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In July I spent a few days in the Kinabatangan valley. I have written about this in a previous entry, but my account contained an elephantine omission.

On our first daytime walk in the Kinabatangan valley, the guides were nervous. They knew that a group of wild elephants was nearby; in the group were two young elephants, and the mothers were apt to be protective. The guides were not nervous on their own behalf, since they knew how to avoid elephants, but on behalf of the clumsy unpredictable tourists, liable to do exactly the wrong thing at the wrong time.

In the middle of the walk we duly hear a trumpeting coming from about twenty or thirty yards away. You can’t see twenty yards in the forest, so all we know is that we have met the elephants. The fanfare is very loud, very high and very sudden, and the overwhelming instinct of the majority of the group is to run. We have been clearly told not to, so the runners manage to stop after two or three strides when their forebrains regain control.

We soon hear a very deep, leonine growling, with Dolby surround sound and big subwoofers. There is also a strong smell of elephant. The other sound is the cracking of branches. Indeed, sounds come from three directions.

We walk on slowly and very cautiously. Every so often we catch a glimpse of elephant grey on our left; an elephant is walking parallel to our path. Then we see an elephant up ahead. It sees us too and walks away. Then we spot an elephant on our right; it too walks off when it sees us, so the path is clear and we continue walking.

Seeing wild elephants at a distance is far more thrilling than seeing domesticated elephants up close. The guides’ patent fear adds to the thrill; they know that the elephants are dangerous and their fear communicates itself to us.

The Bornean pygmy elephant is a distinct sub-species, Elephas maximus borneensis, of the Asian elephant. It was confirmed as a sub-species in a study conducted at Columbia University, before which it was thought that the elephants had been transported to Borneo by man in recent times; actually it arrived tens of thousands of years ago. The pygmy elephant has larger ears than other Asian elephants. It is smaller, as its name suggests, but the epithet is harsh: adults stand 1.7-2.6m tall, and other Asian elephants 2.5-3m. When you see a Bornean elephant it does not strike you as lacking stature.


Males reach full size at around 25, and they can weigh three tonnes. They stay with the family group until they reach sexual maturity at around ten or twelve, at which point they are kicked out. The others live in family groups of five to ten.

A couple of days after that meeting we took a sunset boat trip, and Luis parked the boat at a part of the bank that looked much like any other. He told us to stay in the boat and disappeared for at least ten minutes. Then he returned, and motioned us to climb silently up the muddy bank. Using trees for cover, we peered out into a clearing and saw an adult feeding.

Then a juvenile elephant walks straight past us. That is interesting, but not good. We are between the baby and its mother and aunts; they won’t be happy. Sure enough, mama walks up the path and trumpets, and we retreat as fast as we can. The mother sees us, trumpets again, and runs back. It is well known that elephants cannot jump, but she changes direction very quickly, pushing off with her forelegs like a deer. Then she walks very tentatively up the path and stares at us for a long time. We are all pretty tense, and ready to jump.

Elephants do not understand sign language.


The female very deliberately walked twenty yards away and started eating tall ferns while watching us.


She kept up a low growling. Unfortunately, at this point two other boatloads of tourists arrived, attracted by the empty boat on the bank. They made a lot of noise and blocked our view. Three adult elephants arrived on the scene, with a tiny infant between them, and began to growl and trumpet. They made it very clear that they desired us to leave; it was a menacing moment. The guides told us to clear out and get on to the boat, and so we did.

Then the first adult simply walked past us, and the baby followed.


The two guides, free of worry about their defenceless charges, stayed on the bank and took photos of the baby, which the adults had left. The baby was thoroughly interested in the two guides. At one point it decided to charge – they can move very quickly – and Luis had to run down the bank. Mostly it turned its backside on Luis and walked backwards, hoping to run him down in reverse.


This was the closest encounter we had, and it was I suppose inevitable that I managed to go out that afternoon without a memory card. These photos are, therefore, courtesy of Anna Östman and Rachel Seys. Luis took the close-ups.


