Sunday, 31 May 2015


There is no chance I shall see a wildcat during my stay as a guest speaker at the Grant Arms in Grantown on Spey. This did not deter me from getting up this morning at three to trawl a local lane, helpfully suggested by photographer Ben Locke, where in the past wildcats have been seen. Still close to people and their homes roe deer sprang from the roadside, crossing sheep fences with an easy bound. Further along this small wild road, lined in lank heathers and stunted plantation conifers, my headlights caught many eyes of red deer, flashing like the sides of silver fish in a salt sea shoal. Rabbits skipped from the verge and over tousled heathers a mountain hare scuttled, rump down, short ears raised, gait taut, quite different from the lazy lope of brown hares round my Norfolk home.

I do not care I shall not see a wildcat. Birders, aware how privileged I am to see so much of the world, are often visibly perturbed that I have no list, no idea how many birds or mammals I have seen, and that I - quite genuinely - have no hitlist of species I can't live without seeing. To be more honest than I ought here, I quite enjoy messing with such acquisitive birders and their way of watching nature which, I feel, reduces the soaring magnificence of birds and their wild to ticks on a page, to currency with which to outcompete others, to hierarchical games.

I shall not be downhearted when I go home not having seen a wildcat. For I shall have tried, and I shall surely have seen and experienced many beautiful things in the effort. I shall instead be downhearted - beyond consolation - if (more likely, alas, when) the wildcat becomes extinct in Scotland and the UK. Part of the reason I shall not see a wildcat is that I am here only a short while, looking for a famously elusive animal (though no more elusive than a snow leopard or a flat-headed cat). The chief reason, however, is that the wildcat stands on the very edge of extinction in our country: first shot and trapped out of the huge majority of its range as vermin, and now - a more insidious peril still - hybrdised out of existence by domestic cats and the historic carelessness of their owners.

There are frighteningly few pure wildcats left in Scotland, if any at all. Most of the animals still here are hybrids. Conservation efforts for the wildcat have several different strands, and widely different philosophical bases. Though I shall spare no effort to see a wildcat, or a wildcat hybrid, during the week that I am here, it matters more to me to meet the people who are involved in the wildcat's conservation, to hear what they are doing, and to understand what hope there is for its future.

My search for the wildcat and for understanding of its landscape and conservation begins today.

Friday, 15 May 2015


Having deleted all the rubbish, and answered the most urgent, I am left with 86 emails from friends, family, colleagues and contacts all over the world. Each contains information, an invitation, an attachment, a question or a request. Together they illustrate the continent-spanning web which is my life. A life, this year, in search of cats and the knowledge of them.

Today I have heard from Konchok, my friend and colleague in Ladakh, with whom in February I was watching snow leopards in Hemis National Park. He writes with good wishes from the team in our camp in the Rumbak valley. I miss them already and, after two days at home, am itching for it to be February again so I can curse my frozen toes alongside these wonderful people.

Konchok searching for snow leopards at Rumbak Sumdo

Konchok and a marsh tit

Also today I have heard from Sanju at the Mahey Retreat, our hotel in Leh. He too is well and asks whether I will be visiting in 2016. I hope so Sanju, I hope so.

The view from the Mahey Retreat across the Indus Valley
to Hemis National Park

From hotter climes - very hot by mid May - I've received photos and greetings from my friends Vinod, Dimple, Tarun and Jai who live in the shade of the tall sal forest at Kanha Jungle Lodge and, at this time of year, watch tigers every day for as long as they like. As happy as I am to be home, I miss them, especially Jai who was away at school on my visit this year so I didn't see him. Tu meri adhuri pyas pyas.

The sal forest entry to Kanha Jungle Lodge

From weeks ago I have an email from Quentin, who masterminded my mammal-watching bonanza in Borneo, with the identity of a plant I photographed in the beautiful garden of the Sepilok Nature Resort. It is of Clerodendrum paniculatum and Quentin writes that Clerodendrum was traditionally regarded as the most powerful plant in the Malay Peninsula, used by medicine men known as pawangs to summon up pangil pangil or forest spirits. Clerodendrum flowers and leaves, he continues, were used as magical bait by many in Borneo when trapping mouse-deer. Magical or not it is a quite lovely plant.

