Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Sabah: Kinabatangan - Life Along the River

Instead of using one of the jungle lodges along the Kinabatangan, we opted for a home stay with a group of Malaysian families - an interesting alternative.

Our hosts kept a few local birds in (very small) cages.  These are Blue-crowned Hanging Parrots (Loriculus galgulus), among the smallest mermbers of the parrot family.

This is a northeast Borneo endemic, the White-crowned Shama (Copsychus stricklandi), often included as a race of the much more widespread White-rumped Shama (C. malabaricus).  Shamas are still common birds, but they are intensely trapped everywhere for their colourful plumage and beautiful song, and their days of abundance may be numbered.

Not all the wildlife around the house were caged, of course.  In the garden just outside the door an Olive-backed Sunbird (Cinnyris jugularis) was building her nest, with no apparent concern for human comings and goings.

Equally unconcerned about us - perhaps fortunately - were the architects of this elegant little wasp's nest just outside our house door.

Beyond the house, the river beckoned....

And we set out (carefully) to explore the forest along its banks.

Though, as I wrote in my last post, the forest has been much reduced by the spread of oil palm, it still boasts beautiful flowering trees and the occasional tall emergent soaring above the rest of the canopy.

And there is still wildlife.  Once or twice we found large Water Monitors (Varanus salvator) lounging on the banks.

At one point a shelf of rock overhangs the river edge, and here we found nesting Glossy Swiftlets (Collocalia esculenta) sharing the rock face with a colony of bats.

Bats can be tricky to identify without a specimen in hand, especially for a complete non-expert like me.  I think, however, that this is one of the horseshoe bats (Hipposideridae); which one, I won't hazard a guess.  Any chiropterologists out there?

Humans, of course, are busy along the river (including tourists like ourselves).  Well, "busy" may be a relative term; these forest rangers didn't seem to have a great deal to do.

Fishermen are, perhaps, more active.We came across a few traditional fishing traps along the water's edge...

This one, which our guide hauled up for us to inspect, had already caught some freshwater prawns - delicacies that are becoming scarce in many areas as chemical residue from oil palm plantations and other sources runs off into the rivers.

This barge and its accompanying tug, carriers for dredged river sand, are evidence of human activity on a much more industrial scale.

What effect dredging and similar activities will have on the prawns and other life of the river, and on local livelihoods from fishing to tourist guiding, remains to be seen, but the presence of the barge was a keen reminder that even in a famous wilderness area the hand of industrial humanity may not be far away.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Sabah: Kinabatangan - Elephants and Oil Palm

In the.eastern part of the Malaysian state of Sabah lives a small population of Asian elephants (Elephas maximus). They are the only elephants in Borneo, and how they got there has long been an intriguing puzzle.

Elephants do not seem to be a part of Borneo's original fauna. There are no traditions of them in local folklore on the rest of the island, and no subfossil remains have been found to show that the existing population was once more widespread. Are Borneo's elephants simply the descendants of animals brought in from the continent by humans? That seemed to be the best solution until a researcher found that not only were the Bornean animals smaller than their continental cousins, but their DNA differed so much from that of mainland animals that the continental and island populations must have been separated for some 300,000 years.

Borneo's elephants, then, did not hail from the continent. However, they still did not seem to be the remains of a once-larger native population. Where, then, did they come from? And why are they restricted to only this one corner of Borneo's northeast?

An ingenious solution to these questions was recently suggested by a noted authority on all things Bornean, Gathorne Hardy, the 5th Earl of Cranbrook.

Lord Cranbrook, with his colleagues Junaidi Payne and Charles Leh, discovered that although the Sabah elephants differed from the elephants of mainland Asia, their bones were a close match to the remains of a population of elephants that once lived on the island of Java. Java's elephants probably became extinct around the latter half of the fourteenth century, at a time when powerful sultanates ruled the waters of the East Indies. Diplomatic relations among the sultans required the exchange of gifts, and an elephant was a royal present. 

