KOTA KINABALU –British actress Dame Judi Dench hates anything remotely worm-like, but found herself holding a squirming leech during a visit to Sabah for a documentary on rainforests.
“They move so peculiarly, it’s fascinating. And I have now learned that they can actually be extremely helpful tools for scientists who want to learn more about the mammals living in the Bornean rainforests.
Her thoughts on leeches were not the only things that changed after visiting Danum Valley, the Lower Kinabatangan region and the Sepilok Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre, all located in Sabah’s east coast.
Dench also found how complex the issue surrounding the palm oil industry was, where palm oil production and plantations had been regarded negatively by Europe and environmentalists in general.
“I was lucky enough to get to fly over these plantations in an incredible helicopter journey to Danum Valley.
“Since then I’ve discovered just how complex and nuanced the issue really is.
“It’s caused such destruction, in Borneo and beyond. But it also supports the livelihoods of so many people – I’ve been told that just one small lot of land can pay for three children to go to university.
“Thankfully I’m learning that there are all sorts of ways of working together to protect what’s left of the forest and help the animals to survive in a changing environment, ” she said in the written interview.
Dench said she managed to meet some scientists working to create crucial wildlife corridors, so that orang utan, elephants and many more wildlife can move between areas of fragmented forest without coming into conflict with plantation owners.
“It’s undoubtedly a very complex issue, but I’m more hopeful than I was before I arrived here, ” she said.
Dench said the documentary showed how much hope there still is in this part of the world which is struggling with deforestation and diminishing wildlife populations.
“I think documentary films can play a very important role in educating the general public on the species that depend on these forests, which in turn may encourage them to do their part to help conserve them.
“I’m very hopeful that this film will show people that it’s not too late, and there are things that can be done to preserve and protect what is left, ” she said, adding that since returning home from Borneo, she had not stopped talking about the wildlife.
Known best for her role as spy agency chief called “M” in several James Bond movies, Dench, 84, also talked about her love for trees.
“Nothing makes me happier than walking in my own garden in Surrey among my oak trees.
“But here in Borneo, you have the tallest and oldest trees in the tropics! How could anyone who comes to Sabah not fall in love with these spectacular giants – they’re breath-taking to stand beneath.
“I even had the opportunity to be hauled up 35m to be within the canopy – something I will never forget, ” she said.