Friday, 8 May 2015

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.

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