11.07.2008 - 14.07.2008
In July I spent a few happy days in the Kinabatangan valley in eastern Sabah. About 20,000 hectares of the valley is a wildlife sanctuary.
Everyone knows that much of Borneo is rainforest. But most of it has previously been logged. There is very little primary forest left in Borneo, and much of the rest of the land is used for agriculture.
Until recently cocoa – although first planted commercially only in the 1950s - was the dominant product. As cocoa prices fell through the floor (Bornean cocoa being markedly inferior to Ghanaian), most farmers switched to the African oil palm, although cocoa remains the fourth largest crop in Sabah. Rubber and copra are the other two important agricultural products.
About a third of arable land in Sabah is planted with oil palms, so the oil palm is everywhere. It took several hours to get from Sandakan to Bilit, our base in the Kinabatangan, and we passed endless Cordoban Mezquitas of squat palms touching crown to crown.
Between the branches grows a very large fruit, red-black like a blackberry but 10,000 times larger; it weighs up to 50 kg. It is picked with a sharp instrument on the end of a pole. It is a specialist job: get it wrong and the fruit kills you as it plummets towards the Earth’s centre of mass.
Oil is extracted from the pulp and from the kernel. A hectare can yield 10 tonnes of fruit. The pulp (pericarp) oil is the most popular edible oil in the world. It is used mainly to make margarine and processed foods. The kernel oil is used to make soap and detergent. Some palm oil is nowadays used to make biodiesel. Malaysia is the biggest exporter of palm oil, but Indonesia is planning to double its production in the next few years, blithely saying goodbye to its forests and to the animal species that live in them.
The Kinabatangan Wildlife Reserve is classed as secondary forest because it has been subject to logging, but not for a long time, and the forest seems (to a man from Lambeth) healthy with a wide variety of species. Two thirds of the animal and plant species of the world live in rainforests.
The reserve is a mixed dipterocarp forest, an evergreen lowland forest. Dipterocarp is the predominant tree type in tropical rainforest, and most of the timber produced in Borneo is dipterocarp, including the hardwood. As its name implies, its fruit has wings. Most species have two, but some have more.
Dipterocarps are tall trees. Some grow to 60 metres or more. Typically they have a reddish bark, and buttresses supporting the lower trunk. Their root systems are wide but very shallow, and the buttresses provide some added stability.
Once we got to Bilit we took a little boat across the river and arrived at the lodge, a constellation of twenty-odd bamboo stilt huts together with two larger stilt buildings. There is a rolling guest list. Most stay for two nights, some for one night. A Japanese lady was staying for a week. I stayed for three nights, I think. I wanted to see proboscis monkeys and Bornean pygmy elephants and was lucky enough to see both.
The routine was the same every day. Up at dawn for a two-hour cruise in small motorised canoes, accompanied by a sharp-eyed guide a morning walk to a nearby oxbow lake; an afternoon off, an evening cruise along the river and a night-time walk. It did not become monotonous because you see different things each time.
Here is a stick insect at the oxbow lake.
Lines of sight along the river are much greater than in the forest, so it is easy to see birds. The oriental darter, a big bird with a long neck, large wings and a sharp beak, dives for up to a minute. It often surfaces slowly, puts its head up like a periscope, and then sinks again. Then it looks a lot like a water snake.
Malaysia has fifteen species of kingfisher; Europe has one. Posted at regular intervals along the bank is the stork-billed kingfisher. Malaysia’s largest, it grows over a foot tall. It is territorial and will attack any other bird. They eat anything that moves, including crabs, lizards, frogs and spiders.
The Brahminy kite, which grows to 45 cm, is found from India to the Solomon Islands. It lives along the rivers, and especially along the coasts.
The crested serpent eagle, which grows to 48 cm, lives in almost every environment in Sabah from the coasts to the mountains. They eat reptiles, large birds, rodents and large invertebrates. They are common along the river.
Also very common along the banks are dollar birds. Here and there secure nests with small entrances are constructed on vertical shaft sticking out of the river itself; these are black and red broadbills, with a bold azure bill.
Storm’s stork is a very rare bird. Birdwatchers travel to the Kinabatangan to see it. There are only 500 or so left. It’s a handsome black and white stork with a red bill.