Clerodendrum paniculatum in the garden
at Sepilok Nature Resort

Clerodendrum paniculatum at Gomantong Caves

Continuing with identifications, my friend Tim, who has seen snow leopards with me and not seen Sunda clouded leopards with me (but had a lot of fun in the attempt) sent this photo of a hawkmoth, which I rescued from the loo in Tabin. A lepidopterist friend of Tim's tells us that it is Daphnusa ocellaris. It too is very lovely.

Daphnusa ocellaris (on my own fair finger)
photographed by Tim Stowe

And on the same trip, my friend Kenny Ross took photos of two species of horseshoe bat, one at Gomantong Caves and the second hanging from a wire fence along the entrance road to Tabin. Our new friend Derek, a batophile of some renown, has identified them since the group's return to the UK. They are, respectively, Rhinolophus creaghi and Rhinolophus trifoliatus.

What happiness there is to be had in seeing, wondering, asking, hearing from friends, and learning.

Rhinolophus creaghi photographed by Kenny Ross,
identified by Derek Smith

Rhinolophus trifoliatus photographed by Kenny Ross,
identified by Derek Smith

Curious rainforest species photographed by Kenny Ross,
as yet unidentified

Tuesday, 12 May 2015


In the past three days I have landed in four planes, each bringing me closer to home, to spring, to my friends, and to myself. My real landing, my re-emergence as me, begins on the tube from Heathrow, and the train from King's Cross: in the flowers by the tracks, the birdsongs heard through the open windows, and the wings seen over chalk south of Cambridge and fen to its north.

The may is in flower, of course, and the wild apple too. A blackbird sings by a tube station platform and woodpigeons flap over greening suburbia. A hare canters on a chalky field of cereal shoots and rooks billow in the spring breeze. By a fenland drain a reed warbler chants heavily; a sedge warbler wheels madly by another. Over a third a cuckoo flies and the sun flickers on the glossy back of a swallow. All of spring is poured, for me, into this one day of coming home.

At home, my garden sings of the love I sowed in it last spring. A female orange-tip nectars from red campion, my signature plant in the words of one gardening friend. I love it and admit I let it creep into every bed. At home there is also a text, from my oldest birding friend Gav, with whom I have seen hundreds of species of bird in the past almost thirty years. Of four birding friends from school, two now live in Norfolk after years away and two stayed away. Gav lives in London but is the only one among us who still keeps a Norfolk list, a fine Norfolk list at that. If I twitch it is always with him.

In his text he proposes walking the Point at dawn the following morning, to look for a Moltoni's warbler, Norfolk's first. He knows I have just got back, he knows I am exhausted, he knows I have had my fill of people and of wildlife, but would I like to join him? Of course I would like to join him. Blakeney Point is my soul place.

In my childhood many summer days were spent encamped in one of the last beach huts on the Point, which belonged then to my great uncle and now to his children my uncle and aunt. We would stripe our legs tearing through marram, burn our skin in the sun, and drop our sandwiches in the sand, only to eat them anyway. I was unaware then of wildlife in a naming-listing-categorising way, but aware of the wild, in this great place and in myself. My summers, and those of my brothers, were the pale shimmering purple of sea lavender and the changing, threatening, seal-hiding blue of the North Sea.

From the Point can be seen the church in which my parents were married, the heaths on which I learned the songs of turtle doves and tree pipits, the marshes through which my flip-flopped child feet would slide in the mud, and the wide beach on which I have won and lost many things. My father rode his boyhood horse along the coast road here and both of my grandfathers were friends of the famous Point warden Ted Eales. Of one of them, the GP in Blakeney, Ted wrote in his autobiography:

He bred a very famous breed of Labradors, Bally Duff. Being of Irish descent he loved his black Labradors and everybody respected him. He was a great character in the village at Blakeney. There was only one thing he was apprehensive about, when I had to call him out to Blakeney Point he said to me, “For Goodness sake, Ted, get me along the beach, I don’t like going across the harbour.” He didn’t like the water, he was not fond of going across in a boat, a thing that one can’t help.