Lord Cranbrook found evidence of a tradition that a Sultan of Java had presented some elephants to the Sultan of Sulu before the Javan population finally disappeared, and that some of the animals on Sulu had either escaped or been deliberately released in what is now Sabah (the Sultan of Sulu's territory included a broad swath of northeastern Borneo). That would explain why Borneo's elephants are confined to Sabah, and why they differ from other Asian elephants but do not show the features of a native population. It would also mean that the elephants of Sabah are, in reality, the last Javan elephants on Earth. [Thanks to Lord Cranbrook for correcting some of the details here - this posting is a revised version of my first attempt.]

Despite coming up with what may be the best solution to Borneo's elephant mystery, Lord Cranbrook had never actually seen a Bornean elephant in the flesh. The place to remedy this is the forest bordering Sabah's Kinabatangan River, and Eileen and I were delighted when Lord Cranbrook invited us to join him, on May 2-4, on a quest for the elephants of Sabah. 

I had been to the Kinabatangan before, on my first trip to Borneo in 1992 (long before I met, and married, my Malaysian wife). Back then, wildlife tourism to the area was in its infancy. Today it is big business - but, thanks to the explosion of an even bigger business, the forest along the river is no longer what it was.

As your boat carries you along the river, past magnificent rainforest trees, you might be forgiven for thinking that all is well here and that the ecosystem and its wildlife are secure.

 A broader view, however, reveals a truer picture.  Away from a narrow strip along the river, the forest is severely degraded, and behind the the trees lining the banks you can see the serried ranks of oil palm -- at once one of the greatest sources of income, and one of the greatest environmental concerns, in Southeast Asia.

 In places the oil palms press so close to the forest that they seem about to push the rainforest into the river.

Sabah has committed itself heavily to oil palm and the undoubted wealth it brings.  In the past couple of decades the acreage given over to oil palm plantations has increased tenfold, to a current level of some 1.4 million hectares.  The environmental cost is of course considerable, and one of Lord Cranbrook's causes - given that oil palm is clearly not going to go away - is to convince the industry to carry on its business with as close an eye to conservation as possible.

Where does the advance of oil palm leave the elephants of the Kinabatangan (not to mention the other wild creatures that live there)?  It is hard to say, particularly on the basis of a short visit.  Certainly it risks bringing the elephants, who now enter the plantations on a regular basis, more and more into conflict with humans. 

On the other hand, the presence of elephants along the river bank - where we found them with surprising ease, during our first excursion on the river - may be their salvation.

We were lucky enough to join several other boats watching the animals at surprisingly close range as they bathed, apparently without the slightest concern as to our presence, in the river and chomped their way through the local vegetation.  The superb views we all were able to have may be part of the reason that the forest, or what is left of it, is still there.  If ecoutourists abandon the Kinabatangan there may be little incentive to keep the last of the forest trees from falling before the oil palm's advance (despite laws in Sabah forbidding the plantations from extending all the way to the edge of a watercourse).

Visiting the Kinabatangan today, then, can be a decidedly mixed pleasure - but one that no wildlife-loving traveler to Borneo should miss.  In my next few postings I will try to share some of the many non-pachydermatous delights of our visit - but first, here is a bit of video of our chief targets, in their element (and of the tourists watching them).

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Sabah: A Sanctuary for Sun Bears

This entry is in the nature of a commercial.  I have spent the bulk of my professional life trying to do something -- usually by lobbying at International meetings -- about the immense and extremely damaging trade in wildlife.  Most of this blog concerns my leisure hours, or at least that part of them I get to spend watching wildlife in the wild.  Every once in a while, though, I get to rub shoulders with people trying to help wild animals on the ground.

