Saturday, 26th September 2020

Paul Spencer Sochaczewski

Unusual critters

Posted on 05. Apr, 2017 by in Alfred Russel Wallace

Some intriguing Southeast Asian critters inspired by Alfred Russel Wallace’s The Malay Archipelago

Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1912) explored Southeast Asia for eight years in the mid-19th century, collecting some 125,000 specimens which included thousands of new species. His observations, compiled in his classic The Malay Archipelago, contributed to the fields of biology, evolutionary theory, geology, ecology, nature conservation, and human rights.

I’ve compiled several unusual/endangered/important life forms of Southeast Asia. All relate, directly or indirectly, to Wallace’s collections and interests.


Homo corruptus/Homo cojones

Homo corruptus
Abdul Taib Mahmud

Homo cojones
Peter Kallang







The Dynamic Duo responsible for nature destruction/nature conservation in the Malay Archipelago.  On the one side are the power brokers (Homo corruptus) who control what happens in their nations.  Homo corruptus, a powerful minority, are well-educated, wear tasteful clothing, adhere to the national religion, speak the national language, are healthy, live in cities, grow and eat wet rice as opposed to hill rice, and have access to global communications (their children are likely to be able to name all the players on Manchester United). In a form of brown-brown colonialism they are responsible for perceiving the people and nature of the rainforests as “lesser” and “savage” — landscapes and people who should be “civilized” as part of a manifest destiny. And if Homo corruptus can make a fortune out of such conquering, well good for them. See Abdul Taib bin Mahmud of Sarawak.

In the opposite corner are Homo cojones, the people with guts and ethics who run conservation and human rights NGOs, man protest sites (see Penan tribe, below), and aren’t afraid to speak out, in spite of the risks of arrest, and other punishments.  People such as  Bill Kayong, who was killed for his beliefs, and Peter Kallang, both of Sarawak.


Penan tribe

Penan man, Sarawak.


The Penans are an ethnic group numbering around 16,000 people, who live primarily in the rainforests of the Malaysian state of Sarawak, on the island of Borneo.

Although there are other, larger and better educated (at least in a formal sense) tribal groups in Sarawak, the Penans have become the poster people to illustrate the destruction of the rainforest and its resident people and wildlife. In recent years they have become more sophisticated and aggressive in fighting for their homelands.


Borneo orangutan
Pongo pygmaeus

Borneo orangutan. Photo: Jeff McNeely


One of man’s closest relatives; we share some 97% of DNA with these great red apes.

The Borneo orangutan, like it’s Sumatran cousin, is a critically endangered species; deforestation, palm oil plantations and hunting pose a serious threat to its continued existence.

But let’s put biology and conservation aside.  To spend time quality time with an orangutan is one of life’s greatest joys.  They are tactile (oh, that long red hair),  strong, curious, selfish, and sometimes act like people, with all that statement implies about conflicting behaviors.  Some so-called rehabilitant orangutans walk both sides of the human-ape boundary. We anthropomorphize them — it’s hard not to.  As Malcom McDonald, former governor general of Colonial Malaya and Borneo, noted: “these members of the order Primates contemplate you, when you meet them, with melancholy eyes, as if they had just read Darwin’s The Origin of Species and were painfully aware of being your poor relations who have not done so well in life.”


Rajah Brooke birdwing butterfly
Trogonoptera brookiana

Rajah Brooke birdwing, Sarawak.


Rajah Brooke’s birdwing is a protected species, listed under Appendix II of CITES, meaning that international export is restricted to people who have been granted a permit.

Besides its beauty (striking green and black) and size, this butterfly has the distinction of being collected by Alfred Russel Wallace, who named the butterfly after Rajah James Brooke, the first white rajah of Borneo.

Brooke invited Wallace to Sarawak (now a Malaysian state on the island of Borneo).  During his eighteen months in Sarawak Wallace collected thousands of specimens, shot and pickled seventeen orangutans (and wrote eloquently about his relationship with the animals), and developed the Sarawak Law, the precursor to his Ternate Paper in which Wallace detailed his theory of evolution by natural selection.