Ted Eales
Countryman’s Memoirs, A Warden’s Life on Blakeney Point

For generations of my family Blakeney Point, and the land and sea around it, have been a soul place. So I said yes to Gav, to seeing one of my oldest friends, to going home to the Norfolk wild, to looking for a lost bird, and to landing. In any case, getting up at four is no hardship for someone who has just returned from three months in Asia. My body is hours ahead of the time on the clock in my little flint cottage in North Norfolk.

Thus in today's dawn we went up the Point, with the tide low enough to take the easy route on the sand both there and back. Our way was loud with the oystercatcher's shriek, with the stammering African rhythms of little terns, with the wavetalk of the still cold sea.

We did not see the warbler, but better still we saw friends - Paul, Sarah and Ajay - over coffee and tea around the kitchen table in the NT Lifeboat House. We shared stories of seals and terns in the dunes, of friends on a puffin island, of little tern decoys and, naturally, of wild cats in Africa and Asia. As always when I see these friends I, who live with my passport in my pocket, was struck by the wisdom of staying in one beautiful place and letting the wild world come to you.

In ten days I must travel again, this time - no thanks to the SNP - without my passport. For now I have landed at home, in the smiling company of flowers and friends, terns, seals, butterflies and books. And it is good to be home.

Flowers and an orange-tip butterfly in my North Norfolk garden

Sunday, 10 May 2015


The birds of Delhi line the road to greet me as I'm driven from the airport. First a red-wattled lapwing, spindle-legged and quiet in the shade of a roundabout bush. It's likely - I've been so many times - that, though the airport and the arteries of roads around it have hugely changed, I saw this lapwing's parents near here, and grandparents too. Then there are pigeons. Always in Delhi there are pigeons and, reaching my grubby guest house in East Patel Nagar, I see from the scattered feathers in the bathroom that one has been here too. There are mynas, common and bank, a rose-ringed parakeet and many kites wheeling on the hot air of summer Delhi.

Yes it is hot. In June I have known it ten degrees hotter, but just shy of forty degrees today it is the sort of heat I love: dry and solid, bouncing back from the black asphalt of the road. Dogs pant, and brown cart-pulling boys in tank-tops sweat, and Madagascar flame trees blaze in the heat.

I am here for less than a day. A full stop at the end of my three-month journey through Asia in search of cats. Early this morning I arrived from Malaysia, to collect my snow-leopard-watching kit from storage with our ground agency. A little after midnight I fly home to the UK. I hear it's cold. At least now I have my thermals again, though these will be scant protection against our new government.

By now they have gone the snow leopards from our camp in the Rumbak valley, gone to the mountain pastures with the blue sheep and the spring emergence of the marmots. Perhaps the leopard who called above camp for a night was indeed a female. Perhaps a male came to her and she fell pregnant. Perhaps now, three months later, she is searching for a high cave in which to bring her fluffy, eye-closed cubs into being. Perhaps.

My friends from camp - Sonam, Sonam, Angchuk, Nurboo, Gyatso, Gyaltsen - will be beginning now their season trekking over passes, between homestays, seen by the leopards but almost certainly not seeing them. Chosphel will be back in Zanskar, working with local people, spreading the word, with the Snow Leopard Conservancy, that the shan is a friend, an asset, a treasure. I wish them all fortune this summer on the high mountain passes.

In Tadoba P1's two tiger cubs are now sixteen months old, lying in waterholes, panting through the summer heat, easy to see by anyone tough enough to brave it. May is a boom time in tiger-watching. In Pench, old Collar Wali will have had her last litter. By now they're squat and tubby, sniffing round the bush or cave where she has denned them, still small enough that when they have to move she carries them secretly in her mouth, away from males, away from leopards, away from tourists.

In Gir the lions too pant through the brutal heat of Gujarat in summer. Stalking chital by night, and roaring to the waning moon, they rest by day in the dwindling shade of leaf-dropping trees. Monsoon is coming and with it water, leaves, flowers, fruit, insects, birds and abundance. Manisha will be there to watch, with her friends the guides and forest guards, pouring her love onto people, trees, snakes and lions alike.

