Celebrating Beccari’s legacy and Sarawak’s biodiversity

“Later, I travelled over a large portion of Borneo, penetrating into its far interior. I visited also many of the less known islands of Malaysia and New Guinea; but nowhere did I meet with primeval forests so rich, so varied, and so peculiar in their flora as in the vicinity of Kuching.”

Odoardo Beccari was a renowned Italian explorer and botanist who first arrived in Sarawak on June 19, 1865. During this period, he collected many thousands of botanical and zoological specimens which are now conserved in natural history museums all over the world. The year 2020 marks the centenary of Beccari’s death.

The Beccari Centenary with the theme “Revealing Sarawak’s Biodiversity” is funded by the Ministry of Tourism, Arts and Culture, Sarawak. The project includes the Beccari Discovery Trail at Matang launched last year, and a talk series that just concluded in August. Another trail with interpretive signs is also currently being developed at Kubah National Park.

Online Exhibition

Plant People

Unearthing Botany in Sarawak

The exhibition tells the story of botany in Sarawak, and how scientific study has changed our relationship with the amazing plant life that surrounds us.

Past Programme: Talk Series

Malaysia has an exceptional palm diversity with 443 species recorded within its borders, making it the richest in the world. It is also the centre of diversity for a few genera: Areca, Eugeissona, Johannesteijsmannia, Licuala, Maxburretia, Nenga and Pholidocarpus. Sarawak, Pahang, Sabah, Terengganu, and Johor have the highest palm diversities in descending order. Out of the 152 species with their conservation status evaluated, more than 55% were found to be threatened; 31 taxa as critically endangered, 33 taxa endangered and 21 taxa vulnerable.

Dato’ Dr Saw Leng Guan FASc. is a fellow of the Academy of Sciences Malaysia. He retired from the Forest Research Institute Malaysia in 2015. He was the Curator of Penang Botanic Gardens from April 2017 until May 2021. Dr Saw was awarded the Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh Medal in 2016 for his botanical and conservation work in Malaysia. His main botanical interests include palm taxonomy and ecology, flora of Malaysia, plant and ecosystem conservation, and botanical garden development.

The Matang Massif is a small mountain range located to the west of Kuching, Sarawak, centered on Gunung Serapi (911 m) and encompassing Kubah National Park. Due to its relatively easy access, Odoardo Beccari made repeated visits to Matang during his time spent in Borneo and discovered the area to be exceedingly rich in its floral diversity, but also making some collections and observations of animals. Here, we present an overview of the animal life of Matang, based on both historic and current records, and discuss some of the more significant and unusual species found here.

Biologist and wildlife photographer, Chien Lee has spent the better part of the past 25 years exploring the wild forests of Borneo documenting native biodiversity, including innumerable field trips to Matang, the location of Beccari’s most focused botanical studies. Chien is currently a Honorary Research Fellow at the Institute of Biodiversity and Environmental Conservation, UNIMAS.

The Italian botanist Odoardo Beccari was considered the greatest botanist ever to study the Malesian flora. He went on three expeditions to Malesia between 1865 and 1878, amassing about 16,000 botanical specimens, which were deposited at the Florence herbarium. He may be better known for his travel diary “Wanderings in the great forests of Borneo”, published in English in 1904, however his scientific productivity was of outstanding quality and quantity. He published extensively on palms, but he was also interested in numerous other plant families and described iconic species such as the Titan Arum as well as one species of Giant Corpse Flower that he found in Sarawak. Beccari was described as a proud, almost misanthropic spirit, often found in strong opposition with the scientific institutions in Florence and therefore he had to rely on private funding for his scientific expeditions as well as for publishing his research. This talk will trace his life in the field as well as back in Italy, his controversial relation with institutions as well as feature the highlights of his scientific production.

Michele Rodda is a taxonomist at the Singapore Botanic Gardens, who specialises in the Apocynaceae (the frangipani family) of Southeast Asia and neighbouring regions. He is also the curator of exhibitions at the Garden’s Botanical Art Gallery. He has been to numerous countries visited by Odoardo Beccari, in Borneo and New Guinea, and he studied some of his specimens and manuscripts at the Florence herbarium.

Beccari’s visit to Sarawak was enthusiastically encouraged by both James and Charles Brooke.  Scientific research of all kinds was a priority for the Brooke Government, and there is evidence that the Rajahs themselves had personal interests in many aspects of natural history, including botany.  This talk will explore how botanical research in the state developed in the decades after Beccari’s visit, by sharing stories of the Brookes themselves; keen amateur and professional botanists; and the work of the Sarawak Museum.

