Wednesday, 27 March 2019

Borneo: Part One

One of Kuching's many "Cats"
March 2019

Borneo: Part One

Now that I have been back from Borneo almost a fortnight, visitors have all departed and some time to download photos, etc it is, perhaps, time to record what was seen on the large island of Borneo during my recent visit.   I shall present two reports, this first blog looking at "other" wildlife then concentrate on the birds in Part Two.

Leaving a week later than originally booked so that friends Steve and Elena Powell could accompany me, we had our base in Kuching, the provincial capital of Sarawak, Malaysia's largest province.  However, we did fly to the north-east to Sabah, the second Malaysian province on the island, staying at Sepilok to visit the highland rain forest followed by three days in the unique jungle habit that borders the River Kinabatangan.  Some interesting accommodation here compared to the three-bedroom, two bathroom apartment that we had in Kuching!  By the way, in the local language "kuching" means  "cat" so no wonder as you move around the lovely town you come across a number of statues of cats, nearly all painted white.  On the ground, the actual animals remind you of Manx cats in that most have a short stubby tail rather than what we tend to associate with these felines.
Borneo, apart from its well-known Hornbills, has a range of interesting wildlife that is relatively easy to find from a range of primates to lizards and crocodiles not to mention wild boars, snakes, insects and even its own endemic elephant.  So, to us some sort of order perhaps I ought to start with the smallest.

Sarawak's provincial parliament building in Kuching.


Bugs

How about these monstrosities; a huge bug about 3 centimetres long and a huge millipede.  If I also include ants then the photo below shows what I am told is the second largest ant in existence.





Dragonflies

Not that many seen and these were almost by accident.





Butterflies

Lovely to see a good variety of butterflies albeit I took very few photos.  But there seemed to be a very common small yellow variety and one huge specimen that we came across.  Given time I suppose I could try and discover the various names.




Frogs

Lots of frogs in Borneo with the present number of species exceeding 180 and new species still being found on a regular basis.  Indeed, a pea-sized frog Microhyla nepenthicola was discovered in the Kubah National Park in Sarawak as recently as 2004 and finally recognised as a new species in 2010.and is thought to be the Old World's tiniest frog.   A tadpole emerges from a single frogspawn laid inside a native pitcher plant and relies upon the natural drip of water into the plant.  Just imagine, a full grown frog the size of your thumb nail.  We may not have seen the frog itself but Ron was able to show me the small group of pitcher plants that are used by the frogs.




Snakes

We were introduced to two snake species.  The Green Pit Viper was first seen resting in the undergrowth near our cabin when visiting the Baku National Park near Kuching for an overnight stay.  There was a similar snake found resting in a tree whilst on one of our River Kinabatangan exploration cruises but I suspect a different species given the change of habitat.


But not to be outdone, the vivid yellow and black of the larger snake, also resting in a tree above the same river, was very attractive and may well have been either a King Cobra or a member of the Boiga family which includes grass snakes and thought not to be venomous  The native guides simply called it a "Swamp Snake"


Crocodiles and Lizards

We saw a number of crocodiles on the river banks whilst on our boats but most were resting youngsters, no more then about 40cm long.  However, the one larger specimen we came across was actually in the water and its head measured about forty or more cm so so the math as they say; certainly not the time  to jump in for a swim!



In the forest it was the Skeet (lizard) that was fascinating as it appears to have no neck, just a head on the end of the body.  On the other hand, we did also find a much larger lizard on the river bank and this time it looked about a metre or more in length.

Just a mere metre or so

But this chappy was almost 2 metres in length
Squirrels

Once near the trees we were always coming across very small squirrels.  I even went to the Highland rain Forest at the end of the dark where, accompanied by about forty others on the high canopy walkway, we waited for the "flight" of the Flying Squirrel.  Nest boxes had been fixed high up in the very tall trees and just after nightfall came the squirrel and glided across to the next tree.  Shame about the photograph but you can make out the squirrel as it sets sail.


Silhouette of a Flying Squirrel just before take-off in the dark forest
However, pride of place must go to the Tufted Ground Squirrel.  Walking back to our base to catch the bus down the mountain this huge and lovely squirrel walked out of the bush to our right, stopped as soon as exposed when it realised that there were people about and promptly disappeared.  My friend Ron Orenstein who had accompanied us explained that no recent still photographs nor videos had been take of the animal for many years and some even suggested that the Tufted Ground Squirrel was now extinct.  But we saw it, although unfortunately it disappeared so quickly that none of us was able to lift our cameras in time.  But what an experience to actually see this huge, bushy-tailed squirrel!  The animal measures over 30 cm in length and then you can add the same figure for its tail and is the sole species in the genus Rheithrosciurus and endemic to Borneo.

Internet photograph of the very rare and scarce Tufted Ground Squirrel
 Flying Lemur

Another of Borneo's "Fling Squirrels" is the Colugo of which there are now at least four species.  The Fling Lemur is not a lemur and does not fly but it is the only known venomous primate and in real danger as the number of these nocturnal animals greatly depreciates year on year, especially as a result of the pet trade.

Flying Lemur (Colugo)
Bearded Pig

Borneo's wild boar.  But what a strange face with its beard that you have difficulty in trying to place its eyes and snout in perspective.  Whilst at Baku National Park a number of these animals seem to have taken to visiting the camp site to root around for food and we even had a sow with three youngsters in front of us at close quarters.  And just like our wild boar they were the familiar "humbug" colouration.


