OMG – endangered species right beside me!

Night two safari at the Tabin Wildlife Resort, Sabah was OMG great: as well as seeing the giant-eyed slow Loris, an Italian man in my little group spots the prize – the stealthy carnivore, the silent killer, the wonderful, and endangered, Sunda clouded leopard.

Clouded Leopard. photo by Cristian Morettin. August 2013
Sunda Clouded Leopard. photo by Cristian Morettin. August 2013

I cannot believe my luck. It is right beside the road and we stop, and in amazement, remain silent, looking down on it as it too freezes briefly, before slinking slowly into the bush. Beautifully marked with large irregular patches of colour it is about the same size as a medium-sized dog. I’m sure not many tourists get to see this vulnerable creature which research estimates there are only 275–585 of them in the four totally protected reserves that are large enough to hold a long-term viable population of 50 individuals.

How much deeper will it get? Photo by Cristian Morettin.
How much deeper will it get?
Photo by Cristian Morettin.

Despite having no photo of my own, Cristian Morettin, our hero who spotted the leopard, sends me one of his, as well as one of me up to my knees in water as we cross a river, before cooling down in a waterfall pool.

On the same day that we saw the mainly nocturnal leopard (Tabin is considered to have 2 or 3 hundred according to Wendy Hutton in her book Tabin) we also see another rare sight: the Bornean, or Pygmy, Elephant of which there are about 1500 and are only on Borneo.

Getting ready for the afternoon safari, all of which are included in the charges to stay at this luxurious resort, our guide rounds us up with urgency.

My guide who found the elephant
My guide who found the elephant

‘Quick, an elephant in the area’ gets us moving fast despite the heat – I’m the first on ‘our truck’, the first of three trucks and in only moments spot him slowly disappearing into the bush.

The driver’s told to where to go and wait for him to hopefully reappear. While the guide is scanning the bush, I photograph oil plantation workers on the opposite side of the road – it’s a hard job and I believe 90% of the manual workers in these plantations are Indonesian migrant workers, employed to do the harvesting, weeding and maintenance.

Oil plantation work is heavy work
Oil plantation work is heavy work

Ten minutes later our guide proves right about where the elephant would hopefully go, and he, one lone animal, emerges from the bush into the long grass he loves to eat. Despite being smaller than other elephants, and are called a pygmy, they are actually between 2.5 and 3 metres high, have big ears and straight tusks. Beside an Indian or African elephant I’m sure they’re tiny, but I’d be a little intimidated at his size had I met him on the path. He may be small, but the grass is high and the photographer in me keeps hoping he would come out into the more open areas – but no such luck.

the grass is as high as  an elephants eye!
the grass is as high as an elephants eye!

We just sit and watch him for 20 or 30 minutes; he ignores us, busy eating the ‘elephant grass’ he loves. An older elephant, these lone males are at the bottom of the pecking order and can be a problem: however it seems this one, a well-known regular, has caused no problems.

While a national treasure, the elephant is sometimes regarded a nuisance and can destroy acres in a night. With the fragmented forest reserves and deforestation this has sometimes placed the wildlife in conflict with landowners and villagers. Sadly ‘the 14 pygmy elephants which were found dead at a forest reserve near Tawau, Sabah (January 2013) were killed by severe poisoning’ the Sabah State Tourism, Culture and Environment Minister, Masidi Manjun said. More positively, quick action by wildlife rescuers saved a herd of 10 Bornean pygmy elephants that had wandered off their range and ventured as close as 10km to Lahad Datu: the Sabah Wildlife Department, over eight days, captured and relocated them (nine female adults and a four-year old male calf) back into Tabin. The Sabahmas Plantations have electric fences and ‘green corridors’ to help keep elephants out of their palm areas because of the damage they can create.

Bucket list ... return to Tabin Resort for better pygmy elephant photos
Bucket list … return to Tabin Resort for better pygmy elephant photos

Adding Tabin Resort onto my ever getting longer ‘revisit-bucket-list ‘this country has produced, I fly back to KK and home to New Zealand. Nevertheless I have another Malaysian Air ticket with my name on it – this time I’m off to Miri for the annual Borneo Jazz Festival in May 2014, and to see some caves in Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo.

Tabin Wildlife Resort ticks all the boxes for me

Proboscis Lodge's manager kindly drops me off.
Proboscis Lodge’s manager kindly drops me off.

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.

If  I freeze they won't see me
If I freeze they won’t see me

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.

Mum and baby gibbon
Mum and baby gibbon

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.

