Monday, July 04, 2005

Why There Are No Tigers In Borneo - An Indonesian Folk Tale

Adapted by Roman Sturgis

Once in Indonesia, a long time ago, the raja of all tigers, upon hearing murmurs of rebellion in the wake of a famine, gathered his fiercest tiger warriors and held a council.

A young, ambitious tiger was the first to speak: “Great raja, food on your island of Java has been scarce. We warriors have to scrape for the most meager of morsels. We have grown skinny and pale, our coats do not shine as they once did. It is humiliating and disgraceful.”

The most senior warrior, a battle-scarred and respected elder, growled low at the young warrior, “Mind your tongue, cub! His majesty is well aware of the food shortage.”

The raja remained silent, with cold yellow eyes.

“Your majesty, great raja of all animals, leader of the warrior tigers, perhaps we should look to other reaches of your most splendid kingdom…”

The raja sat on a bed of fresh green banana boughs, soft and springy, and stroked his whiskers as he glared into the eyes of the young warrior who dared insult his mighty kingdom. The young warrior crouched low, his belly flat to the ground and lowered his eyes.

“But please your majesty, we are hungry!"

The raja flexed his paw, as big as a watermelon, and five bright claws shot out. The court gasped, sure that he would tear the insubordinate to shreds. Instead, he deftly sliced one of his own whiskers from his own royal face and it floated to the earth like a falling leaf. The young warrior pounced forward and caught the whisker between his paws, for in Java, the penalty for allowing the raja’s royal whiskers to touch the ground is death.

He spoke in a low rumble, deep as the monsoon thunders, “You will go to Borneo and you will take this whisker. You will tell them there that we are hungry!”

“Majesty,” the young warrior was cautious, “Majesty, what then shall we tell them?”

The raja was surprised for a moment, as if the answer wasn’t obvious.

“You will tell them that they must provide us with food. If not, we will conquer their weak little island.”

The tigers roared in agreement.

The warriors traveled over the land and over the sea, and over the land again to Borneo. And when they stormed the beach with fearsome roars, they were surprised to find not a single soul. Not a bird. Not a turtle. Not even an insect.

The sun was hot and they were tired from their long journey. The eldest warrior led them to the shade of a large mango tree and they rested while he planned their next move.

“The island is deserted!” the youngest warrior cried, and other warriors roared their agreement.

“Fools! You have scared any quarry with your sniveling whimpers! We must be stealthy, like cousin panther, and seek out an official of the Bornean court.”

The tigers growled their approval, but much softer this time.

A small deer mouse had been walking along the trees, next to the beach and had seen the tigers arrive. He hid under a small thicket trembling. Tigers! Two score of them! And they were hungry and fierce!

Surely they have come here to hunt. The island of Borneo was a peaceful island. The animals lived in harmony and disputes were never severe. Uncle Orangutan who lived in a small valley, miles away, amongst the rambutan trees and mangosteens, was the wisest of the animals but a little mouse could not hope to get there in time.

As the tigers prowled the beach, getting closer and closer to the thicket, the mouse realized that there was only one thing to do…

He stepped out from the thicket as the eldest warrior approached sniffing the air, and cleared his throat.

“Excuse me.”

The tiger was caught unaware and he roared in surprise. Instantly the other warriors formed a circle around the terrified mouse and they flexed their claws and growled.

“A spy, a spy!” they roared.

“No, no, no. I’m NOT a spy! I swear on my tail! Merely a passing mouse who noticed you were lost…”

“LOST! The warriors of Java do not get LOST!” cried the youngest tiger.

“No, no, of course… I meant only to say…looking for something, yes?” The mouse was trembling with fear, but he stood his ground, even as the fierce warriors circled him. Forty tigers circling one small mouse, and still, he held his ground.

“Indeed,” said the eldest warrior. “We ARE looking for something… YOU.”

And the mouse cringed as the warrior’s jaws snapped shut.

“Well I would say you have found me, most powerful tiger, yes?”

“I would say we have, little mouse. Tell us, where is your raja?”


“Where is your RAJA! We have come to demand he give us food, and if he refuses, to conquer your weak little island. Look, here, a whisker from our raja’s noble face.” The youngest warrior strode up to the eldest and presented the whisker to the tiny mouse, whose arms bent under the weight of it.

“Oh dear, this whisker is…is mighty,” he whispered reverently, giving all respect due such terrifying creatures. “It’s bigger than my tail and thicker than my leg!”

The eldest warrior smiled wide, showing off his long white fangs. “Yes it is, and it comes from an even bigger face that comes from an even BIGGER tiger. His majesty the raja of all tigers has sent this whisker as a sign of his mightiness. So tell us little mouse, where is your raja?”

Whereupon the tiny mouse was faced with a tiny conflict, for there was no raja in Borneo, and nothing so strong or fierce in tooth or claw that could face these dreadful warriors.

“I will take it to him, and I will bring him your message. Perhaps you might lie in the shade and rest. You must be terribly tired after your long journey…”

The eldest warrior lifted his paw to cuff the infidel mouse for insulting his strength, but the younger warriors were nodding in agreement, and growled that yes, they were tired, and wouldn’t it be a good idea if they rested before battle.

