Unburied Nuts from 19th July 2007: Cats over Borneo

on Wednesday, April 14, 2010

From time to time, I uncover an older post and give it another chance in the spotlight. As I am not very creative at the moment, I thought it was time to do so again. As it happens, there have been a lot of visitors sniffing around this post having Googled "cats over Borneo" or "cats and parachutes". What strange things people use Google for! Well, if you had done so, you might have ended up unearthing this fact is stranger than fiction story. Enjoy.


Cats in Cat City, Borneo (PhotoCredit: LGS)

This strange piece of public art is found in the city of Kuching which is the capital of the state of Sarawak on the vast, equatorial and forested island of Borneo. The cats' theme is actually in tribute to the city because the name Kuching actually means "cat" in the Malay language. Hence Kuching is actually "Cat City".

However, Borneo is the setting of an even more interesting and bizzare cat related story. This story is often called "Cats over Borneo". The story is set in the 1950's. Malaria, the severe and potentially fatal blood borne disease, was rampant and it was known to be spread by the Anopheles mosquito. The relatively new and young World Health Organization (WHO) was fervent in their efforts to fight malaria.

They had just added to their arsenal of weapons, a new and effective insecticide, a chemical called dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane or DDT. Today, we are aware of DDT's problems including its long half life and tendency to accumulate in fatty tissue as well as its effect on non-target species. However, at that time, the pesticide was being used worldwide, and was widely touted for its safety and its effectiveness.

Anyway, the WHO sprayed DDT liberally in the Dayak villages of the Sarawak interior. Initially, this campaign was considered a success as mosquitoes were killed and the malaria rate dropped. Then authorities were hit by two mystery complaints. The first was very bizzare. The Dayak villages consisted of longhouses which accomodate several families and which were covered by a thatch roof. The villagers complained that their roofs were collapsing exposing whole communities to the elements. Although puzzled, the authorities were forced to act quickly and sent in corrugated metal sheets to be used as roofing material.

Before, they could even take a breather, they were surprised by the outbreak of plague and reports of famine as grain stores were decimated by a large invasion of rats. The authorities urgently investigated the matter and called the Royal Air Force for help. Citizens were also asked to donate cats and to help build special cat baskets. Operation "Cat Drop" was carried out in which hundreds of cats were parachuted by the RAF onto interior villages. This reinforcement of cats eventually solved the problem.

The Day They Parachuted Cats on Borneo by Charlotte Pomerantz relates this true story in the form of a rhyme. It is also featured in an article by Gordon R. Conway in The Careless Technology: Ecology and International Development (1972) and a first-hand account of “Operation Cat-drop” is given by Tom Harrisson in the journal Animals published in 1965.

What transpired in the jungles of Borneo is a clear example and a cautionary tale that man does not know enough about the inter-connectivity of the web of life and many of our actions to address a single problem have often unexpected reprecussions. The DDT did infact kill the mosquitoes and also other insects in the jungle which were non-target species. One of which was a jungle wasp. These wasps in turn played the important role of keeping a certain caterpillar population in check by laying eggs on the caterpillar and when the larvae hatch out, the larvae feed on the caterpillar, killing it. When the DDT killed the wasp, the caterpillar population boomed and as the caterpillar fed on the roof thatching, the roofs started to collapse.

At the same time, the geckos which are a type of lizard which feed on insects were having a great time because it kept finding dead insects everywhere. However, as they ate, the DDT levels in their bodies continued to rise. The cats in the village in turn often catch and eat the geckos. Soon, all the cats died of poisoning. With the cats gone, the rats came out to play. Their population boomed, leading to the destruction of grain stores and the spread of plague. A situation that was only reversed by the airborne drop of cats over Borneo.

A strange but true tale and a warning to man to stop messing with the world's complex and balanced web of life. I did not even mention how all these imported cats caused a great upset to the indigenous squirrel population!

The Haircut: How the Pampered Have Fallen

on Friday, April 09, 2010

Sometime back, I wrote about how I was conflicted about going to have my haircut in one of the modern unisex hairdressing salons (The Haircut: the Estacy and the aqony). I initially felt uncomfortable with being pampered with someone washing my hair or giving me scalp massages but finally I gave in. So for the last four years, I had abandoned my proletariat roots and reveled in the decadence of the upmarket unisex salon.

