Author: Ravi Kailas
Borneo, the Earth’s third largest island, and home to among its great rainforests, was high on my bucket list of places to visit, for its reputed natural history splendours. Happily I managed a foray in August 2014, to a tiny corner of the island, in the Sabah province of Malaysia and was duly amazed by the diversity of animals, and their great rainforest home, albeit experiencing a mere fraction of the island\’s considerable natural riches (only lowland, interior forests and their denizens on this visit). For a visitor without a focussed list of target species, but rather to soak in whatever came my (often solo) way, I ended up with sightings of Bornean Orangutang, Bornean Gibbon, Proboscis Monkey, Philippine Slow Loris, seven out of eight species of Hornbill, including Helmeted, found on the island, the rarely seen Bornean Ground Cuckoo, Storm\’s Stork, Bornean Falconet, Jerdon\’s Baza, Saltwater Crocodile and Water Monitor Lizard aplenty, among a variety of other creatures reflective of the immense diversity of tropical rainforests. However, the experience was enriching, not just because of what I could see in isolation, but also, the overall experience, the sounds, smells, humidity, light (or the lack of it!) in the forest interiors, the mesmerising morning mist that envelopes the canopy, as much as the sights within, among the giant trees of undisturbed Dipterocarp forests (the predominant lowland forest type of Borneo, which is incidentally, home to the most diverse, albeit rapidly depleting, of this forest type). While, it would have been more than nice to add a Sunda Clouded Leopard or so onto the list of sightings, or at least, one among Colugo, Pygmy Elephant or Leopard Cat, this was a very satisfactory first time visit to the island.
Kinabantagan River – wildlife rich, albeit disturbed forest along the Kinabantagan River
Dates: 8th to 11th August 2014
A satisfactory variety of wildlife, including a female & young Bornean Orangutang and an adult male, several of those curious looking, pot-bellied (and this with a spartan diet of leaves & fruit) Proboscis Monkey, Southern Pig-tailed Macaque, the ubiquitous Prevost’s Squirrel, Saltwater Crocodile, Water Monitor Lizard, the endangered Storm’s Stork, Diard’s Trogon and that fleeting glimpse of the rare Bornean Ground Cuckoo, teasing us with a pervading call, seemingly just from behind the first layer of undergrowth, six species of Hornbill, Jerdon’s Baza, Buffy Fish Owl, Asian Palm Civet and Blue-eared Kingfisher, the latter three at night. Almost all sighting effort from the boat, with some minor forays on foot, exploring the narrow band of disturbed forest (a various stages of logging), along the river. Misses from here included Bornean Elephant, which are relatively easily seen in this location, as also the Oriental Bay Owl, which can be seen around my accommodation, with some effort, which I am guilty of not putting in, at night. While this was a window to the tropical rainforest of southeast Asia and its occupants, including the typically, ‘equatorial’ mid-afternoon thunderstorm, this location did not satisfy the aesthetic expectations of a rainforest experience.
Danum Valley Conservation Area – Pristine dipterocarp forest and associated diversity of wildlife
Dates: 11th to 15th Aug 2014
This is reputedly among the best protected, lowland rainforest locations in Borneo, and without basis for comparison, my forays into these forests of immensely tall dipterocarp trees, suggested nothing that disputed this status. Walking indistinct trails, inside the dark, humid interiors of the forest, and exploring the more wildlife-sighting friendly periphery, while not as productive for sheer numbers as the experience at Kinabantangan, produced rarities like the Helmeted Hornbill as well as a selection of species including Philippine Slow Loris, Red Leaf Monkey, Bornean Gibbon, a species of otter (smooth coated?), a nocturnal mustelid (some kind of ferret badger?), Bornean Falconet, flying lizards and tree skinks, various frogs, spiders, ants and leeches that were not seen in the earlier location. There was also a single, female Bornean Orangutang, in the periphery of the forest and close to my accommodation. Among the enduring memories also from here, the multifarious sounds of the rainforest, the scene of morning mist lifting from the treetops, as the day warms up, a microclimate unto its own, the forest floor alive with fallen fruit, seed, rotting wood and their predators….
Sepilok – a small patch of healthy rainforest, home to rehabilitated Bornean Orangutang among other wildlife:
Dates: 15th to 16th Aug 2014
A brief visit here was not especially productive, but the healthy forest patch and the convenient canopy walkway (note: to be avoided during an electric storm!) promised much in terms of birdlife and other arboreal wildlife. There were also trails into the forest, that could be productive for typical rainforest biodiversity as well ground feeding specialists like pittas. While not a wildlife moment, it was quite something to see a semi-wild fully grown, male Orangutang, walk into an open air restaurant in the periphery of the reserve (where I was having a dinner), and towards one of the nearby tables, possibly gesturing (not especially proficient in Orangutanese), to join in for a meal!
*An ideal extension to the itinerary would have been a visit to the Mount Kinabalu area, to appreciate the changes in biodiversity with altitude. Could have also planned a visit to Mabul (well known for marine diversity) as well as Tabin Wildlife Reserve
Travelled by air to Sandakan (well connected to Kota Kinabalu and Kuala Lumpur) and by road (private taxi) to Kinabantangan and from there to Lahad Datu (the gateway to Danum Valley – the accommodation arranges transfers from here).
On the return, by road (private taxi) from Lahad Datu to Sepilok, and flew out from Sandakan.
Typically easy road travel on good roads (none of the sectors longer than 4-5 hrs), and mostly through Oil Palm plantations (sigh).
Stayed at the Kinabnatangan Jungle Camp – a rustic affair, furnished comfortably enough (but don’t expect luxuries, like fancy soaps, high end bed linen etc in your room, at least as of 2014, but rather that slightly damp/a touch mouldy feel to the interiors, as is typical of damp locations), in a well wooded patch along the river. The place is owned by an ace local birder, Robert Chong, and is well set-up for keen nature enthusiasts. Host went out of the way to cater to my ‘eggetarian’ diet, with eggs, rice and a tasty veggie dish seemingly made with jungle greens, among the staple nourishment on my visit there. White-capped Shama, Water Monitor Lizard and Prevost’s Squirrel aplenty on campus, but potential for much other wildlife in the vicinity, if one puts in the requisite effort, I would imagine.
Stayed at the superbly located Danum Valley Filed Centre, on the edge of pristine rainforest. There is much wildlife that visits around the campus – I saw Helmeted Hornbill, Bornean Gibbon, Red Leaf Monkey, Bornean Falconet, Orangutang, otters (sp?) and a whole host of birds, practically outside my room – but also trails of varying lengths leading into pristine rainforest. While the centre offers ‘guided’ night walks, night drives and a sunrise experience (seeing the mist clear over the canopy from a high point), all worthwhile, there is not much interpretation from the ‘guides’, who just take you around for the activity (language can be an issue as well). For the the day forays on the trails into the forest, you are pretty much on your own, and unless you are experienced with jungle navigation (and even if you are not), you might want to buddy up and not get lost together (the former advice I did not take, but found my way around well enough to tell the tale!).
The field centre offers double rooms, dorms and tented accommodation and my room turned out spartan, but comfortable enough, but more importantly felt well connected with the outside environment. The centre in well visited by international tourists and had a cosmopolitan vibe. They take special requests for vegetarian meals and turned out surprising tasty (expectations prior to the visit was of a very remote location, but turned out not the case), with dedicated mains for lunch and dinner.
Quite a resorty location and nothing of value that I can add for a better natural history experience. I stayed at the relatively fancy Sepilok Forest Edge Resort, which was nice after the simpler fare over the past week or so.
*All this information from 2014 and not quite sure of relevance/accuracy as on date