I’m dropped off (Thanks Proboscis Lodge) at the Tabin Wildlife Resort office beside the Lahad Datu Airport and head for what is considered Sabah’s ‘greatest wildlife sanctuary’ and which is amazingly twice the size of Singapore. The resort is the only accommodation in the area – I will stay for 2 nights and three days.
It’s on the Dent Peninsula, jutting into the Sulawesi Sea, and is an hour’s journey from here: once we get to the entrance it’s still another 10 km on an unsealed, lumpy road. We’re travelling on roads with oil plantations on either side of the road and my heart sinks. I don’t think there will be much wildlife in this environment. How wrong I was!
I’m the only person being picked up at this time so can sit in the front for good views during the journey, including seeing a magnificent Mengaris tree. I later realise this must be the most photographed and tallest rainforest tree in the area.
Monitor lizards are sunning themselves on the road, and a raptor flies overhead: both animals are scavengers so I realise there is food around for them – confirming that some of my pre-Borneo perceptions about some oil plantations are obviously wrong.
The Tabin Wildlife Resort brochure says is ‘Borneo’s Birding & Wildlife Paradise’, and to reinforce the claim, all visitors are given a ‘pocket checklist’ for recording the creatures we see. It starts with the 260 species of birds recorded here. I ticked off about 25 despite not a being a ‘birder’ in the usual sense of the word – and saw more than I ticked!
Guests are assigned a guide when they arrive – I’ve just driven in, haven’t been given one or been shown my room when I’m told, ‘quick, come with me, gibbons just past your room.’ OMG. My first sighting of something I’ve never seen before and it’s only a 2 min walk from the dining room, 20 seconds past my accommodation. I’m in love already.
Gibbons, it seems are silent except for an hour or two on awakening, and these are silent as they swing circus-like from branch to branch, just as you imagine all monkeys do (but don’t). They’re hard to photograph because of their speed, and their hook-shaped hands and comically extra-long arms and long legs make them really agile and I ‘ooh and aah’ with pleasure as I watch them in the tree canopy where they spend most of their time. Lunch can wait.
Like tightrope walkers they use outstretched arms to help keep their balance and I’m amazed at how they leap across large gaps, from branch to branch and it’s not until they move on into the deeper forest that I go and check out my lovely unit that overlooks a small river – an ideal spot to relax to the soothing sound of water and watch many birds, butterflies and the mischievous macaque when they travel through the resort. Just sitting there makes me realise why Tabin is considered a bird-watchers paradise.
The next morning about the time I wake up, the same family (mum, dad, and 3 youngsters) announce their presence with territorial hooting calls, warning other gibbons to stay out of their ‘hood. This noisy display takes 1/2 hour or more every morning and is started by the adult female – it is also she who decides when to move on too I’m told by Palin my ‘Tabin Native Guide’.
Their haunting calls can often be heard for long distances and consists of a duet between the mated pair with the young ones sometimes joining in. Monogamous, and endemic to these dense forests, they are tailless with coats that range from brown to nearly black, and with white markings on their faces and hands. Among the most threatened primates with their habitat disappearing at a rapid rate, they’re often captured and sold as pets or killed for use in traditional medicines. All but one species of gibbon are listed as endangered or critically endangered. This one, the Müller’s Bornean Gibbon (Gray) is endemic to the island of Borneo.
Seeing them so unexpectedly was just the first of many highlights in this small river valley and resort, in the Tabin Wildlife Reserve which is twice the size of Singapore. The reserve is managed by Sabah Wildlife Department who, with the Sabahmas Plantation, also have a project in the area to encourage the Sumatran rhinos to breed: there are only 30 to 50 in the world.
Dominated by secondary growth, with patches of virgin forest, this area is largely surrounded by oil plantations which I now find makes it easy to see many creatures as they move between the plantations and forest for food – or even wander down the road. I believe the reserve and plantation share a 9 km boundary which means resort, the department, and the oil plantations have shared responsibilities for the flora and fauna of the area – an alliance that seems to be working for them all, and the animals.