Great egrets line the banks, probably the most numerous bird. They fly with their necks folded back.
On our first river cruise we saw a large male orang utan with cheek pouches, sitting in the fork of a tree, picking and eating figs very slowly. There are twenty species of fig in Kinabatangan, five hundred in Borneo. Ficus rasemosa is especially important, since all the arboreal animals eat the fruit and/or the leaves. Even the pigs get to benefit, since the long-tail macaques are messy eaters.
Occasionally we would see proboscis monkeys, Nasalis larvatus. Endemic to Borneo, they live along river banks, in mangroves and in peatswamp forests. Being arboreal, they are losing places to live; there may be only 8,000 of them left. But they are easy to see because they like to collect in trees by the riverbank.
They must be one of the weirdest-looking mammals. They are orange-red over most of the body but the limbs, tail and collar are silvery-white, and they seem to be wearing white nappies. Young proboscis monkeys have dark blue faces. A local name for them is orang Belanda: Dutchmen.
They also have incongruous tellytubby bellies. They live on unripe fruit, seeds, and leaves. Some of this diet is poisonous. They have two stomachs: the first contains special flora to digest the toxins, and the second acts as a normal gut. A side-effect of this digestive set-up is that they cannot digest ripe fruit. It also produces gas in volume, hence the beer gut.
Despite their build they are extremely agile, and they leap great distances from tree to tree. They are also good swimmers, sometimes swimming in the open sea. They walk upright when wading, with the females carrying infants on their hips. Other than humans, only proboscis monkeys, gibbons and pangolins are known to walk bipedally for any length of time.
And then there is the nose. There are various theories about its function, but if the proboscis were purely functional there would be little or no difference between the sexes. As it is, the males have the big schnozzles, the females little retroussé numbers. Older males even have to lift the nose out of the way to eat, so it is certainly a hindrance. It must be sexual selection: the girls like big noses, so they get them, and they have sons with big noses and daughters with the genes for big noses. The nose also turns red when the possessor is excited or angry.
There are two groups of proboscis monkeys in the Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary. One is a harem, with a dominant male, several females and their offspring. The other is a group of sexually mature bachelor males who sometimes try to sneak into the other group for hit-and-run quickies. When a bachelor male successfully challenges the dominant male and takes over mating rights, he will kill all the existing offspring. From the perspective of the selfish gene it is adaptive behaviour.
Since the one who can beat up the rest takes all, the males grow to be much larger than the females, weighing up to 24 kg. Females weigh half that. The males are priapic. It is difficult not to notice, since their skinny carrot-shaped monkeyhoods are bubble-gum pink.
We saw some squabbling in one group and it was horrible. Along with a lot of loud screaming we saw a monkey fall twenty feet or so through the trees.
The other primates of Borneo include apes (the Bornean gibbon and Homo sapiens); other monkeys (the langurs and macaques); and prosimians (the western tarsier and slow loris).
The leaf monkeys, or langurs, look somewhat like macaques, but their tails are longer, and so is their fur. They eat leaves alone. There are four species in Sabah. They live in harems of five to eight. The commonest two species are silver and maroon.
You don’t get to see gibbons – they are very shy – but you can hear them. Around six in the morning they whoop loudly. They are badly affected by logging, since they are entirely arboreal.
You don’t get to see tarsiers or lorises either, since they are nocturnal. Both have huge eyes. The western tarsier lives in small groups. It is tiny and jumps from tree to tree like a frog. It eats insects. They say it has the ears of a bat, the eye of an owl and the tail of a rat. Lorises are unbelievably slow, like sloths, although they hunt insects as well as eating fruit. They just wait for prey to approach before grabbing it. They have short tails and are the size of cats.
Another animal in deep trouble in Borneo is the Sumatran rhinoceros, Dicerorhinus sumatrensis. The rhinos stand 120 to 135 cm high and weigh up to 730 kg. There are thought to be between 250 and 400 in the wild, in Borneo, Sumatra, peninsular Malaysia and perhaps Burma. We didn’t see any. There may be only thirty of the Bornean sub-species left in the wild. There are several in captivity at Sepilok and at Cincinnati Zoo. At Sepilok the male and female are kept apart except when the female is in oestrus. They have never bred successfully in captivity; the females get pregnant all right, but they always miscarry.
