Thursday, 30 April 2015

Thanks Kenny

Today I received these images of a leopard cat and a western tarsier, taken last week in Tabin, by my great friend Kenny Ross. Doubtless more of his pictures will appear here soon.

Thanks Kenny.

Today in Sepilok I...

...again visited the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre;

...completely forgot that I'm a gritty field naturalist and cooed over baby orangutans;

...was amused to see intelligent primates being watched by other primates;

...clicked a gratuitous orangutan selfie (two mums and their two babes behind me in this photo);

...again visited the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre;

...watched Debbie up a tree;

...saw Damai having a roll in the dust;

...fell for the beauty of a blousy melastome;

...met Wong Siew Te, the charming, committed, expert, communicative founder and CEO of the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre, and heard about his many years' experience in the forest and the work of his dedicated team with sun bears;

...learned that all Natalie needs before being experimentally released into the wild is a helicopter ride to the core area of Tabin (anyone have a spare helicopter?);

...and (as all the real sun bears were really far away) may have taken a sun bear poster selfie. Just maybe.

Wednesday, 29 April 2015

From Pench

Today I received this photo from my friends Graham and Tina who travelled with me in British Columbia last year and in India last month. It is of Collar Wali, an elderly Pench tigress. She was special to them because, after days of bad luck in Tadoba, she was their first ever tiger, seen on their first drive in Pench. She was special to me because all of my jeeps saw her that morning, plus one of her two-year-old male cubs the afternoon of the same day; for many of my clients she was likewise their first tiger.

I well remember my own first tigers, a mother and a three-month-old cub in Ranthambore, a decade ago. After many subsequent tigers, they walk with me still.

Collar Wali in Pench by Graham Nuthall

Poor Old Michael Finnegan

So it is that trusty Hazwan and I find ourselves at Sandakan airport awaiting the arrival of the second Naturetrek Sunda Clouded Leopard Quest group.

Wish us luck.

Sunda clouded leopard photographed in Tabin,
depicted above the door of the office in Lahad Datu
of Tabin Wildlife Resort


The name given to the Sunda clouded leopardess in Lok Kawi Wildlife Park is Ruby. I learn from Quentin that some eight years ago she was confiscated as a large cub from a hunter in Ranau near Kinabalu. For a while she was cared for by Quentin's niece and, being extremely tame (the leopardess, not the niece), she would roll on her back to have her tummy tickled.

A tummy I should love to tickle

Lok Kawi also has, Quentin tells me, a male leopard with three legs who is not on public display. It is hoped that the two may be introduced to one another and that they may breed. However, male clouded leopards in captivity have a history of killing females so the zoo is wary of putting them together without thought. Given the male's disability and the species' strong sexual dimorphism in size (males weigh around 25 kg and females 15 kg) it is possible that a very large enclosure with trees and climbing frames would allow Ruby to escape from the male should he prove aggressive.

There are thought to be some individuals of the Sunda clouded leopard in private hands in Kalimantan; plus some of the Sumatran subspecies in private collections on that island. However, Ruby and the three-legged male are the only Bornean animals known to be held legally in captivity. Let us hope, for the good of the species and our understanding of it, that unclouded love is their destiny and that soon we will hear the patter of tiny paws at Lok Kawi.

Tuesday, 28 April 2015


Some centuries ago it occurred to a bright spark to risk his life by shinning up a flimsy, treacherous bamboo ladder to collect nests, made by swifts of their own spittle, from the lofty roof of a great cave. Next (though I imagine my chronology is as flimsy as the ladder here) it occurred to him to eat the saliva nests. So tasty did he find them that a spit-nest-harvesting industry flourished in the cave and news of the delicacy spread all over Asia. Today we find ourselves in a world in which it is taken as perfectly normal that there should be airport shops (in this case in Kota Kinabalu) devoted to the sale of bird-spit-nests.

We are a strange, incomprehensible animal.

More mainstream airport shopping,
with a Bornean twist

This afternoon, post-airport and post-flight, I am again at Sepilok Nature Resort, awaiting the arrival of my second Sunda Clouded Leopard Quest group tomorrow. It is lovely to be here; to nest, however briefly. It is lovely, anywhere in the world, to be greeted by name by smiling staff. It is lovely to be met by the manageress with the words, 'It's nice to see you; you make the place lively.'