 Jennifer Morris is a historian and museologist specialising in the history of museums and scientific collecting in colonial Southeast Asia.  As a Sarawak Museum Campus Project’s Research Fellow, she researched the rich history of the Sarawak Museum which was also the focus of her doctoral research at the National University of Singapore. She is now based in the UK as a freelance historical researcher.  

Nature tourism is not a new concept in Sarawak. In fact, it could be argued that Sarawak was a very early pioneer in tourism based on the drawing power of its intriguing and abundant nature. Of course, having colourful and welcoming leadership also helped. The stories from the early explorers stimulated interest to see these new lands and Matang was certainly no exception. In today’s terminology, Beccari was an influencer extraordinaire who inspired others to follow. Sarawak’s nature still inspires and is indeed the anchor for tourism to the state.

Robert Basiuk is co-founder and Executive Director of Borneo Adventure, an in- bound travel company based in Kuching he established with Philip Yong in 1987. With a background in environmental science, he first came to Sarawak in 1983 to work as a biologist with the Sarawak National Parks and Wildlife Office. He has provided consultancy services for national park management planning, community tourism development and environmental management planning throughout South-east Asia. A keen outdoorsman, his pastimes include mountain biking, trail running, SCUBA diving, skiing and hiking.

Most studies about the life and work of the Italian scientist Odoardo Beccari (1843-1920) are concentrating their attention on his outstanding position as a botanist, collector, explorer and naturalist. From his expedition to Borneo he brought more than 20.000 plant species to Europe. He collected most of them while he was living in his hut on Mount Matang near Kuching. 

The talk will contribute to a more differentiated picture of Odoardo Beccari highlighting his involvement in the establishment of the coffee plantation at Mount Matang in the late 1860s. Beccari assisted Charles Brooke with his botanical knowledge and expertise to start up the plantation. The study focuses on the relationship of Odoardo Beccari and Charles Brooke with the institution of the Royal Botanic Gardens in this period. Over the years, a variety of plants and seeds were interchanged between Beccari, the Brookes and the Royal Botanic Gardens Peradeniya (Ceylon), Kew and others. Accordingly, it will be argued that their interactions and contributions can be linked with the broader context of global plant transfer and the consolidation of useful botanical knowledge in the colonial era.

Jutta Kelling is a Ph.D. candidate in history from the FernUniversität in Hagen, Germany. Her study explores the history of indentured laborers who were brought from South India and Ceylon to Sarawak in the second half of the nineteenth century to work in the plantation at Mount Matang. She has been doing research on Borneo since 2010 when she graduated with a thesis about debt bondage among the Ngadju in South East Kalimantan in the 19th century.

Odoardo Beccari has been one of the numerous explorers who has visited South East Asia in the nineteen century. However, his determination and meticulous work gave him the position of one of the most influential scientist in the understanding the natural history of Borneo, and broadly of South East Asia. He completed important collection which allowed him to describe the extraordinary species diversity of the island of Borneo and to develop the first description of vegetation within the Borneo landscape. A great work on comprehension of natural history has been conducted since, however a careful check of Beccari’s script and collection can still contribute on the change of landscape occurred with the expansion of agriculture and human activities. With the use of modern techniques, as DNA analysis, we can still use the samples collected by Beccari and contribute to better understand the natural history of this incredible island.

Daniele Cicuzza is a botanist and Ecologist working on South East Asia flora. Works as Assistant Professor at the University of Brunei Darussalam and Curator of the UBD Botanical Research Center.

In my talk, I will bring you along into a journey of experiences, exploring Sarawak’s biodiversity that have intrigued me when I first took a liking to the Sarawak natural outdoors. I consider myself very privileged to be able to work in the field that brings about constant excitements every time I go out either in the forests, in the sea and even into the subterranean caves. Like Beccari and Doria, I am also fortunate to have friends that share the same passions and will share our experiences as well. The experiences continues as some of the findings requires conservation actions and in some, international recognitions.

Rambli Ahmad is the chairman of the Biodiversity Conservation Society of Sarawak. His interest in the outdoors started in the mid 80’s when he brought students out to parks as a teacher. He subsequently joined Sarawak Forest Department in 1988. Later Rambli worked for Ministry of Tourism as well as the Sarawak Tourism Board. Currently he is an ecologist with Sarawak Forestry Corporation, working on habitat and species conservation. He obtained a Bachelor’s degree in geology from University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1985. 

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