The small cats live their small lives still beside the great this May. Jungle cats twitch their ready ears in the dry grass of Velavadar, leopard cats crouch round and bright-eyed by the roadside in Tabin, and along the Kinabatangan a tiny flat-headed cat peers from the elephant grass, then slips away into its breeze-rippled vastness.

In time they all slip away these cats, like leopards into the dapple of the forest. They slip into the imagination, the were-they-real? was-I-there? could-it-have-been? imagination inhabited by wild cats. No sooner seen than longed for, wanted, dreamed of, they are a drug.

I've had my fix, these past four months. In Tanzania, in Ladakh, in Madhya Pradesh, in Gujarat, in Borneo. I've seen wild cats, more than a hundred and thirty of them, wherever I've looked. But still I crave them.

Before there will be more cats in the wild, there will be summer in England: swifts, nightjars and natterjacks. There will be time to think on all I've seen, all I've learned, all the people who have given so much of themselves, and to write about them too, I hope.

For I have some small thoughts of big cats to share here; and in the autumn there will be wild cats again. At home in South America. My home: donde durante diez años maravillosos viví.

Friday, 8 May 2015

The name's Bond

Were I a Bond villain, the animal I should stroke menacingly while presenting my plans for world domination to a weaponless Bond would be a banded palm-civet (of which we which saw one on our seventeenth night drive in Tabin this evening). Banded palm-civets, to use the language of Bond villainhood, have edge. Malay civets (of which we saw two this evening) have edge too, though less of it, and one imagines that, with their long legs, they would make rather ungainly lap animals and would refuse to settle. I might allow my minor minions to stroke common palm-civets (five this evening, including two sparring in the middle of the road, so engrossed in their tiff that they failed to notice us) as these, beautiful though they are, have a bumbling quality and are quite lacking in edge.

Leopard cats (of which we saw at least three) are far too cute to be villain familiars. It wouldn't do at all for a man with nuclear devastation at his fingertips to be stroking an animal so adorably spotty. As for the Bornean slow loris (one stranded in a tree devoid of leaves and fruit by the road, apparently wondering how he had got there), any villain seen caressing so sweet a primate would be laughed out of the company of evil forever. (Though poisoning its own saliva with gland-secretions is clearly a major point in favour of the loris as a Bond villain's lap-pet.)

Buffy fish-owls (two on our seventeenth drive), despite their most imposing stare, have far too big talons and would always be rumpling my immaculately pressed Bond villain suit (Mao-style collar I fancy). Bearded pigs (nine of these in two families): let's not even go there. With a pig as a pet I'd spend as much on dry-cleaning my suits as on weapons of mass destruction.

Some animals would be better deployed in attack than kept as pets. Red giant and black flying-squirrels (one apiece this evening) could be trained to glide out under cover of darkness and smother the faces of my adversaries: an army of nut-nibbling night-ninjas. Rhinoceros hornbills (a roosting pair of these tonight) could have razor-sharpened edges to their splendid bills and be launched to snip up my hapless foes.

The mastermind behind my weaponry, my brilliant anti-Q, would, I imagine, be much like a western tarsier (one seen superbly on our first drive this evening, our sixteenth of this tour in Tabin). A dome-headed boffin with mad eyes, a pixie face and strange rubbery fingers, a tarsier would make a fine professor-gone-bad at the head of the scientific wing of my vile empire.

But there is one animal alone which combines the grace, panache and edge required to earn a place in my villainous lap: the banded palm-civet.

Unless of course I could find a Sunda clouded leopard.

Harimau dahan

I am almost never aware that I dream. Perhaps once a year I wake with a dim awareness of having dreamed. Today I woke from my first daytime bout of fitful sweaty sleep with the clearest recollection of a dream: I had been watching a Sunda clouded leopard in a tree (in fact it looked more like an Asian clouded leopard but I'll forgive myself as I was dreaming). It came down from its tree, my leopard, and ran right by me. I was elated. And then I woke.

In reality I have not been seeing Sunda clouded leopards in trees. I have not been seeing them on roads or running past me. I have not been seeing them. I have been trying though. My two groups have been trying very hard. With them, in total, I have undertaken a hundred hours of night drives and river cruises.