As its Linnaean name implies, it has two horns. The horn of the Sumatran rhino fetches huge prices among those who believe that this lump of keratin – the same substance as hair or fingernail - will stiffen their marshmallows. The Asian product can sell for as much as $60,000 a kilo. African rhino horn is much less sought after.
Hornbills, on the other hand, don’t have horns, but solid casques instead. There are 57 varieties, and eight in Borneo. They tend to be black or brown, with long tails, and they are big birds. In the Kinabatangan we saw plenty of oriental pied hornbills (Anthrococeros coronatus), which grow to 75 cm.
Their eyes appear to be glued on, like the eyes of soft toys. We saw some sitting near an eagle, and they were larger than their neighbour.
Hornbills nest in tree holes. When the female is about to lay, the male walls her in, leaving only a slit. She stays there with her chicks until they are ready to fly. The male feeds them through the slit.
Our various excellent guides – Kai, Luis, and the lovely Nelly - spotted about five crocodiles. I only saw one, because they lie almost entirely submerged, and the remainder disappears as the boat approaches. They are estuarine crocs, also known as saltwater crocs, and in Australia they are known as vicious bastards and fast. But here, like the eagles, they mainly subsist on small animals, only occasionally attacking humans. Borneo is in fact right in the middle of their notional range, although sightings are now very rare in Thailand and Indochina. In New Guinea and Australia their populations have recovered to precolonial health, and they are also common in Orissa, in northeast India. Naturally, there are monitors too, usually resting on branches.
On one river cruise we saw a mangrove snake coiled in a branch overhanging the water. These are poisonous, but very lazy, or so it appeared.
Kai is an orang sungai – from a river tribe. Partly because his teeth are filed, his face has an air of gleeful piratical wickedness, at odds with his character. As in, say, Papua, the river people speak a lot of different dialects and cannot understand each other. But they are all counted as Dusun, and all nominally Muslim.
The commonest monkey in the sanctuary is the long-tailed macaque, Macaca fascicularis. It eats shoots and leaves (sic). It also eats small animals, and in the mangroves it eats crabs. It does so by inserting its tail into a crab hole, waiting for the crab to grab, slowly withdrawing the tail, and then dashing the crab against a rock. It lives in large groups and is highly sociable. It used to be a favourite subject of animal experiments. I have seen them all over the place in Asia and have grown to dislike the thieving hooligans.
Each evening after supper we would go for a walk with torches. It was very creepy. But for the torches, darkness is absolute. My LED torch is fine for reading but inadequate for walking, especially with steamed-up glasses. It is still very hot and humid at night, and walking is very sweaty work. On the first couple of walks we saw plenty of elephant dung but no elephants (more on the elephants another time). All we saw was a couple of large scorpions. It was very muddy – you had to be careful not to leave shoes behind.
Each time we walk we wear leech socks. These are not recognisably socks, but canvas Christmas stockings instead. The leeches are smaller than I expected, about an inch long, more like inchworms than slugs. They sit on trunks and leaves and stretch out when they sense traffic passing. They look like the letter-forming aliens from Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator.
On one night walk we found a kingfisher sleeping on a branch. It was not disturbed by the torches or by the noise. It may be a stork-billed kingfisher, but I am guessing it is a black-capped kingfisher, because of its smaller stature and shorter tail.
After each night walk we head straight to bed, no hanging around the bar swapping war stories. We are up for a dawn boat ride at six each morning. Inside the hut, a million ants and mosquitoes and the odd gecko. From my hut at night I could hear jungle noises, which often seemed to be nearby. There are Chihuahua barks and growls outside. It’s not a Chihuahua. A frog? A monkey? No idea. And in the morning, you wake to the melodious song of tailor birds.
This is a millipede commonly found in the area, a kind of pill millipede.
If disturbed it rolls up into a ball for a few minutes. Threatened millipedes curl up; threatened centipedes run away, because they are much faster. (They only have one pair of legs per body segment, while millipedes have two.) Centipedes can run, proportionately to body length, faster than cheetahs.
A leaf beetle.