A few weeks before our visit to Sabah, while we were in Kuala Lumpur, I discovered  that Siew Te Wong, the brother-in-law of  Eileen's old classmate -- our host in the city -- had just opened a sanctuary for Borneo's only bear, the Sun Bear (Helarctos malayanus), on land at Sepilok.  You can read about it -- and find out how to help the bears - here.

Wong was not in Malaysia at the time, but in the United States completing his doctorate.  In the days of Skype, of course, this is not a problem, and Wong and I were soon having a computer-to-computer chitchat.  Part of the upshot was an invitation to visit the sanctuary.

Wai Pak Ng, Project Manager of the centre, kindly showed Eileen and me around. 

The centre was started in 2008, but with limited resources and facilities.  Shortly before our visit it had moved into state-of-the-art new quarters at Sepilok with the help of the Sabah Wildlife Department.  They looked pretty impressive to me.

There are lots of articles and stories about the centre on its site, and if you are interested in the details you should check them out.  But I can say that places like this are necessary and valuable, however stark they may look in photos - and not just because they may save the lives of individual injured, confiscated or abandoned animals.

Illegal trade in wild animals is an immense problem , particularly for increasingly rare species like the sun bear, in high demand as luxury food items or to supply the traditional medicine market. Law enforcement officials faced with the prospect of dealing, not with an inert piece of contraband, but with a living, kicking and possibly dangerous animal - and a sun bear would certainly come in that category - need help in everything from training for their own safety to housing and caring for their new and potentially frightening charges.  A suitable rescue centre, staffed by experts and recognized by the government, can make all the difference between confident law enforcement and a quite reasonable urge to look the other way.  That, in many circumstances, can make a huge difference for conservation.

So, thanks to Wong and Wai, and Good Luck to the BSBCC!

Friday, December 17, 2010

Sabah: Bristlehead Tower, Without Bristleheads

Of all the birds in Borneo, the one that I have been most anxious to see is the Bornean Bristlehead (Pityriasis gymnocephala), a peculiar bird of uncertain affinities now placed in its own family.  Naturally, it has been my greatest jinx.  The Bristlehead is a wanderer, never certain anywhere.  If there is any place where you have a reasonable chance of seeing it, it is along the canopy walk at the Rainforest Discovery Centre at Sepilok, near Sandakan in eastern Sabah.  

So when Eileen and I travelled to Sabah the RDC was a necessary stop.  In fact, I spent two hot, sweaty mornings there, on May 1 and 5, pounding the beat between the mockingly-named Bristlehead Tower and its companion Trogon Tower.  And, of course, there was not a Bristlehead to be had.

At least the towers provided some shade!

Heat, and an absence of Bristleheads, aside, the canopy walk was a rewarding experience - not least because it is a sturdy steel structure, so I could concentrate on my surroundings rather than succumbing to panic every time it swayed (as I tend to do in traditional wood-and-netting canopy walks).  And the forest around me was very beautiful.

This is typical lowland rainforest, dominated by trees of the family Dipterocarpaceae, a group that reaches its height of diversity in Borneo where there are some 267 species.  Dipterocarps in Sabah were in the midst of a mass fruiting during our visit, something that only happens every few years, and some of the trees along the walkway were putting on an impressive display.  "Dipterocarp" means "two-winged fruit", and you can see the reason for the name in this photo.  The fruits of most dipterocarps are vaguely like maples, with two long wings that catch the air and set them, when they fall, spinning in the wind like miniature helicopters -- an adaptation that helps them disperse further from the parent tree.

The diversity of plant life in the forest canopy is staggering -- 

I only wish I had had a botanist with me to tell me the names of the plants!

The bright colour of these leaves -- a common sight in rainforests throughout the tropics -- probably signals that, though they may be young and tender, they are probably full of toxic chemicals and are best not eaten.

This impressive pair of leaves on the ground beneath the Trogon Tower probably belongs to a species of aroid, the plant family that includes taro, jack-in-the-pulpit and a host of tropical plants.