Though not seeing I have been learning about Sunda clouded leopards, by talking to guides and drivers who have worked in Tabin these past few years. I have learned that our plan, hatched in Quentin Phillipps' London study early last year, was the right plan, despite our not finding the leopard. Had we done exactly the same thing in 2012 or 2013 I believe we would have seen the leopard.

In 2012 the palm plantations which abut the entrance road to Tabin Wildlife Resort were mature. It is tragically and ironically because of these palm plantations that night-driving here is so remarkably good. Many animals, including the leopard's prey, live in the forest but cross into the palm plantations by night, in search either of palm fruits or of rats, both of which occur in abundance. This was what Quentin predicted last year and it has been so. We have seen barely believable numbers of leopard cats, Malay civets and common palm-civets, plus many, many other fine creatures.

Characteristically generous with his knowledge and understanding, Quentin also told me that clouded leopards were seen more often along the Tabin entrance road than anywhere else and this was also quite true. However, through talking to guides here in Tabin I believe it was true until the moment in 2013 when the old palm plantations were felled and replanted, at which point, I speculate, the leopards moved back to more traditional hunting in the forest. One guide tells me he saw clouded leopard ten times along the road in 2012. Ten times on normal night-drives at dusk. Almost once a month. The other guides also report seeing clouded leopard quite frequently in 2012; but barely at all since the plantations were replanted, and then almost always along roads through the tall secondary forest.

This is why I believe that in 2012, spending the huge amount of time driving at night that we do on our tour, we would most likely have encountered a leopard. Perhaps in a few years' time the pigs will return in force to the regrown plantations. Perhaps the leopards will follow them and there will again be boom years. Perhaps my whole theory is nonsense.

Either way this is a magnificent tour. With my two groups I have seen more than forty species of mammal, most of them very well and many of them repeatedly. The forest is beautiful, the nocturnal camaraderie delightful and people of Tabin the most friendly and helpful to be found anywhere in the world. It has been a blessing to be here these past three weeks.

One fact tantalises more than any other. One of the drivers between Lahad Datu and Tabin, who has driven members of both of my groups to the resort, is a man named Henry. The night after I left with the first group he walked out behind his room in the staff quarters and, at the mouth of a bearded pig trail, he saw a Sunda clouded leopard.

So it has been here, right here, these three weeks - harimau dahan - but it has chosen not to be seen. As a guide in Botswana years ago told a once-client now-friend of mine, and as she wrote to me last week, 'Do not look for the leopard; let the leopard look for you.'

Tonight is my last night of drives in this wonderful place, of smiling people, wild, tall forests and charming wildlife. Perhaps a Sunda clouded leopard will look for me.

Thursday, 7 May 2015

On our fourteenth night drive in Tabin we saw...

... only a Malay civet, a bearded pig, a red giant flying-squirrel, two black flying-squirrels, three leopard cats and four common palm-civets.

Four drives to go.

On our thirteenth night drive in Tabin we saw...

... a colugo at nightfall, wrapping the trunk of a tree in its dermal flap; a Bornean slow loris in a muddle of leaves and the unmistakable eyes of another much further away; a small-toothed palm-civet searching for fruit; and, before dusk, a great-billed heron in a tree, its great bill a silhouette against the day's fading light.

Just as I finish this post I can hear smooth-coated otters calling in the river below the lodge.

Good place Tabin.

Five drives to go.


Putting meaning onto the doings of wild animals, making patterns of them, is often beyond even the most astute observer. But for any real naturalist meaning is far more interesting than seeing. For the whole of my first Borneo tour and the first eight drives of this, we saw no banded palm-civets, indeed Mohammad tells me he had not seen one for two years. By the end of yesterday we had seen three, one on each drive, though it is possible that two of them were the same animal, some distance apart in time and space.

By the same token, on both tours, on every drive we have made along the entrance road and some drives into the forest, we have seen Malay civets. Yesterday, on banded palm-civet day, we saw none at all. Where then did the banded palm-civets appear from so suddenly and where did the Malay civets go? And why?

Another new mammal appeared suddenly this morning, from the blushing dawn of this tour's twelfth night drive in Tabin. Three Hose's langurs, slender pale-face primates with brylcreem crests, were by the road, eating leaves as new and pinkly blushing as the dawn. Where have they been these past two weeks in Tabin and what brought them to my life today? Just leaves?

