A straightforward research trip to Indonesia became a delicate exercise in diplomacy for renowned environmentalist Tim Flannery.
In January 1991, I set out with Boeadi, my Indonesian colleague, for the remote island of Mangole, in Indonesia’s North Maluku, to survey its mammal fauna. The island was once covered in magnificent rainforests, surviving patches of which perhaps sheltered species found nowhere else.
The sea was choppy as we boarded a traditional outrigger canoe for the 500-metre crossing. In the distance, I could see a mosque. We soon learned that, in a region made of a patchwork of Christian, Muslim and animist communities, our destination was strictly Muslim. As a Western scientist studying creatures like rats and bats, which Muslims consider “unclean”, I expected that some diplomacy would be required.
The village headman, known as the kepala desa, was polite but stand-offish. He explained that the region was parched by drought and people were desperate for money to buy food. He seemed relieved when we agreed to employ some villagers to help us collect samples. One kind of possum was so abundant that we quickly had three or four – all we needed for our research. I euthanased the creatures with Nembutal, a heart-stopping drug used by vets. A drop on the tongue is enough to send small animals to sleep.
We recorded data and took our DNA samples. While I wrote up our diary, Boeadi disposed of the carcasses. It was late by the time I finished and I fell onto the platform of split bamboo that served as a bed, exhausted and vaguely uneasy.
At 3.04am I was awoken by a noise I had never heard before but instinctively recognised. It was the sound of “death rattles” coming from nearby. Then, abruptly, they stopped: someone had died. In the silence that followed, my mind filled with thoughts and suddenly I was gripped by horror. What had Boeadi done with those poisoned possum bodies? Surely nobody in the village was hungry enough to eat them?
My heart raced. Was it possible that I had killed someone? I went to Boeadi’s bed. It was empty. Perhaps I hadn’t explained clearly enough how dangerous Nembutal can be. Had I killed my Indonesian colleague?
On the verge of panic, I walked to the beach. The stars shone bright in the moonless sky, the restless waves ground into the shore. What would the villagers do when they woke? An outboard motor started somewhere and a canoe disappeared into the distance. Perhaps the kepala desa had gone to fetch the police.
Eventually I heard footsteps in the coarse sand and a familiar voice: it was Boeadi. Unable to sleep, he had got up to listen to the BBC World Service. The man who died, he told me, had been sick for a long time. And, yes, Boeadi had disposed of the possum carcasses safely. But, he said, something very bad had happened. The Americans had invaded Iraq. As far as the villagers were concerned, the West was at war with Islam.
Later that morning, I entered the village fearful of how things might play out. A small ceremony was underway and donations were being handed to the widow. I lined up and pressed a roll of notes into her hand. Later that day, people began smiling at me. I learned that we now live in a world village, in which surviving requires care and understanding. ￼