But whilst out in the boat in one of our river cruises we came across an individual in the water swimming round in circles.  The sight had attracted a couple of other boats and as we looked and took photos we wondered what on earth we were looking at.   The animal measured about almost two metres and seemed like a crocodile gone wrong.  The head was big and weird- looking and the tail appeared short so obviously not a crocodile.  Only when it eventually walked out of the river did we not only recognise the animal but realised that rather than swim with a "doggy paddle" it seemed to have both sets of legs stretched out.  Amazing.


Turtle

We may have seen the occasional terrapin on the river bank as we might do in Spain but the true turtle, measuring about 60cm across, was dead and belly-side up.  The guides, knowing that there was no poaching, surmised that the animal might have been caught and drowned in a fishing net.  Interestingly, the guide explained that as a way to stop poaching when an animal dies it is left to be fed on as carrion.  No doubt, come darkness, a hungry crocodile(s) will take advantage of a large, free meal.


Sun Bear

In common with certain other countries, the main threat to the Borneo Sun Bears are we humans.  Orphaned cubs are taken as pets and/or for display purposes.  The main task of the local rescue centres is to remove these cubs and rehabilitate them for eventual realise back into the wild.  Talking to one of the keepers on seeing a bear with a large collar, I was informed that they are able to rehabilitate the very young cubs quicker than those that may have been removed from captivity, etc.  The collar is actually a geo-satellite recorder so that, once released, a check can be kept on the young bear when back in a protected forest.  My two examples were due for release within the next fortnight when the keepers were confident that they would be able to survive back in the wild.



Pygmy Elephant

When you read the name and see the photograph your mind created the picture of an animal about the size of a very large dog but, no, the endemic Pygmy Elephant looks the real thing if slightly smaller then a full-grown Indian Elephant.  We had only the one sighting of a female which did bring some concern to the local guides.  Female elephants live in herds yet we had an individual feeding on the long grass at the river's edge.  The feeling, therefore, was perhaps this might be a sick animal and would eventually die.  Then came the expected comment that as nobody had ever found a dead elephant the animals seem to know where to go when the time to die arrives.




Primates

I have deliberately left the Borneo primates till the end.  Amongst the various primates inhabiting Borneo,  perhaps the most well-known and emblematic is the Proboscis Monkey.  With a lovely shade of almost orange in colour and its white legs and tails it is the animal's nose that stands out - literally.  Indeed, I was informed that the common local name for this monkey is Dutch Monkey, named because the white settlers from Holland had such large noses when compared with the indigenous population.





But there are other monkey breeds that can be seen all over the island.  The most numerous that we saw were Long-tailed Macaque with other groups of Short-tailed Macaque.  The other breed we regularly came across was the Silver Leafed Monkey also known as Silvery Lutung.


Long-tailed Macaque
Short-tailed Macaque

Silver-leafed Monkey

Then, of course, there is the primate most associated with Borneo, the Orangutan, a large ape with a life span of between 35 to 45 years in the wild.  The name translates as "Man of the Forest" but, sadly, the forests are rapidly disappearing as huge swathes of forest are being replaced with the planting of palm oil trees.  Individuals are captured as pets and then pose a problem as they mature and grow so, again, much work is being undertaken in both rescuing individuals and trying to find protected forests where they can be re-introduced to the wild or found shelter elsewhere if this proves impossible.  Whilst we were able to see Orangutans in rehabilitation centres, it was entirely different to see these magnificent creatures in their natural habitat.


Chance to see an Orangutan in the wild














Flora

Not only where there numerous beautiful flowers to be seen but we were on the island in time to see one of Borneo's special rarities, the Rafflesia arnoldii, commonly called the corpse lily.  This is a species of flowering plant in the parasitic genus Rafflesia and is noted for producing the largest individual flower on Earth.  Individual flowers can grow in excess of one metre diameter and weigh up to 10kg!  There are eight species but only one in Sarawak.  The flower takes ten months to mature and bloom.  Once bloomed, you have just five days to see this huge flower before it dies.  We were fortunate that a specimen bloomed the day before our arrival and we were able to visit the Gunung National Park, 100km from Kuching, to see it on day 4.  Indeed, even at that stage the once 65cm diameter plant had already shrunk to a "mere" 45 cm.

Sarawak's Rafflesia on day 4 from blooming and already reduced to just 45cm
Pepper Tree

Ever wondered where your ground pepper comes from as opposed to the salad peppers grown under plastic in Andalucia?  Many are grown in Borneo and we made a special stop to take a closer look whilst driving through Sarawak.




Bio-Diversity

We had the privilege to be taken to Borneo's internally famous Bio-Diversity headquarters on the outskirts of Kuching in Sarawak province.  Set up at the beginning of the present century under the leadership and guidance of my friend Ron's wife, Eileen, the centre receives visitors from across the globe and until her retirement Eileen was invited to many countries to talk about the work of the establishment.  Working with local rural populations, often in remote areas of Sarawak including jungle clearances, the scientists, now numbering 104 plus a huge support staff, gather information from the indigenous population on their natural cures and treatments.  These are then scientifically studied and developed to produce modern day medicines and treatments in a joint commercial partnership with individual villages so that successful products produce a market value which can then be passed back to the individual village.



Now the work starts on trying to complete my report on the Birds of Borneo and, especially, the magnificent Hornbills of which I think we saw four, or was it five, of the eight native species.



Sunset over the River Kinabatangan

Check out the accompanying website at http://www.birdingaxarquia.weebly.com for the latest sightings, photographs and additional information

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