I do not know. Which is why I look. And why I ponder. And why, looking again this morning, I saw two buffy fish-owls, a common palm-civet and three slender, leaf-chomping monkeys. And why I'll continue looking till my days' end.

Looking, I think, for meaning.

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Three little pigs

Three times, on our tenth night drive in Tabin, three little bearded pigs bolted across the road in front of us. Twice we saw oriental bay owls, like tiny mascara-ed barn owls, clinging to low vertical stems at the forest edge. A water monitor slept longways on a branch and at the edge of the reserve we met two new leopard cats, kittens where before I have seen only a single adult.

Among many things, the loveliest, to me, was a banded palm-civet, our second of the day, skipping along the track in front of us. A gorgeous burnt-sugar brown, its sinuous back cut with black wedges, its eyes bright and its nose sharp, in shape and sense, it was a joy to see.

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       15
flat-headed cat Prionailurus planiceps     1

On our ninth night drive in Tabin we saw...

... bearded pigs by night and later again by day; a banded palm-civet, lightfoot across the leaf litter, dagger-stripes merging with the light and shade cast by our lamps; in the morning a Bornean crested fireback picking along the path as we returned from the Lipad mud volcano, its hornbills and its gibbons.

Nine drives to go.

Good place Tabin.

Tuesday, 5 May 2015

On our eighth night drive in Tabin we saw...

... five common palm-civets (including one blundering along the road towards us),
four buffy fish-owls,
three leopard cats (including one lying in full view by the road),
two Malay civets,
two red giant flying-squirrels,
one black flying-squirrel,
one brown wood owl,
and one bearded pig bashing through the long grass.

Ten drives to go.

On our seventh night drive in Tabin we saw...

... one roosting Sunda pig-tailed macaque,
one roosting yellow-bellied prinia,
one sleeping water monitor,
one Malay civet,
three common palm-civets (one of them admittedly just a tail),
three small-toothed palm-civets in a fruiting tree,
one buffy fish-owl,
one juvenile brown wood owl,
and five leopard cats.

Good place Tabin.

Eleven drives to go.

On our sixth night drive in Tabin we saw...

... among other things, a Bornean slow loris moving at indecorous speed across the bare branch of a tree, returning from a tuft of leaves at the branch's tip which it had been investigating.

Driving back, in the syrupy light of dawn, there were rufous-bellied and changeable hawk-eagles and a bat hawk perched in roadside trees and the forest throbbed with gibbons greeting the day.

A day through which, having lamped for most of the night, I plan to sleep.

Monday, 4 May 2015

On our fifth night drive in Tabin we saw...

... one buffy fish-owl,
one brown wood owl,
one roosting Wallace's hawk-eagle,
one red giant flying-squirrel,
three leopard cats,
three Malay civets (one of them eating a giant pill millipede),
three common palm-civets,
and four UFSs*.

Thirteen drives to go.

Giant pill millipede in Tabin

Add caption

*Unidentified Flying Squirrels, identifiable as flying-squirrels by their eye-shine but too far away, or in too dense cover, to see which species.

On our fourth night drive in Tabin we saw...

... three red giant flying-squirrels,
one Thomas' flying squirrel,
one Sunda frogmouth,
and distant eyes which, by colour and intensity, must have belonged to a Bornean slow loris, though we couldn't be sure.

We also heard the sonorous hooting song of a great argus and rounded every bend in the forest track, peering past stands of ginger lilies in the bank, hoping to encounter a cat. That cat.

Fourteen drives to go.

On our second night drive in Tabin we saw...

... only three mammals.

The third was a common palm-civet, scuttling away from the road as we reached our lodge. The second was a yellow muntjac nibbling leaves at the edge of the track in our headlights. The first was a western tarsier's bottom. In a barely believable stroke of brilliance Mohammad spotted the tarsier deep in tangled cover. We leaped from the vehicle and found it (at least its tail and bottom) in a cluster of dead leaves. For most of my group, tail and bottom were all they could see, but the the tail and bottom of a tarsier.

