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.

The clock is ticking

‘You’re away for 8 weeks? Really?’

People are amazed at the length of time I will be in Borneo … not even all of Borneo but SabahSarawak and Brunei to be exact, the top third of this island, the worlds third largest. But now the clock is ticking, and just as I counted down my days ’til my big adventure, so too is my countdown app counting  down the days until it’s time to board the plane  here in KK and return to New Zealand : and that’s where the second part of my journey starts, writing articles and blogs about it all!

So, as the clock ticks faster and faster I thought it was time to tell you about my  plans for the next 2 and half weeks … my calender is full!

Tomorrow I’m off to Kota Belud … for what is evidently ‘Sabah’s most vibrant market’; the next day, still in the home of  Sabah’s most traditional people, the Rungus, I’m heading further north to Kudat for a couple of nights at Tommy’s Place. This was the areas first capital, and of course I will be visiting the tip of Borneo and spending time on the beach  – and who knows what else!

Back to KK – as Kota Kinabalu is known locally – for a nights rest before I’m off to Brunei for four days, hopefully to get to see the Sultans Palace which is only open 3 days a year … always right after Ramadan ends, perfect timing for my trip. I’m travelling by ferry with about an hour stop-over on the duty-free island of Labuan, Malaysia.

Back to KK for another nights sleep at the Borneo Backpackers, re-arrange my luggage then off to the  much talked about area of the East Coast of Sabah … like most travellers here I’m ignoring the over-conservative travel warnings or advisaries that many western countries have on their websites.

Sandakan means the Sepilok Orang Utan Sanctuary, Labuk Bay and the proboscic monkeys, among other things – including the annual Sandakan Memorial Day ceremony  – on the site of the PoW camp. This will be interesting as I knew nothing about this part of WW2 until I ended up here in  ‘Australia Place ‘where cheap accomodtion can be found among the printing works, and where the Australians camped when they liberated KK. More of this later!

Add few more days with a night safari in Sukau and bush walks in the celebrated Tabin Wildlife Resort, and you can see the next 17 or so days are full!

I still aim at producing a photo-a -day and I know there will be very few words to accompany them … saving them until I write the stories and re-live my adventures again . . . what a bonus two holidays for the price of one!

So time to stop writing and head for the night market .. the Hari Raya one where all the special foods of the holiday season are available. No wonder my goal of not putting on weight in Malaysia was doomed to fail!


Ps. Apologies to those of you who got the unfinished, unedited version of this an hour ago 😦

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