I think the word she was looking for is 'noisy'.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the world (the cold side), in a nest I spent three months watching last spring, two precious white chicks hatched from dark tan eggs this morning. Congratulations to the staff and volunteers of the Hawk and Owl Trust and of Norwich Cathedral and most of all to our peregrine pair.

The first feed for two peregrine chicks in Norwich this morning,
image property of the Hawk and Owl Trust

The lovely gardens at Sepilok Nature Resort

Monday, 27 April 2015


One of the thorns in my side when leaving India was not having seen a rusty-spotted cat on my Big Cat Quest. In theory it would have been possible to see one either in Satpura or around Gir but luck and park regulations were against me and I saw none.

It is surprising, when one fails to see a relatively rarely-seen animal, how many friends and clients pipe up with tales of their own encounters with it. One is caused to smile and congratulate, all the while seething with ugly envy.

I do not seethe, however, for Helen and Chris who are lovely folks. They travelled with me around Madagascar a couple of years ago and loved the lemurs as I love them myself. Now they find themselves joining me in Borneo for the start of my second Sunda Clouded Leopard Quest tomorrow.

Perhaps they will have the same luck in Kinabatangan with the flat-headed cat, and in Tabin with the Sunda clouded leopard, as they had in Satpura with the rusty-spotted cat. Selfishly I hope so.

Rusty-spotted cat by Helen Pinchin

Tabin (round one)

For the six nights until the day before yesterday I was in Tabin Wildlife Reserve with my first Sunda Clouded Leopard Quest group. Our stated aim was to see the Sunda clouded leopard in the wild.

Or to die trying.

We did not die. We did, however, spend around forty hours driving through the forest by night, at dawn and at dusk: the times at which cats are most active. Each night, on average, we drove for two hours from dusk, two more hours after dinner, and three hours in the early morning, before and after dawn. On two days we also went for early morning walks in search of hornbills and monkeys, and on one night we went for a midnight walk too. During the day we tried to sleep or wandered like ghouls round the grounds of Tabin Wildlife Resort, watching smooth-coated and small-clawed otters, blue-crowned hanging-parrots, rhinoceros hornbills, Bornean gibbons and much more besides.

As for the night wildlife, it was incredible: genuinely difficult to believe that we could see so many species, so well, so many individuals, and so often.

There were common palm-civets, commuting between the forest and surrounding oil palm plantations. Here too were leopard cats - many of them - the eighth species of cat to be seen on my Big Cat Quest. It is hard to know how many individuals we saw as we travelled the same tracks numerous times and must have seen the same cats repeatedly. Conservatively I estimate we saw a dozen. What I do know is that they were beautiful, so beautiful we all commented on it night after night. So beautiful we never tired of seeing these delicate, spotted cats.

In the same habitat there were handsome Malay civets, while in fruiting trees in the forest we sometimes saw small-toothed palm-civets, slipping over the branches more like liquid than solid beings. In both forest and plantation we saw bearded pigs, almost always trotting away in alarm, just as warthogs seem always to be fleeing in Africa and boar in India.

There were tree-dwellers too: both red giant flying-squirrels and black flying-squirrels many times, and once or twice beautiful Thomas' flying-squirrels. Four times, three of them on the same day, we met Bornean slow lorises, strange primates of the night with huge eyes and round, owlish faces. Stranger still was the one western tarsier we saw, in dense regenerating scrub by the roadside. The tarsier is a night imp, wide-eyed and snub-nosed, its domed head seeming as big as its body.

Bornean slow loris by Kenny Ross

Then there was a moonrat, another weird night-wanderer: bright white and pin-eyed, a hedgehog's distant cousin in the Bornean forest. And on toothpick legs on our first evening there were two lesser mouse-deer, eyes like minor moons in the light of our beams. Buffy fish-owls, barred eagle-owls, large flying-foxes and a herd of pygmy elephants, they all crossed our journeys through the night.

One animal we longed to see more than any other. The Sunda clouded leopard. We had no idea whether seeing it was at all likely. It is seen sporadically in Tabin, most often on night-drives. So we more than tripled the amount of night-driving most groups do each day and we stayed twice as long at the lodge.

Yet still we saw no leopard.