Wallace described the Rajah Brooke birdwing as “one of the most elegant species known.”

This butterfly, and dozens of others (Wallace mentions that after eight years in Asia he returned home with “3,100 butterflies and moths”) provided Wallace with income (he made his living selling natural history specimens through his beetle agent Samuel Stevens in London), pleasure (a sublimation for sex?), and keys to developing his theory of evolution by natural selection.

(More about butterfly passion.  Wallace wrote gushingly about the thrill of finding new, beautiful species, as when he found a new butterfly in Bacan:  “My heart began to beat violently … and I felt much more like fainting than I have done when in apprehension of immediate death.” (For more examples of Wallace’s excitement at capturing birds, insects and butterflies see chapter “The Orgasmic Butterfly” page 201.)

And a fun fact.  During discussions with James Brooke, and Brooke’s nephew and successor Charles Brooke, Alfred Russel Wallace proposed the idea of creating a museum; Charles Brooke adopted Wallace’s ideas and created the famous Sarawak Museum.


Green sea turtle
Chelonia mydas

Hatchling green turtle. Shiva’s Beach. Indonesia


Like all sea turtles, the green turtle is listed as endangered by the IUCN and CITES and is protected from exploitation in most countries.  However they are locally threatened. In the Malay Archipelago they are caught for their shells (souvenir trade), their eggs (purported aphrodisiac), their flesh (ritual feasts in Bali) as well as being threatened by destruction of their nesting beaches, pollution, and by-catch in fishing nets.

For me green turtles provide inspiration and food for thought.  I’ve used a green turtle nesting beach as the running theme in the six Shiva’s Beach sections. They are graceful. No one is quite sure how or where the hatchlings spend their first few precarious years in the sea.  No one is quite sure of the distant migration patterns, nor how they find their way back to their birthing beaches.  They are enigmas. Underwater they are placid and graceful.  They are victims of the practices of modern man that destroy turtle nesting beaches and hunt the animals.


Chinese tiger beetle
Cicindela chinensis

Chinese tiger beetle collected by Wallace, now in a private collection. Photo: Robert Heggestad


Of the more than 126,000 specimens that Alfred Russel Wallace collected in the Malay Archipelago, some 80,000 were beetles.  Beetles are the most common life form on Earth.  (The 19th-century British biochemist J.B.S. Haldane, an ardent Marxist who quit England for India, was once approached by a distinguished theologian who asked what inferences one could draw about the nature of the Creator from the study of his creation. Haldane replied, with his usual terseness, that “God has an inordinate fondness for beetles.”)

This beetle, featured on the cover of An Inordinate Fondness for Beetles,  is important for several reasons:

It was collected by Wallace and it now sits in the cabinet of Wallace specimens owned by a private collector in Washington, D.C. (Chapter “”An Inordinate Fondness for Beetles.” Page 279,

Wallace saw this specimen as an example of protective mimicry, based on part on observations made by Wallace and his friend Henry Walter Bates in the Amazon.

And Wallace was fascinated by beetles, by their numbers, by their varieties, and asked why there are so many different types.

The tantalizing mystery is that no one knows how many species there are on Earth. Not by a long shot. Scientists have named just 1.4 million, and all agree that this number represents just the tip of the iceberg. Biologist E.O. Wilson, sometimes called the “father of biodiversity,” notes that we know roughly how many stars there are in the Milky Way: 1011. We know the mass of an electron: 9.1 x 10-31 .  But how many species of organisms are there on Earth?” he asks. “We do not know, not even to the nearest order of magnitude.”


Paul Sochaczewski is an American writer based in Geneva, Switzerland-based.  His recent books include the Curious Encounters of the Human Kind series, Share Your Journey, Redheads, Distant Greens, and An Inordinate Fondness for Beetles. For more information on Paul please see: Wikipedia.  He can be contacted at his website:

This article is excerpted from the new edition of Sochaczewski’s book An Inordinate Fondness for Beetles.

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