“Very well, little mouse. Take this whisker and do not let it touch the ground. And tell your raja that we have come.”

“Yes sir, absolutely sir, a very FINE whisker, a very MIGHTY whisker…never to touch the ground, oh no, never… I’ll tell him right away. Please, please, rest yourselves,” and the tiny mouse hefted the giant whisker between his teeth and scampered into the trees.

When he had put some distance between him and the tigers, when he was sure that they were sleeping in the shade, the tiny mouse spat out the whisker, (it tasted rotten) and sat on a rock to think. I MUST find a way out of this! All of BORNEO is at stake!

It was no secret that he was terrified, but the brave little mouse who had already talked his way out of forty starving tiger’s jaws, continued on through the woods, thinking and thinking…

Until he spotted his friend Porcupine.

And suddenly, he had the answer.

Porcupine was nibbling on the tender shoots of a bamboo tree, singing to himself and otherwise enjoying the beautiful day. The sun was shining through the trees and he was ambling in the shade eating his favorite food. Life couldn’t be better, expect if maybe he had a...

“Porcupine! Porcupine!”


“Porcupine! It’s me,” and the tiny mouse raced through the trees and stood on his hind legs in front of his friend.

“Porcupine I need your help! Quickly, it’s a matter of national security! Life or death! Please!”

“Hold on, hold on, what’s the problem, friend? Sit down, have some bamboo, it’s fresh and green and oh so good… Best of the season I should think.”

“There’s no TIME for that Porcupine! Quickly I need one of your quills!”

“One of my quills?”

“Please Brother, please! Could I have just one of your quills, the thickest, longest, sharpest one, please!”

“You need one of my quills? Whatever for?”

“I can’t explain now, please trust me. I need this favor, for all of Borneo!”

“Whoa, whoa, for ALL of Borneo?”


“Well if it’s that important…” and he quickly picked his longest quill, from the back of his shoulders, and placed it on the ground in front of the mouse. “But be careful with it, it’s very sharp…”

“The sharper the better! Thank you Porcupine, you’ve saved all of Borneo!”

“All of Borneo, well how bout that?” And as the tiny mouse raced through the trees with Porcupine’s quill clamped gingerly between his teeth, Porcupine felt quite proud and nibbled another bamboo shoot. “Not every day a porcupine saves all of Borneo. Mother would be so proud…”

When mouse reached the beach, he was exhausted. The quill was heavy and he had to be careful off its sharp end. The tigers were asleep on their backs, snoring loudly. Mouse staggered forward. When he reached the sleeping tigers under the mango tree he cleared his throat.

Still they slept.

He cleared his throat again and said around the quill, “Esscuse me…”

But still they slept.

Finally, he turned around and tickled the nose of the eldest warrior with his tail.

The tiger’s eyes snapped open and he roared with anger, “Who disturbs my slumber!”

Instantly the other tigers were awake and roaring, circling around the tiny mouse with the quill in his teeth.

“Tiny, insolent fool!”

“I’ng sorry sir, but my mouf ish full…”

“Have you spoken to your raja and delivered our message?”

“Yesh, absholutly. And he shaid he would welcome a war ish itch been very peashful ish of late, and we could u-sh some exshitement…”


“And ash a token of our raja’sh good faith, he hash shent a whishker from hish own royal fash,” and the tiny mouse dropped porcupine’s quill in the sand in front of the eldest tiger. “Phew! That was HEAVY.”

“THIS is a whisker from your raja’s face?” And suddenly the tigers were not so fierce. They crowded around the quill in the sand with wide eyes.

“Yes sir, a most humble whisker from a most humble raja, who nonetheless, welcomes your challenge.”

“BE GONE!” cried the eldest warrior, and the little mouse didn’t need to be told twice.

“We must report to the raja immediately,” he growled, and sleepy as they were, they traveled over the land and over the sea and over the land again, until, exhausted, they returned to the court of the mightiest raja of all tigers.

“What news have you from Borneo?” the raja demanded.

“Your majesty, the loathsome raja of Borneo has accepted your challenge.” The warrior tigers cringed.


“Your majesty, we did as you ordered and traveled over the land and over the sea and over the land again, and when we reached Borneo we spoke with an official of the raja of their court, and delivered your message…”

“Go on.”

“And there we waited on the scorching beach for the official’s return. And when he did, he brought with him a gift from the raja of Borneo…a whisker from his very own loathsome face…” And the eldest warrior carefully handed Porcupine’s quill to his raja.

The mightiest raja of all tigers sat on his springy bed of fresh green banana leaves and looked at porcupine’s quill for a long time. He bent it to test its strength and touched the end with his paw. Slowly he turned it around in his claws. Finally he said, “I have changed my mind. The island of Borneo is too far away. We will go to the elephants of Sumatra.”

And to this day, not one more tiger has ever stepped foot on Borneo.


Post a Comment

<< Home