We are back from Borneo. Two fantastic weeks in Sabah have given us one of our best wildlife experiences ever – and this is no exaggeration. Big swaths of land in the northeastern corner of the island are still covered in primary rainforests. Estimated to be over 130 millions old these are some of the oldest rainforests on our planet – no wonder we encountered such a rich and intriguing biodiversity under and above its almost impenetrable canopy.
Spotting its diverse inhabitants was by no means easy. With only 2% of the sunlight reaching the forest floor most life seems to be concentrated amid the leafy tops of the tall Dipterocarps, beyond our sight and hearing, while the fact that many mammals are nocturnal is another obstacle for easy wildlife viewing. Add the leeches, stifling humidity and 5.30 wake-up calls (sci-fi ringtones) and you’ll have a rough sketch of the efforts we made to meet the animals – photography in those challenging circumstances is another chapter. But still, we got so much more than we bargained for, foremost as a result of the tracking expertise of our guides and sometimes due to sheer luck. But being home again in Perth with this wealth of photos, experiences and stories poses a completely different problem: how to present it all on iAMsafari? Where to start? By chronological order, location, or animal groups? We thought maybe just random, because now we’re back it better be with a bang – so lets start talking about Borneo’s biggest mammal: the elephant.
Although the Borneo pygmy elephant (Elephas maximus borneensis) was high on our bucket list of must-see wildlife, it would be overstated to say we came to Sabah just for them. But as opposed to the popular believe that elephants were introduced to Borneo as a gift to the Sultan of Sulu in 1750 by the East India Trading Company, a 2003 DNA-study showed that this population of pachyderms colonised the island during the late Pleistocene when Borneo and the western Indo-Malayan archipelago formed a single landmass called Sundaland, and this unique subspecies of Indian elephants could therefore easily justify a field trip on its own.
Both the historical and current distribution range of the population are confined to the lowland rainforests of Northeast Borneo although excessive logging of primary forest in the 1950’s and large-scale land clearing for palm oil plantations in the 1970’s and 80’s have fragmented and shrunk their natural habitat. This has made the animal’s natural migration problematic with herds frequently moving into plantations and adjacent villages, causing damage on crops, property or worse. I guess that nowhere else on Sabah the contrast between man and nature has become so visible as around the Kinabatangan river. Here, on the banks and floodplains of this 560 kilometres-long murky river the remaining pockets of forest form one of the last refuges for endangered wildlife such as the iconic Orang Utan and our pygmy elephants. The concentration of animals along the river is indeed so high that it has been described as one of the best places for wildlife spotting in Southeast Asia. Luckily the conservation value of this unique wilderness has finally been acknowledged by the state government which in 1999 has declared this area as Sabah’s ‘Gift to the Earth’. Since then the joint efforts between the WWF, local communities, and various industry stakeholders have resulted in large scale reforestation projects such as Rileaf and the Kinabatangan Corridor of Life (K-CoL) in an attempt to reconnect the coastal mangrove swamps with the inland forests. The efforts seem to pay back dividend as the thriving eco-tourism along the river has now become a major source of income – and the future of the forest certainly looks brighter than a few decades ago.
In the last few years important studies have been conducted for a better understanding of the elephant’s home ranges, habitat needs and migration patterns. Matriarchs of 5 different family groups have been provided with satellite GPS collars, and the tracking of the so-called Bod Tai herd in the Lower Kinabatangang area has lead to the calculation of their home range between 600 and 780 km². Considering the size and the relative inaccessible character of this rather swampy area it didn’t come as a surprise when the locals of Kampung Bilit – who are involved in the running of the excellent Kinabatangang Nature Lodge – told us that encounters with elephants could be far and few between. How lucky we were to see 18-20 individuals of this herd feasting on the fast growing nutritious grass right in the open on the riverbank for no less than 4(!) days in a row. Regarding this much luck the cute baby elephant was just a bonus.