My group went home buoyed by the magnificent wildlife we had seen, by a rare, remarkable experience in Borneo's forests; but doubtless disappointed too, mulling over a leopard that might have been. For myself, I return to Tabin in a few days with a new group, to begin again our relentless assault on patterns of sleep, on normality, and on the Bornean night.

Leopard, I'll be looking.

If only it were that easy

Carved Sunda clouded leopard in the dining room
at Tabin Wildlife Resort

Or superb driver Jusrin and guide Mohammad,
both of them always smiling and always
giving the best of themselves

Cats seen in 2015
cheetah Acinonyx jubatus fearonii            3
serval Leptailurus serval serval                3
leopard Panthera pardus suahelicus        2
lion Panthera leo nubica                          78
snow leopard Panthera uncia                   3
jungle cat Felis chaus                               2
tiger Panthera tigris tigris                          13
leopard Panthera pardus fusca                4
lion Panthera leo persica                          7
leopard cat Prionailurus bengalensis       12

Sunday, 26 April 2015

Gross selfification

I had never until late last year possessed at smart phone. I had also never travelled with a camera. I had therefore, quite obviously, never taken a selfie. I had certainly never felt the need to do so.

Then in Ngorongoro in January this year I was watching a male lion and it occurred to me that it would be fun to post a selfie with him on my blog. Many people commented on it, so I took some more with my friend Denzel the yak in Hemis National Park, Ladakh, in February.

Friends and clients have started to comment on my selfies so, quite without my planning it, they have become a fixture of my blog and something of a daft habit. Today at Lok Kawi Wildlife Park I clicked some real scorchers.

Marsh tit and southern cassowary

Marsh tit and common ostrich

Marsh tit and banteng

Marsh tit and amorous rhinoceros hornbill

Marsh tit and Bornean pygmy elephants

I should get so lucky

A pilgrimage

I have an ambivalent attitude towards zoos, especially zoos in the developing world. Too often they are for entertainment alone, with no interest in research, education or conservation; and much too often their standards of husbandry are so low as to give animals no opportunity to express natural behaviour. Modern zoos, as will be discussed here once I return to the UK, should give animals enclosures and diets which keep them healthy and free of stress; what's more, the fact of keeping a species in captivity should contribute to its conservation, and the conservation of its habitat, in the wild.

For all these reasons I was in two minds about visiting Lok Kawi Wildlife Park this morning. I went because I wanted to meet the female Sunda clouded leopard who lives there, whose picture I first saw in Quentin Phillipps' talk on the species at Birdfair in 2013. I wanted to watch her at close quarters and learn what I could about her kind.

So I went to Lok Kawi and for the most part found the enclosures clean, quite spacious and designed to allow the animals access to the resources they use in the wild. The animals generally look healthy too. Just about the worst enclosure is that inhabited by the Sunda clouded leopard. It is small and featureless and she has no privacy from the eyes of visitors. It is also completely roofed so she is unable to spend any time in the sun, should she so wish. The lack of light means no plants can grow either.

Despite this, she is startlingly beautiful. Her coat is not the gold of an Asian clouded leopard's. Rather the ground colour is a soft grey, reminiscent of the much longer coat of a snow leopard. According to the scant information available, the coat of this beautiful island endemic is variable, perhaps much more so than in the mainland species.

Asian clouded leopard by Anne-Marie Kalus

Sunda clouded leopard at Lok Kawi Wildlife Park,
Kota Kinabalu

The zoo opens at 9:30am so by the time I got there my clouded friend had gone to sleep for the day. However, while I watched she yawned and rolled and once jumped into the bare branches of her enclosure. This was immediately before a rainstorm began, though I have no idea whether the two events were related.

The zoo has a fair collection of other Malaysian and Bornean wildlife, mostly housed in quite large enclosures. Animals here include banteng, Malayan tigers, Bornean pygmy elephants, a breeding group of proboscis monkeys, Bornean orangutans, and an imprinted rhinoceros hornbill who flirts most unseemingly with passers-by.

Male banteng

Female banteng

Malayan tiger: note the solidly orange face and throat
when compared to tigers in India

Tigress in Tadoba, India, by Doug Bain

But enough of zoo animals. The question on everyone's mind is whether my first Sunda Clouded Leopard Quest group saw one in the wild in Tabin. To find out you'll have to check back here tomorrow.

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