THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Sound and vision blog

13 September 2018

Listening to mammals with the Batek

Coleridge Research Fellow Dr Alice Rudge writes:

The Batek are hunting and gathering people who dwell in the lowland rainforests of Peninsular Malaysia. During my fieldwork with them, I played  some recordings of mammal sounds which are held at the Library. Batek people have extremely detailed ecological knowledge of the rainforest, and this is reflected in their in-depth understanding of its soundscape. I therefore played them these recordings with the idea that hearing these sounds might inspire people to give additional vocabulary or information about these sounds, based on their extensive knowledge.

You can listen to the recordings below:

Siamang duet recorded on Sumatra by Ashley Banwell (BL ref 62323)

White-handed Gibbon calls recorded in Malaysia by Reg Kersley (BL ref 06512)

Clouded Leopard calls recorded in Thailand by John Moore (BL ref 128288)

Binturong calls recorded in Thailand by John Moore (BL ref 61103)

Not only were people aware of what the animals were doing in the recordings I played, but they also accompanied this with cultural information, as well as talking about the emotions that hearing the sounds evoked.

For example, people said that the siamang and white-handed gibbon in the recordings are all running away from predators. In addition, they pointed out that in the siamang recording, the low sounds are the males, but the higher sounds are the females. 

In response to the siamang and white-handed gibbon in particular, people also exclaimed that they felt haʔip ­- an intense feeling of longing, yearning, love, or desire, which is often felt in response to things that are considered beautiful.

Photo credit: cuatrok77 on Visual hunt /  CC BY-SA
Siamang; Symphalangus syndactylus


The beauty of these mammal sounds is reflected in people’s musical instrument playing. The siamang is a favourite sound to recreate on the mouth harp, and the white-handed gibbon is a favourite sound to recreate on the flute. 

However, as well as feeling haÊ”ip,  the white-handed gibbon recording also prompted people to tell the story of the gibbon, including the gruesome part at the end where evil cannibals cook and eat their mother-in-law, which resulted in everyone falling about laughing.

manfredrichter at Pixabay
White-handed gibbon; Hylobates lar

People recognised the sound of the clouded leopard as the yah bintaŋ - yah means ‘tiger’ in Batek, and bintaŋ (or bintang) is the Malay word for ‘stars’, referring to the pattern of its fur.

Photo credit: bobdole369 on Visualhunt /  CC BY-NC-SA
Clouded leopard; Neofelis nebulosa

In the binturong recording, they said that the female binturong is ‘trying to attract male binturongs to mate with’ (ʔoʔ ʔajak tmkal ʔom cycəy).

Photo credit: <a href="https://visualhunt.com/author/e39fc3">jinterwas</a> on <a href="https://visualhunt.com/re/f48d28">Visualhunt</a> / <a href="http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/"> CC BY</a>
Binturong; Arctictis binturong

As is also the case for recordings of birds, using wildlife recordings of mammals in the field can therefore be useful for anthropologists, ethnomusicologists, or others who may be interested to find out more about how these sounds are experienced!

The Alice Rudge Collection of Batek recordings is currently being deposited and catalogued, and will be held under the shelfmark C1773.