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No tigers in Borneo? Thank the smart-ass kancil

Everybody knows what a tiger looks like; it is known for its one-of-a-kind fur pattern of dark stripes against reddish-orange fur.

Besides Malaysia, it is also the national animal of India, Bangladesh and South Korea.

Although Borneo is home to around 222 mammals, 44 of them being native to this island, no tiger has been officially recorded here.

It is believed that there used to be a Bornean tiger, which could possibly have been from an extinct tiger population thought to have lived in the Sunda island of Borneo in prehistoric times.

Archaeological excavations in Malaysian Borneo found an upper canine tooth and bones that were identified as belonging to a tiger.

However, some believed that these items had been obtained through trade.

It has been assumed that the Bornean tiger might have been rather small in size, similar to the Sumatran tiger. Credits: Pixabay
The legend behind why there are no tigers in Borneo

According to a legend recorded by Harold Courlander, we can put the blame on the kancil, or lesser mousedeer (Tragulus kanchil).

Kancil, or Sang Kancil, is a popular character in Indonesian and Malaysian folktales and is widely known for its wit and cunning.

Long ago, when tigers were rulers of Java island, a great famine broke out.

The tigers came together to discuss how to overcome the famine. They came to the decision that the only way out was to take over Borneo island. There, they hoped to find food and force the inhabitants to pay them tribute.

So the tiger king appointed three messengers to meet the King of Borneo and deliver an ultimatum: “Send us food and gold, or we shall came with an army to conquer you!”

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To ensure the threats were real, the tiger king even plucked his largest whisker to show the King of Borneo as proof of his strength.

The three tiger messengers crossed the Java sea and landed on Borneo. There, they began their mission to look for the King of Borneo.

They searched high and low but could not find anybody. (This is because the creatures had heard about the tigers and went into hiding.)

Unexpectedly, the messengers came across Kancil, who had heard of their arrival and been waiting for them. The tigers demanded he bring them to the King of Borneo so they could deliver the message and the whisker.

Just like our modern day version of “Please leave a message after the beep”, Kancil replied that his king was busy hunting, but promised to convey the message and return with the king’s own whisker in answer.

The role of a porcupine

Instead of looking for the ‘king’, Kancil went to the cave of the thick-spined porcupine (Thecurus crassispinis). It is one of the three species of porcupines that can be found in Borneo.

Kancil asked the porcupine to pull one of its quills from his back. Then, he returned to the tigers with the quill.

Besides his cunning and wit, Kancil is known to trick his opponents with falsehoods and exaggerations. He then told the tigers that he found his king resting while his servants sharpened his claws by grinding them between two mountains.

He related that the King of Borneo’s message to the tiger king was that his soldiers were tired of their peaceful existence and burned to go to war.

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To show his readiness to go to war, the king of Borneo had plucked a whisker from his face.

With that he produced the porcupine quill and gave it to the tiger messengers.

When the messengers returned to Java with the quill, the tiger king was surprised to see the so called “whisker”, as it was 20 times thicker than his.

Imagining defeat at the hands of a giant adversary, the tigers were quick to abandon their plans to Borneo, and that is why there are no tigers on Borneo today.

Patricia Hului
Patricia Hului is a Kayan who wants to live in a world where you can eat whatever you want and not gain weight. She grew up in Bintulu, Sarawak and graduated from the University Malaysia Sabah with a degree in Marine Science. She worked for The Borneo Post SEEDS, which is now defunct. When she's not writing, you can find her in a studio taking belly dance classes, hiking up a hill or browsing through Pinterest. Follow her on Instagram at @patriciahului, Facebook at Patricia Hului at Kajomag.com or Twitter at @patriciahului.
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