Monday, 27 April 2015

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

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