Nature natters


Durians at a stall. – Photo by Kalai

FROM time to time, I like to update readers with the findings of researchers in the wider world. As the delightfully designed display podium at Kuching International Airport rightly declares: ‘From Borneo to the World’, so I try to bring the world to Borneo.

Sweet side of durian

Durians are often described as the world’s smelliest fruits and are a very much acquired taste among fruits. A true story of two Malaysian students travelling by coach from London Airport back to their university in Oxford put to their taste buds their love of durians. After 45 minutes’ journey, other coach passengers complained to the driver about a smell of rotten flesh. The driver stopped the coach, got all passengers to examine their luggage in the coach holds and found two well covered cardboard boxes from which the pungent smell emitted. The owners were given the option of ditching the boxes to continue their journey or keep the boxes and walk. Suffice to say the Malaysian students decided to walk! Before long, a big-hearted lorry driver, with no sense of smell, took them to their destination.

Alfred Russel Wallace in his 1869 book ‘The Malay Archipelago’ described the Sarawak durian as “a rich

butter-like custard highly flavoured with almonds … intermingled with cream-cheese, onion-sauce, brown sherry, and other incongruities”. One hundred and twenty-five years later, I first ate durian and subsequently, in more recent visits to Santubong and Damai, have bought fresh durians from the roadside stallholders. As a fruit, it is an acquired taste for a foreigner and as Wallace wrote, “the more you eat of it the less you feel inclined to stop. In fact, to eat durians is a new sensation, worthy of a voyage to the East to experience”.

Bitter side of durian

Malaysia officially produces 134 varieties of durian with the Musang King as the most purchased kind. China, with its vast population, is already a major market where 40 per cent of imported durians come from Thailand but Malaysia is rapidly catching up. Currently the Malaysian government is encouraging the production of durians on a large scale. Some farmers are switching from the present low price of palm oil to grow durians. Malaysia’s impact on the China market saw some RM7.4 million worth of durians flooding there between January and August 2018. Through a trade deal earlier this year, Malaysia is now allowed to export whole frozen durians to China. There, one durian can sell at RM500. Durian ice cream, cakes, and even pizzas are on sale there.

One can only congratulate Malaysian durian producers for seizing this opportunity, but sadly there is a downside to the environment and the durian’s future could be likened to an animal hunted to extinction.

In the durian’s case, the mammal is the fruit bat (Pteropus hypomelanus), often called the flying fox. This fruit bat is being hunted to near extinction for its supposed, but never scientifically proven, medicinal properties.

The Malaysian fruit bat is a key player in healthy durian growth as it is a pollinator. Several conservation and research groups have declared that the hunting of these bats, as well as the deforestation for the creation of durian plantations, should cease. Dr Sheema Abdul Aziz, whose PhD research was based on fruit bat pollination, has highlighted that these mammals are the most efficient pollinators of durian fruit. Durian monoculture combined with the continued hunting of fruit bats could well cut off the hands that have happily fed many Malaysians for many a past year. Savour every mouthful of local durians now, for it is possible that overseas market demands may soon see a rising cost in durian sales.

Sea grass stores enormous amounts of carbon dioxide. — Photo by Peter Southwood

Burnt toast and toasters

My penchant for durians extends also to my usual breakfast of a slice of toasted bread and marmalade. Recently, the research of Asst Prof Marina Vance at the University of Colorado, USA, revealed that a toaster sends toxic particles into the air as soon as it is switched on. The World Health Organisation (WHO) maintains that good quality air should have less than 25 micrograms of fine particles per cubic metre. Should the toast be allowed to reach dark brown or black, then particle-levels rise to 3,000 to 4,000 micrograms! This research focuses our minds on what we are doing to contaminate the air that we breathe indoors, as opposed to our natural concern as to what we are doing to contaminate our atmosphere outside.

Burnt toast can subject us to more pollution than walking or driving to work at rush hour traffic times. Other pollutants in our houses are scented candles, spray bottle cleaners, gas, cookers, and wood burning stoves emitting soot particles. We need more ‘fresh air’ from outside in our homes but not, of course, if living alongside a very busy road.

Nylon fishing nets are seen washed up on a beach.


I particularly love fresh fish, whether plaice or lemon sole in the UK and red snapper and prawns in Sarawak, but at what expense to humans and our environment? Our oceans’ silent killers are lost or discarded fishing nets and shellfish pots, which are more lethal to marine life than plastic bags, straws, and plastic bottles.

Thousands of crabs, dolphins, fish, lobsters, seals and turtles are annually trapped and suffer a horrifying death in this ‘ghost-gear’. The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (UNFAO) has estimated that 600,000 tonnes of fishing gear, composed of nylon, is annually lost or discarded in our seas, only to be washed up on beaches with dying or dead marine life attached.

A trial is taking place amongst fishermen from Plymouth, in southwest England, by attaching transponders to the buoys anchoring their nets and crab pots. These beacons will send radio signals to other fishing boats and larger vessels in the English Channel, alerting all to the positions of the nets thus preventing passing ships from churning up the nets with their propellers. The fishermen will also have access to a website

to locate which passing vessels may have destroyed their equipment. Whilst the initial costs of transponders may be beyond the income of small fishermen, government and NGO funding from larger fisheries may make this a possibility for all fishermen there. Beach clean-ups in both Sabah and Sarawak have revealed a high percentage of lost and damaged fishing gear.

Fruit bats hang upside down. Fruit bats are vital in healthy durian growth. — Photo by Hadonos

Heatwaves and sea life

Marine ecosystems the world over are being wrecked by the rate of absorption of atmospheric heat into the oceans. A ‘marine heatwave’ occurs when sea temperatures rise above usual for five consecutive days. These so-called ‘spikes’ in sea temperatures have increased in frequency and severity over the last four decades with disastrous consequences.

The base of the marine food chain, corals, kelps, and seagrasses, which provide fish and crustaceans food and shelter from higher order predators, is fast disappearing. These relatively simple organisms do, in fact, help to regulate sea temperatures.

Seagrass, for instance, stores enormous amounts of carbon dioxide. The journal ‘Nature Climate Change’ focussed specifically upon eight very long marine heatwaves. It particularly targeted what marine biologists refer to as ‘The Blob’. From 2014 to 2016, a huge area of eastern Pacific warm water lingered on the west USA coast, extending from Mexico all the way north to Alaska. Toxic blooms of algae appeared, verified by satellite images, and were attributed to the demise of fish and, inevitably, in the demise of sea otter and whale populations.

We are all aware of the bleaching of coral reefs and the dearth of marine life in those reefs affected in Malaysia and on the east coast of Australia but are probably unaware that the global production of fish has fallen from 1930 to 2010 by 4 per cent, due to climate change. Fish respond to sea temperature changes in their search for phyto and zoo planktons, thus altering their migratory routes and avoiding warm and warming waters.

Our world’s largest fisheries have experienced a loss of 35 per cent of their catches compared with 50 years ago. With an ever-increasing human population, now standing at 7.7 billion people, many still rely on fish as their main source of protein. Our seas are getting even warmer but our dilemma is how are we are we planning to respond to a near environmental collapse?