On my final evening in the lodge, I thought someone was breaking into the bathroom. There were loud cracks outside the hut.

The lodge was surrounded by a fence, energetically electrified to keep the elephants out. My hut was right by the perimeter, and the elephants were just beyond the fence, so they were just a few yards away. I went out to check. I could not see a thing. I just heard spooky noises of breaking branches, five metres away.

After supper we all walked to another part of the perimeter, where we could see a group feeding by the light of the moon. The most amazing thing: the violent cracking of large branches, which makes you realise the power at their disposal; and the loud growling, very deep indeed, which sounds like a large ferry engine. Indeed, it can be felt as much as heard, like the subsonic notes that precede an earthquake.

Posted by Wardsan 09:49 Archived in Malaysia Tagged animal Comments (0)

Animals in Bunaken

Northern Sulawesi

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At Living Colours in Bunaken I lay in my bright red hammock and read. As the sun began to set the little cicak geckoes would arrive to feed and have fun.


Very often, one gecko would approach another, bite it on the neck or on the top of the head, and hold on while the other wriggled like a rugby league player under the tackle. When released the victim would run away. Perhaps it is about establishing the dominance hierarchy, although you would think their brains are too small to store this information. Maybe they were just fighting for land: the prime real estate is near the light, where the food delivers itself.

An extract from the diary:

I’ve had to evict all kinds of beetles, bugs and ants from my sleeping chamber, together with a little green spider; there are lots of beetles and grasshoppers on the paths, and I have in turn been evicted from my hammock by a mean-looking shiny black spider.


There are 18 geckoes now on the verandah ceiling above me. Moths are a favourite, easy prey. I just saw a gecko take on a moth at least half its size.


It caught it all right, by the tail, but it took it ten minutes to gulp it down whole.






The beetles are a harder prey, and katydids are too large altogether.


And when you go to the bathroom there is a six inch centipede greeting you. It’s like Naked Lunch.

In spite of the number of pictures on this blog, I am not very fond at all of most insects, and I am frightened of spiders.

Once I moved down the path to Lorenso’s it got worse. I found a dying cockroach on the bed, surrounded by hungry ants. I got the sheets changed. It was the sort of place where you needed to check every item of clothing before putting it on.

I lounged in the hammock reading Touching the Void, and occasionally a squidgy gecko turd would land on me. They’re surprisingly large.

From the diary, again:

There is a mantis in my room. It looks a lot like a stick insect, only with longer forelimbs, and it moves as slowly. It has established itself on my towel. This is unfortunate, as I do not mind the mantis at all, and would like to hang up my towel to keep it from the rat that lives between the walls and the rafters.


And a glow worm has just flown through the room and disappeared through the rafters! This is constantly entertaining but it is difficult to sleep.

The mantis seems to be reading my copy of The Economist. I have picked up my towel and flicked it a couple of times but the mantis has hung grimly on.

The only way I can persuade the mantis to go anywhere is by offering it The Economist and then ferrying it on that. It is a discerning mantis.


Then came the cockroaches. I had been hearing rustling from more than one direction, and assumed it was the rats. I had packed everything away tightly, having seen a rat walking on the top of the walls. But a cockroach flew into my hair and I realised the rustling was cockroaches.

I have killed three but there are at least two more wandering the walls. I have sprayed insect killer everywhere, but of course it has had no effect on the roaches.

Sadly, although I avoided the mantis, it was affected by the insecticide. It lay still and arched its back for a long time. Eventually I had to put it out of its misery.

Posted by Wardsan 09:50 Archived in Indonesia Tagged animal Comments (0)

KL Bird Park 2

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Four months ago I posted a batch of photos of the bird park in Kuala Lumpur, and then forgot about the rest. Here are the others, for my Aunt Jane. Be well.



Great white pelican.


Greater flamingoes.


Sacred ibis.



Yellow-billed stork.




