Saturday, 18 April 2015

By night

On this evening's river cruise we saw yet more marvellous creatures of the Bornean night: two greater mouse-deer, a huge saltwater crocodile, a reticulated python, a Malay civet and half a dozen buffy fish owls. However it is eleven at night and my working day began at half past six this morning. Tomorrow we move to Tabin where, if all goes according to plan, I shall be up all night for six nights. As wonderful as civets and owls and crocodiles are, it's time I slept.

Four primates, four hornbills

This afternoon was astonishing. Everywhere we looked there was charismatic, beautiful wildlife. A tally of four species of hornbill and four of primate amazed and delighted us. They were:

oriental pied
(rhinoceros heard only)

maroon langur
silvered langur
long-tailed macaque

There were elephants too and two large saltwater crocodiles. It was, quite simply, a fantastic afternoon.

Naturetrekkers and proboscis monkeys

Bornean pygmy elephant

Hot tired marsh tit and pygmy elephant selfie

Muddy lives

Our breakfast was disturbed this morning by a small-toothed palm-civet, found, just as we raised the day's first blessed coffee to our lips, by one of my clients in the lodge grounds.

Our morning went on in a similar vein, with one beautiful creature after another emerging from the forest on the river's bank. There were plenty of kingfishers: stork-bills, apricot below and bright mirror blue above, with loud calls and lipstick bills; blue-eared, diving for fish from sunlit twigs at the river's edge; and a rufous-backed dwarf, passing like a shaft of prism-broken light across our bow.

There were hornbills too, oriental pied and Asian black. A water monitor, bathing in the morning sun, and a lesser fish eagle, perched in a tree above us. There were white-chested babblers, hopping on the mud forest floor and over buttress roots, and chestnut-winged babblers, weaving through vines.

This afternoon we return to the riverine forest in our boat, and again tonight, to see which of its inhabitants, bold or shy, bright or brown, will come to the bank, which will share with us for one moment the secrets of their steamy, muddy lives along the Kinabatangan.

Thanks Doug

While staying at Svasara in Tadoba a few weeks ago, prior to my group's arrival, I led three safaris for a friendly, enthusiastic lodge guest called Doug. After Tadoba he went to Yala in Sri Lanka to search for the lovely kotiya subspecies of the leopard, which I have not seen since March 2012. He has been kind enough to send these photos of P1, or Chhoti Tara, the tigress we saw together twice (in addition to Gabbar, the father of her cubs) and of a leopard in Yala.

P1 the gorgeous Tadoba tigress
by Doug Bain

Leopard in Yala, Sri Lanka by Doug Bain.
Note the kotiya subspecies' characteristic orange coat.

From the Kinabatangan

17th April

We travelled this afternoon up the Kinabatangan river to Sukau Rainforest Lodge, stopping on our way to watch families of proboscis monkeys and long-tailed macaques and a small group of silvered langurs. I am not a fan of macaques. Ever since I was first attacked by a rhesus at the Taj Mahal on my very first trip to India, and emphatically since in Corbett National Park the same species broke into my room, devoured my toothpaste and defecated on my pillow, I have loathed macaques. The long-tailed, or crab-eating, however, is a thoroughly tasteful macaque: it is gracile and slender and its sinuous tail flows behind it in the manner of a vervet's. It is a fine macaque to see.

As for the proboscis, it is the most misrepresented monkey in the world. Photographs in books and magazines are generally close-ups of male's faces, their strange, pendulous noses filling the frame. In real life they are exquisite and agile animals, coloured an intense tan which fades from their crowns to their backs, with a soft grey covering their slender limbs. They slip easily through mangrove and riverine forest, dropping daredevilly through the trees when they wish to descend. A tree full of proboscis is a tree full of activity, of play, of colour and of motion. It is a joy to watch.