Bird activity in general is best early in the morning, but the heat of the day holds no terrors for sunbirds.  Here are two species, both females (or young males).  First, a Purple-naped Sunbird (Hypogramma hypogrammicum), a bird that normally prefers the lower levels of the forest (but can show up anywhere)...

And here is a female Crimson Sunbird (Aethopyga siparaja). The illustration of this plumage in Susan Myers' otherwise excellent Field Guide to the Birds of Borneo shows the throat and upper breast yellow instead of greyish; the text gets it right, though.

An Oriental Pied Hornbill (Anthracoceros albirostris) flies high over the canopy...

While, within its depths, a Green Iora (Aegithina viridissima) forages quietly.

As everywhere in Malaysian forests, there are always bulbuls.  This is a Buff-vented Bulbul (Iole olivacea).

Bulbuls can be hard to identify.This is an Olive-winged Bulbul (Pycnonotus plumosus); the upper photo shows its streaked cheeks and buffy undertail coverts.

The canopy walk was also an excellent place to watch squirrels. This Prevost's Squirrel (Callosciurus prevostii) was just a little too shy and fast-moving for me to get a decent photograph.  The Sabah race (C. p. pluto) lacks the distinct white side-stripe of the animals around Kuching.

I had much better luck with this spectacular creature, a Giant Squirrel (Ratufa affinis). I have seen Giant Squirrels before, but they are usually shy denizens of the canopy and this, at the Trogon Tower, was the first time I had encountered one at eye level. It made me appreciate just how big Giant Squirrels are – about the size of a house cat, not counting the extraordinary tail (32-38 cm for the head and body, with another 37-44 cm for the tail, according to A Field Guide to the Mammals of Borneo, some twice the size and weight of Prevost's Squirrel or a North American Grey Squirrel).

The most spectacular bird along the walk, absent the Bristlebirds, was this highly cooperative Banded Broadbill (Eurylaimus javanicus) busily gathering long strips of bark for its nest.  Broadbills are extraordinary, artificial-looking creatures, members of an ancient lineage with an impressive evolutionary history (besides the "typical" broadbills of Africa and Asia, the family now includes the very different-looking sunbird-asities of Madagascar and even a previously unsuspected outlier, the Sapayoa (Sapayoa aenigma), in South America). 

The nest itself was an ungainly-looking mass of twigs, bark strips and plant fibres, but what it may have been lacking in aesthetics it more than made up for in cleverness of placement.

Here you can see why the bird chose this particular nest site.  That fearsome-looking object right above it is a hive of Giant Honeybees (Apis dorsata), large and aggressive insects that might make any nest predator think twice before interfering with the broadbill's home life.  One scientist has described the Giant Honeybee as one of the most dangerous animals of the Southeast Asian jungles.

Borneo is particularly rich in honeybees - five of the nine known species occur here.  The bees have recently been the subject of a book, Honey Bees of Borneo: Exploring the Centre of Apis Diversity by Nikolaus and Gudrun Koeniger and Salim Tingek (Natural History Publications (Borneo), 2010), that takes you into their lives and makes a plea for their conservation.  Giant Honeybees, as the photos show, build their nest in the open, protecting the contents with a curtain of living bees.  The bees line its walls, armed with long stingers and virulent toxins, and defend it against all comers.

Nonetheless, on my second visit a few days later I saw that something had managed to breach the colony's defenses and destroy a good part of the hive (note, though, that the broadbill's nest appears none the worse for wear).  What it was I don't know, but Oriental Honey Buzzards (Pernis ptilorhynchus) are known to make lightning attacks on Giant Honeybee colonies, ripping off chunks of the hive and dashing away with them before the bees can react.  It's probably a good thing that I wasn't there to see whatever happened; after an attack on a hive in their garden, the Koenigers were unable to leave their house for hours for fear of the enraged insects.

A couple of good mornings, then, after all.  As for the elusive Bristlehead -- well, better luck next time!