Cattle egrets. Wherever there are paddies, there are egrets.



Brahminy kite.


Posted by Wardsan 18:15 Archived in Malaysia Tagged animal Comments (0)


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Yesterday I visited Saigon Zoo. I didn't mean to: I thought I was buying a ticket to the History Museum, but ended up in the zoo and stayed. My inner culture vulture is disappointed with myself, but at heart I'm more interested in animals than in Cham sculpture.

The Lonely Planet guide says "We strongly recommend against visiting the poorly kept zoo animals". This is the same Lonely Planet that publishes a guidebook to Burma. The Vietnam guidebook is not shy of issuing ethical instruction and I for one do not appreciate it.

The animals were indeed kept in poor but not absolutely barbaric conditions. The zoo is probably like London Zoo was about thirty-five years ago; our expectations and sensibilities have changed rapidly. Nevertheless, the large mammals in particular were kept in enclosures that were far too small for them. The worst examples: a gibbon kept in a tiny cage; a hippo sat motionless in a small, vile pool.

In both cases, it is a relevant question whether you are doing more harm than good by visiting and paying the dollars. In the case of Burma, I prefer to follow the advice of Aung Sang Suu Kyi; this avoids what would otherwise be an agonising decision. In the case of the zoo, there is at least some chance that the money will contribute to improving the facilities. I do not hold out much hope, though: although the people who run the zoo will be aware that conditions fall short of those expected in the west, the majority of visitors are Vietnamese, and they could not care less as far as I can see. So there may be little commercial incentive to improve. Many of the visitors delighted in harassing the animals. Some also fed them anything that came to hand. Another reminder that attitudes to animals here differ sharply from those in northern Europe; even from mine, and I'm no animal rights activist. I came close to hitting one fat moron, teaching his stupid fat son how not to behave by harassing and feeding sweets to the bears.


But I stayed anyway, of course, because I love watching animals. The one species that you are supposed to feed at the zoo is the goats:


This is a white rhinoceros:


Leopard, lioness, lion:




Asiatic black bears:




An ostrich:



Siamese crocodiles:


Estuarine crocodile:


A green iguana:


Smooth otters:




A unicorn gemsbok:


A blesbok, perhaps:


And an orang utan:


Posted by Wardsan 14:13 Archived in Vietnam Tagged animal Comments (0)


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Did I mention taking an elephant ride in Chiang Mai a couple of weeks ago? I don’t think I did. We got to Chiang Mai early in the morning and while some of the group went off to a cookery class, Rae and I took a minibus to an elephant reserve outside Chiang Mai. We spent about an hour perched on top of a balding forty-something elephant as it strolled around the nearby landscape.


It’s not a comfortable way to travel, and it was unbelievably hot. We had both pointlessly brought rucksacks with us, as well as cameras. We had bought bunches of bananas too, to feed the elephant. I ended up covered in banana as the bunches disintegrated in my lap. Elephant power consumption must run well into the kilowatts, so they can eat an endless number of bananas. They also get through 40 or 50 kg of feed a day.

Elephants are a bit of a problem in Thailand. They used to carry loads, provide power, and function as tanks in battles; now all that is done mechanically. You see small elephants sometimes in the streets of Bangkok and Chiang Mai. This is, obviously, not their natural environment. Their keepers ask for money for the elephants, but then abandon the elephants when they get too big. Inevitably, these abandoned elephants cause problems. So the advice is not to give to these people.

Quite often our elephant would stop and lift its trunk, demanding bananas. So long as we had any, Rae would oblige. It was a long reach forward.


Occasionally the elephant would stop altogether and trumpet.

There are all sorts of words for elephant in Thai, for immature female, mature female, mature male and so on. The only one I can remember, other than Chang (which is a brand of beer with a picture of an elephant on the front) is Phan, an immature female. This is Phan Dii, an 8-year old female.


Posted by Wardsan 21:22 Archived in Thailand Tagged animal Comments (0)

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