Borneo: Return of the leeches

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February 12th 2014
Published: February 12th 2014
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While traipsing through ankle high mud fighting leeches in the Bornean rainforest we turned to each other and laughed "We're traipsing through ankle high mud fighting leeches in the Bornean rainforest!" Just the name of this island evokes images of adventure and exploration. Matt's book of choice for this trip was Alfred Russel Wallace's The Malay Archipelago in which he writes about his collecting trips to the islands that now make up New Guinea, Malaysia and Indonesia. He spent a lot of time observing and collecting the orangutans of Borneo. As has become part of our ritual before a safari we listed our hopes to one another: I wanted to see orangutans and pygmy elephants while Matt was keen on proboscis monkeys.

Matt's friend Shane had been on a safari on the Kinabatangan River and had seen it all! A few e-mails back and forth and Shane had pretty much organized our trip for us, which was a great help because navigating this area can be confusing. Three countries make up the Island of Borneo: Brunei and Malaysia in the north and Indonesia in the south. There are different languages so you sometimes hear two or more names for a place. The largest city is Kota Kinabalu, which is in Malaysia in the northern province of Sabah. A little east of that, past Mount Kinabalu, is Sandakan. The Kinabatangan River flows through this part of Malaysia.

We flew from Bali to Kota Kinabalu and from KK to Sandakan where we spent a night before undertaking the 2 1/2 hour bus ride to Sepilok and the Kinabatangan Corridor of Life. The camp is right on the river and the cabins are rustic but the schedule does not leave much time to hang out in them anyway. As soon as we arrived we went out on a boat and immediately ran into the proboscis monkeys Matt was hoping to see. These monkeys have two chambers in their stomachs, one for digestion and one for bacteria, so they are perennially pot bellied. They're named for the amazing appendages in the middle of their faces. We saw many family groups each time we were on the river, the females with sharp noses reminiscent of Pinocchio and the dominant males with enormous bulbous hanging noses that make them look like they're wearing Groucho glasses. Our guide told us that when dominant males are fighting for females they can't bite one another because their noses get in the way, so they slap the faces of their opponents instead.

In the days that followed we saw silver langur monkeys, countless long tailed macaques, python and yellow striped cat eye snakes in trees, monitor lizards on banks and several salt water crocodiles; many birds including fish eagles and serpent eagles, stork billed kingfishers and pink necked parakeets, bee eaters, and 3 species of hornbills (rhinoceros, black and oriental pied). We also saw 4 storm storks circling in a group above the river. These are extremely rare and are considered endangered as there are only 500 or so left in the world.

In between boat trips we walked around the camp looking under leaves and up into the tree canopy where we found crab spiders and jumping spiders, millipedes and centipedes, enormous praying mantis and stick insects, poisonous caterpillars and frogs and crabs buried in the mud. It was on the two successive night hikes that we saw something that made both of us ecstatic: western tarsiers or "5 in ones" as our guide called them because they have the ears and nose of a bat, the eyes of an owl, the body of a monkey, hands of a frog, and the tail of a rat. Each eyeball is as big as its entire brain. They are their own very unique family of primates, but jump from tree to tree like frogs.

The other thing we saw lots of on the hikes were leeches. I thought the density of them in the Sri Lankan forests was high but I had yet to meet the leeches on Borneo. Our guide recommended we either tuck our pants into our socks or wear leech socks. Of course I opted for both. Rubber boots are also mandatory if you want to keep your body from becoming a feeding ground. The idea is to tuck clothing into other clothing and leave no skin exposed because they will fall or jump on to your body and then stretch and crawl up or down until they find flesh. They don't have eyes and pinpoint their prey using heat so they end up migrating to the warmest spots on the body - invariably that ends up being underarms and crotches. Our guide would make us stop every once in a while to do a leech check and several members of our group were hit. When they're removed there is so much blood because they've introduce an anti-coagulant to keep the meal flowing. People came back from hikes with parts of their clothing soaked with blood. Luckily none got under my or Matt's clothing, though Matt did have to flick three off of his hands and I removed one half way up his back making its way to his neck, and twice I found three on my inner thighs working their way up. It was absolutely disgusting.

On our last day Matt and I decided to stop at Sepilok before returning to Sandakan so we could visit the Orangutan Sanctuary and the Sun Bear Rehabilitation Centre. These places are working hard to save and rehabilitate animals that have been orphaned by poachers or removed from inhumane conditions in zoos. We read in the local papers that poachers have actually learned to hack into the transmissions from radio tracking collars so now the collars meant to help animals are actually leading poachers right to them.

In addition to this the animals have lost much of their habitat to palm plantations and especially in the case of the sun bears, who are solitary and require a large roaming territory to meet their dietary requirements, are running out of space. The sun bears are the smallest bears in the world ranging from 30 - 35 kg for the females and only about 45kg for the adult males. They are also the only arboreal bears and to see them climb 30 or so meters into trees, as we did, was pretty cool. Orangutan means "Man of the Forest". They move much more elegantly than the macaques or the langurs, who you can hear crashing through the canopy. Orangutans place their hands and feet elegantly and carefully, and use them interchangeably. Though they're big, you can't hear them at all as they move but you can follow their progress by watching the trees sway in the distance. Their hair is long and red, smooth. It looks like it has been brushed to a shine.

By the end of the day we were tired and badly in need of showers. We'd seen some amazing things but the humidity here can hardly be described, it is simply crushing, and though neither of us are usually fans of A/C we were grateful to check into a nice hotel and crank it up for the night.

For great pictures of some of the animals we didn't get to see, including pygmy elephants, check out Shane's blog at:

His photos are fantastic!

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Sun BearSun Bear
Sun Bear


12th February 2014

Amazing post and photos! I've always wanted to go there and see all the animals. Love the tarsier, hornbills and so much more. If you ever get a chance to read "Into the Heart of Borneo" it's pretty funny. Take care you guys!
12th February 2014

Oh boy...
While Orangutan's are my favorite animal of all, I'm not sure all of them in the world would be enough to get me to wade through millipedes, leeches, JUMPING spiders and other sorts of bugs. While I'm sure it's beautiful and amazing, and Matt probably cannot get enough of all the creepy crawlies, I think I'll leave this leg of the trip off my wish list, atleast compared to your previous experiences. By the way, your photos are amazing, Matt. Between Roberta's captive writing and Matt's beautiful photos, you guys have a really great blog going on here.
13th February 2014

What a treat!!
I had a question about the mating tree frogs, but it will have to wait until we meet again! What a wonderful diversity of life - what are the knobblies on the tarsier's finger tips? Are the saltwater crocodiles related to the African fresh water crocs? I'm so envious - have a wonderful time! Oh, and we are going to swim in Cultus Lake - does not really compare with Borneo, but thought I will just drop that in the conversation. Maybe we might see some algi.
13th February 2014

Oh - Did I forget to tell you about the LEECHES!!!
Haha sorry about that, they are nasty little things and in no short supply! I had so many on me when i went. And thanks for the shout outs, haha. I can't believe you guys saw a Tarsier, and nabbed such a cool pic of it. Was it obviously low to the ground? Crazy. I hope you guys travel some more of Borneo, where to next? I am off to Honduras today actually...keep livin the dream!

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