardens, as food, their counterparts of Ulu Engkari and Ulu Menyang treat the primates as relatives and forefathers.
This is one of the reasons a significant number of the great apes is still found in the two areas.
The book Ensera Mayas Enggau Bansa Iban contains 37 folktales depicting the relationship between the orang-utans and the Iban communities in Ulu Menyang and Ulu Enkari.
Folktales in Iban
The book was produced after many interviews. All the 37 folktales, presented in Iban language, depict the close relationships between the orang-utans and the Iban communities of Ulu Menyang and Ulu Enkari, the two tributaries of Batang Ai.
According to the folktales, the Iban communities in these two places not only learned how to use ginger from the orang-utans, but also let their women folk give birth naturally.
Before this, husbands used to cut open the stomachs of their wives to deliver newborns. So for every new life, a mother had to pay with her life.
“There are also tales of orang-utans changing into men and women and married the local Iban folks. It is, thus, not surprising the Iban communities here regard orang-utans as relatives or ancestors.
“It is also the belief of the communities that whenever their ancestors passed on, they would reincarnate as orang-utans and come back to visit them as orang-utans.
“So unlike the Iban communities in other areas, those in Ulu Engkari and Ulu Menyang have for centuries lived side by side with the orang-utans. It is taboo for them to hurt or hunt orang-utans,” said Now Sidu, one of the four writers of the book.
The 29-year-old, who is a senior WCS researcher, said traditionally, the Iban communities of Ulu Menyang and Ulu Engkari believed killing orang-utans would have repurcussions.
She added that hunters who killed orang-utans would bring ill not only upon themselves but also the whole longhouse.
“They will die one after another from accidents or will be wiped by some diseases in an instance.”
Taboo at Menyang, Engkari Citing a WCS social survey along six rivers — Menyang, Engkari, Ngemah, Mujok, Katibas and Kanowit — in 2012, Now said the results showed only the Iban communities at Menyang and Engkari had such a taboo.
“The communities at Ngemah, Mujok, Katibas and Kanowit do not share the same belief and it is all right for them to harm or kill orang-utans if the primates happened to trespass into their farms or are spotted by hunters. The Ibans along the four rivers also have no taboo on eating orang-utans.”
It is, thus, the aim of Now and her two other junior researchers, Mary Buloh Balang, 27, and Jenny Ngeian Machau, also 27, as well as WCS director of Malaysia Programme Dr Melvin Gumal, to come out with the book to instill good stewardship among the Iban communities across Sarawak in protecting endangered species, especially the orang-utans.
“Like any other parts of Sarawak, the young Ibans of Batang Ai area are leaving their villages to seek better lives. These orang-utan-related folktales will be lost if not preserved in writing.
“So we need to preserve these folktales which have been handed down through the oral tradition. We have collected and written them down. It is also our hope that through these folktales, the younger generation of Batang Ai Ibans will continue to preserve the good tradition of living in harmony with the orang-utans and be very aware of the importance of conserving the flora and fauna in their areas,” Now explained.
She said the book was published for the purpose of education, believing that knowledge would be an effective tool in promoting orang-utan conservation not only to the local communities but also the world at large.
To Mary Buloh Balang, who is with WCS for seven months, orang-utans are mystical animals. And to Now, the primates might, indeed, end up as mystical animals in the absence of conservation efforts.
Now Sidu (right), Mary Buloh Balang (centre) and Jenny Ngeian Machau the three Iban women writers.
Preparing the book
The collection of the folktales started with interviewing the elderly longhouse folks along the two rivers — Ulu Menyang and Ulu Engkari. There are eight longhouses in Ulu Menyang and 12 in Ulu Enkari.
The three Iban women writers — Now Sidu, Mary Buloh Balang and Jenny Ngeian Machau — managed to cover four longhouses in Ulu Menyang and 10 in Ulu Enkari.
The interview started in April this year and the stories written in May. By July, the book was completed and it was launched by Permanent Secretary of Resources Planning and Environment Datu Sudarsono Osman on Aug 5. Presently, WCS is translating the book into English.
Forestry Department Sarawak (FDS) bore the first printing costs. A total of 105 copies were printed with most distributed to the longhouses as a gesture of giving back to the community.
“What we are doing is all for the Iban communities in Ulu Menyang and Ulu Engkari who have played such an important part in preserving the orang-utans in their areas without knowing it,” Now pointed out.
SFD, Sarawak Forestry Corporation, WCS and Borneo Adventures (BA) had conducted an orang-utans survey between 2012 and 2013 in Ulu Menyang where a total of 1,421 nests and 25 orang-utans were sighted.
SFD estimates there is 200-strong orang-utan population in the area and has identified Ulu Menyang, situated between Batang Ai National Park and Lanjak Entimau Wildlife Sanctuary, as having the biggest orang-utan colony outside national parks in southern Sarawak.
Though classified as a reserved area, due to the uniqueness of Ulu Menyang, the government has allowed the affected local community to continue owning the land but will closely monitor development activities to make sure conservation efforts are not compromised.
A new model of conservation, involving the local communities, government agencies such as FDS and SFC, private sector such as BA as well as NGO such as WCS, is now underway to ensure successful co-existence of conservation and community tourism with the wildlife.