However, economic realities and impending unemployment has recently forced me to seek more modest alternatives. And so, yesterday I found myself waiting in the queue at the bargain cut-price barber shop at the local mall.

It was very interesting comparing this budget establishment and the average unisex salon. Firstly, there was no nice sofa set or waiting room where you could read magazines or sip tea while you waited. The whole place was only really big enough for two barber chairs and we had to wait, sitting on three legged stools, outside in the corridor leading to the toilets.

The next noticeable difference was the cleanliness of the establishment or rather the lack of it. Let's just say that the floor had a heavy carpet of hair. The two staff was responsible for cutting and styling hair, collecting money, selling hair care products and cleaning up. Considerably overworked, cleaning and sweeping the floor of the cut locks by the staff only occurred when the layer of hair was deep enough to clog the wheels on their rolling chairs.

However, I thought the most interesting difference was in their approaches to hair styling. In the up-market hairsalon, the hairstylist expertly uses to cut the hair, getting rid of the unwanted lengths and then tidies up using an electirc clipper and a small pair of scissors. This is similar to someone using garden shears to trim back the unruly branches of a bush and then finally using an electric powered shears to finely sculpture the bush.

The highly expert budget stylist uses the electric clippers to shear you like a sheep is sheared for its wool and then uses the scissors to cut whatever remains sticking out. Using the analogy of the bush, it is more similar to using a chain saw to sculpture a bush and then tidying up the splinttered branches later with some shears.

I miss the up-market pampering but I like the price (which is at least 75% cheaper) and the haircut is actually quite good. Plus the people watching is more interesting. I think I can live with my fall from Grace. (Grace was the name of the up-market salon I used to go to).

Proud Malaysian

on Tuesday, April 06, 2010

I was watching the Amazing Race (Season 16, episode 8)on TV a couple of days ago and pleased to see that the competitors were in the historical and beautiful island of Penang in Malaysia on their race around the world. I thought the program did a good job of showcasing some of the more interesting aspects about the people and culture of Penang.

If you had watched the program, you would have learned, for example, that Malaysian taxi drivers need little encouragement to speed and drive recklessly and that we are capable of having traffic jams even on idyllic island paradises.

Seriously though, I particularly liked the way the program introduced the unique culture that developed in a place that has been a cultural mixing bowl for some 600 years. The team consisting of two cowboy brothers won the leg of the competition because they undertook to do the Chingay and did surprisingly well.

Chingay is a cultural performance that originated from China but was introduced to Penang by the Chinese people living there. The signature of Chingay is the carrying of gigantic bamboo flags in street processions. These performances have their roots in Taoist worship. The hoisting of gigantic flags have been recorded as early as 1905, and were performed to appease Taoist deities. The name "Chin Gay" means "true art" in the Hokkien dialect.

However, it is easier for you to see it for yourself rather than have me try to explain it in words. As the video shows, despite the Chinese origin, Chingay is truly a sport that has attracted practitioners from all the different races in Penang (the three main races of Malay, Chinese and Indian are shown in the video). This is a Malaysia that makes me proud. A Malaysia where all the races enjoys and appreciates the richness that their different cultures can bring. This is a Malaysia that is getting a little too rare these days.

In Christ Alone

on Sunday, April 04, 2010

Please take the time to watch this video and listen to the lyrics of the song that almost perfectly reflect my thoughts and feelings about Christ and His sacrifice at Easter. God bless.

A Good Documentary

on Thursday, April 01, 2010

In my last post, I lamented on how documentaries today have placed sensationalism and entertainment before education. As a result, instead of being taught about the wonders of the world and of nature and also being taught to respect nature and wildlife, we get documentaries where the presenter is trying to do something stupid like seeing how close he can get to a snake or crocodile without getting bitten.

Documentaries should return to a time when they all aspired to a higher standard. To demonstrate what I mean, have a look at this early Panorama documentary from 1957. Like any good documentary, it opens our eyes to things we may have not known before.

This video was filmed near the village of Lirpaloof.

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