In the afternoon, more joy. Joy as we watched a herd of Bornean pygmy elephants grazing on the riverbank, tugging great clumps of tall grasses to eat and to lay across their domed heads like untidy topees. Some bathed, turning black in the milk-tea water of the river and sliding through the clayey mud as they emerged. WWF estimates only 1,500 of these wonderful animals inhabit the forests of Borneo, concentrated in the northeast, and locals here tell us that 300 live along the Kinabatangan,

In the night we went to the river again, The beam of our local guide Hazwan fell on a reticulated python, at five to six metres the largest individual he has ever seen. A recent slough of its skin had left the python glistening a nacreous blue in our light as it moved with surprising speed through the muddy roots of a tributary's bank. Quite as impressive, though less well seen, were saltwater crocodiles whose eyes burned at us from across the water and who sank into the murk at our approach.

There were several buffy fish owls and numerous black-crowed night-herons. Most tantalising of all there was a partial view between trees of the rear end of a small, square, neat-footed, grey sided carnivore. I have no doubt that had we seen it better we would have seen it was a flat-headed cat.

How flat its head was I did not see. I saw only its rear.

Thursday, 16 April 2015

Post-coital licking

There is in our lodge a roost of handsome short-nosed fruit bats Cynopterus brachyotis. It is in fact on account of this species, according to an email from Quentin yesterday, that individual mangoes are clothed in newspaper bags here.

Today I learned something else about short-nosed fruit bats. We have in our group a very knowledgeable mammal-watcher who is a self-confessed batophile. By good fortune there are fruit bats roosting in his eaves. He arrived for our afternoon walk brimming with excitement for he had witnessed the mating of the fruit bats. While he had not managed to capture the happy event on his camera, he had succeeded in photographing the post-coital licking.

With a sparkle in his eye he told me he was keen for this to be mentioned on my blog; in order that his wife, who is reading, might know he was enjoying himself.

On our night walk this evening we saw four red giant flying squirrels gliding into the gathering night. As dusk came, and the squirrels poked their noses from their tree holes, blue-throated bee-eaters sallied from the orangutan ropes at the rehabilitation centre. Away in the forest a rhinoceros hornbill called for the end of the day, and a brown wood owl for the start of the night. We sat quietly watching the squirrels, dwarfed by the giant trees around us, and awed by the Bornean forest in which all these wonderful animals live.


Southeast Asia has a tragic record in the twentieth century for the destruction of its forests and the trafficking of its wildlife. Among the most celebrated victims of both processes here in Borneo are orangutans.

Since 1964, however, the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre has been rescuing captive animals, teaching them to live in the forest and returning them to the wild. It is a damning statement on human greed and cruelty but also a testament to the centre's commitment and skill that 700 orangutans have been returned to the wild, largely in extensive areas of lowland rainforest such as Danum and Tabin.

This morning we visited the orangutans at the impressively well-managed centre. A visit here is a thought-provoking experience. Every orangutan you see has been brutalised in some way by people. Every one has subsequently been lovingly returned to the forest, or is in the process of returning to the forest, and most have the chance of a life in the wild as a member of orangutan society.

This is a place where the boundaries between animal welfare and wildlife conservation, which are quite different fields, are blurred. The orangutans have been rescued and restored to the forest for their welfare. They may be returned to wild populations, thus contributing to the conservation of the species.

They are also adorable. Most adorable of all were two small, wild-born youngsters brought by their rehabilitated mothers to feed on papaya and bananas after most of the trainee orangutans and all of the other visitors had left.

Later we visited a new venture, the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre, where 37 sun bears are in the process of being returned to their forest home. Some are hopelessly tame and may never return, but will live out their days in the company of other bears in large patches of their natural habitat. Others are learning to be wild and one, Natalie, has already been moved to a secluded enclosure, has accepted her satellite collar, which will tell researchers how well she adjusts, and is ready to be released in the coming days.
May she be healthy and stimulated in her habitat. May she live long, find a male and raise cubs. And may her genes flow for generations through the wild population of sun bears on this beautiful island.

Also in the past couple of days we have seen plantain, Prevost's, ear-spot, and plain pygmy squirrels (this last too tiny to believe), lesser treeshrew, long-tailed parakeet and blue-crowned hanging parrot, yellow-vented and yellow-bellied bulbuls, rhinoceros and bushy-crested hornbills, fiery minivet, black-and-yellow and black-and-red broadbills, Wallace's and changeable hawk-eagles and much more. I rather think we shall enjoy exploring Borneo.