 

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Proboscis Lodge boat safari and wildlife viewing

Our boatman, a local tribesman employed at the Proboscis Lodge for his water and nature skills, is a skilled boatman and during our safari turns the motor off, or uses the quiet electric outboard motor, when we stop to watch wildlife.

Wildlife watching us watching them!
Wildlife (pig-tailed macaques) watching us watching them!

Help

‘Look before you leap’ does not seem to be a saying that proboscis monkeys observe. They’re a noisy troop communicating with honks and groans and crash through the foliage, leaping from tree to tree and landing almost as a belly flop. A threatened species, they are a columbine monkey, which means they have enlarged, multi-chambered stomachs that has a bacteria which aids digestion, particularly of the hard-to-digest leaves they eat, and making them the only ruminant primate.

The clumsy and delightful Proboscis monkey (often called the Dutch Monkey because of the big nose and tummy!)
The clumsy and delightful Proboscis monkey (often called the Dutch Monkey because of the big nose and tummy!)

I’m told the babies have blue faces; all have webbed feet and can swim well; they only live about 13 years and need to range widely to find sufficient nourishment I love these comically long-nosed proboscis monkeys more than the world-renown man-of-the-forest the orang-utan and loved that we could sit in the boat and watch them living in the wild.

Twice I saw wild orang-utan in this area: I also saw people in a small electric boat. (They’re either NGOs or a University research team) Seems they often record all they see here, monitoring the animals – especially I think, as some Sepilok orang-utan have been released in the area.

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My journal is full of sightings; palm squirrels, long-tailed and pig-tailed macaques, and langur. A Storm’s stork, Serpent eagle, and Brahminy kite to name just a few birds. Up a side river, the Menanggol, an estuarine crocodiles, on the bank and in the water, eyes on us: these huge creatures, up to 8 metres in length, once prized for their hides, are now extremely rare. An optional extra, my night boat safari adds two civet cats and a couple of Buffy fish owls and the beautiful stork-billed kingfisher, the largest of kingfishers; this whole area, like Bako, is just another place on my revisit bucket list along with the caves here and in Sarawak.

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Borneo is young geologically and was once the huge land of Sundaland, a bio-geographical region of Southeast Asia, the part of the Asian continental shelf that was exposed during the last ice age. It included the Malay Peninsula on the Asian mainland, as well as the large islands of Borneo, Java, and Sumatra and their surrounding islands and when the ice-age finished, the sea rose and Borneo became isolated, the large island it is today.

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Never smile at a crocodile: photo of the day

Never smile at a crocodile‘ the old song went.  This is estuarine crocodile certainly has a wide-mouthed smile!

Photo taken when I was on a river safari as part of my stay at the fabulous Proboscis Lodge on the Kinabatangan River – Sabah’s biggest river.

They’re easy to spot at night as their eyes shine red in the torchlight. We saw many of these reptiles sunning themselves on the riverbanks. I have blogs about this fabulous area scheduled for 1st and 8th April

Sepilok Jungle Resort makes a handy base in east Sabah

Unfortunately, because of time pressure, I only had 2 nights at the Sepilok Jungle Resort – a handy base for exploring the Sandakan area of  east Sabah I start talking to a woman at dinner and find she was one of the original owners! She and her husband started the lodge some 18 years ago and as well as increasing the number of rooms,  they planted all the magnificent plants and trees. ( it’s still a family business)

Entrance Sepilok Jungle Resort
Entrance Sepilok Jungle Resort

Their rooms range from dormitory to air-conditioned deluxe with balcony rooms and over the years the trees have grown and the Resort is set  in this magnificent landscape – it’s also the first place I saw the bird om my bucket list – the fascinating hornbills.

I also saw many birds, fruit bats and butterflies feeding on fruits and flowers as well as fish feeding in their lakes: it’s the perfect place to relax in tropical jungle surroundings.

This is a great base to visit other places including just a five minutes’ walk to the Sepilok Orangutan Sanctuary which is on everyone’s to-do list.

 

I also went to the Agnes Keith House from here, attended the Sandakan Memorial Day ceremony for the Death Marches,  and visited the Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary as I’d been told it was the best place to see them up close – this was true but I loved seeing them in the wild albeit a little further away! These monkeys are only found on Borneo making them rarer than orangutans.

Thanks for the great accommodation!

The face of Visit Malaysia 2014
The face of Visit Malaysia 2014

 

Angus Keith House
Angus Keith House

 

 

Angus Keith House tearooms
Angus Keith House tearooms

 

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