As we came back from our third drive this morning, Bornean gibbons with young looped through the trees around us, Sunda pig-tailed macaques made mischief among the fresh leaves of roadside vines, and a crested goshawk dropped by. Here at the lodge orange-bellied flowerpeckers and lesser green leafbirds poke at the pink tassel flowers of Samanea trees and my weary group is off to rest through the day.

Good place Tabin.

Fifteen drives to go.

Sunday, 3 May 2015

On our first night drive in Tabin we saw...

... one red giant flying-squirrel,
three common palm-civets,
three Malay civets,
three leopard cats,
at least three buffy fish-owls,
and a posse of five yellow-throated martens.

Good place Tabin.

Seventeen drives to go.

Saturday, 2 May 2015

Thanks Helen

My lovely client Helen took this photo of the flat-headed cat we saw last night and has been kind enough to share it.

Flat-headed cat along the Kinabatangan
by Helen Pinchin


It's half-past-ten at night and my almost unbroken working day began at half-past-five this morning. My batteries are proverbially flat already and tomorrow night my next six-night assault on Tabin begins. All the same, through my bleary eyes, and with my sleep-clumsied fingers, I must type to the world that tonight, from a muddy beach by the Kinabatangan, an exquisite ginger-and-white face stared at me. The face of a flat-headed cat.

Once this tiny, mud-pacing cat was lost among the dwarfing elephant grass we cruised on and - all too briefly - saw the painted face of a leopard cat peering from the same habitat. Two species of cat in one night and nine so far (plus two extra subspecies) on my Big Cat Quest. Flatness, tiredness and sleep can wait.

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       13
flat-headed cat Prionailurus planiceps     1

Colugo and more

At Sukau Rainforest Lodge the rooms are named for prominent Sabah naturalists and conservationists. Mine this time honours Dr John Payne, first author of A Field Guide to the Mammals of Borneo. On arriving yesterday I took this as a good omen for our mammal-watching here.

I was right it would seem as, just as I was grabbing my backpack for yesterday afternoon's river cruise, one of my clients knocked frantically at my door: she and her husband had found a colugo along the boardwalk right behind the lodge.

In a strange world, colugos stand out for their strangeness. There are two species, one in the Philippines and the other fairly widespread across Southeast Asia, including Borneo. They have no close relatives but have affinities with treeshrews and primates. Often referred to as flying lemurs, they are not lemurs and they can't fly. They can glide though, on unique skin-flaps which stretch from their spidery hands to their feet and enclose their stumpy tails. Their eyes are huge, for a life lived by night; and by day they cling to the trunks of trees, their mottled pelage blending with the lichenous bark. This was how our colugo was found yesterday. And again today, in much denser cover (a truly remarkable spot by another of my clients), as we wandered the boardwalk after our early morning cruise. A colugo a day in May so far.

To reach Sukau we had crossed the bay from sweaty, fishy Sandakan, where fruit shines on market stalls, sandals are sold for speed and there are flavours of tea to every taste,

We travelled from here up the Kinabatangan, scanning stands of elephant grass on the banks for their namesake, but we saw no elephants. Instead, here and on our afternoon cruise from the lodge, we saw hornbills - pied, rhinoceros, bushy-crested and wrinkled - monkeys - proboscis, long-tailed macaque, silvered langur - swifts, swallows, kingfishers, kites, eagles and darters.

Pirate Hazwan heading to Sukau

At the lodge, among many local curios, is the threatening two-foot skull of a massive saltwater crocodile. We saw smaller relatives yesterday, glowing eyes in the night and one by day, cresting darkly from the water beneath a family of proboscis, hoping one would slip while reaching for a tender bud. A proboscis is a fine meal and a crocodile is good at waiting. Crocs have waited for two-hundred million years or more and, where humans let them, they do so still. Most well.

This afternoon and tonight we cruise the river again. More pythons perhaps, more roosting blue-eared and stork-billed kingfishers, more long-tailed macaques huddled in the least accessible places.

Least accessible to the clouded leopard; whose absence fills this forest and my mind. Harimau dahan, where are you?

They must have known Naturetrek was coming

This morning my clients goaded me into taking a
little egret selfie (nothing to do with me)