Danum Valley: blood, sweat and orangutans

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August 23rd 2009
Published: September 8th 2009
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I’d booked a seat on the first morning bus passing by Mt. Kinabalu en route to Lahad Datu. My destination was the Danum Valley, one of the last best hopes for the survival of Bornean wildlife. There are two places to stay in the Danum Valley: at the Borneo Rainforest Lodge (BRL) for which my pockets were nowhere deep enough, and the Danum Valley Field Centre (DVFC) which is a research facility that also admits “keen naturalists” (and apparently everybody else as well). The DVFC local office is in Lahad Datu and they have a mini-van to take in the tourists, but only at 3.30pm on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Any other day you need to charter a car for around 350 Ringgits. The first bus past Mt. Kinabalu would get me to Lahad Datu with an ample hour and a half to spare before the DVFC transport left, so all should have been well. The bus did arrive at Mt. Kinabalu right on time. The problem was that it didn’t stop! There were some other tourists there too who were booked on another bus to Semporna, which lies beyond Lahad Datu. Their bus didn’t stop either. Neither did the next two buses. Then there were no more buses for, you guessed it, an hour and a half. We finally got a bus to stop and all piled on board. The driver assured me we would reach Lahad Datu by 2.20pm. I doubted that. At 1pm the bus pulled into a road-side restaurant for a meal-break. The station-master there said the bus would get to Lahad Datu at 3pm. I doubted that too. The way I figured the sums, I’d get to Lahad Datu somewhere between 3.30 and 4pm. I’d either get there just in time or just too late. It was one of those real nail-biters as the bus came up to the town. I was looking at my watch every thirty seconds, then looking at the clock in the front of the bus which was five minutes behind my watch but it didn’t matter anyway because both of them had already ticked past 3.30. Would the DVFC transport be running behind schedule? No it would not. I missed it by about ten minutes.

You might have thought the mini-van would have waited for me in case I was just running a bit late but it turned out that
tiger leeches on the wait for preytiger leeches on the wait for preytiger leeches on the wait for prey

these leaves are at head-height.....
the local office didn’t even know about my booking, even though I’d made it just a week ago at the main office in Kota Kinabalu. The bus foul-up sort of worked in my favour though because the very pretty young lady in the office was heading out to the DVFC after work to start her month-long shift there and she said she’d give me a ride. The road to the Danum Valley is surprisingly bad, not the worst I’ve been on in Asia but certainly in the top ten bad roads. It takes about two and a half hours to get there, passing logging trucks and signs warning to be careful of logging trucks all along the way, so I didn’t get much in the way of scenery because it was already dark by the time we hit the forested area.

I met my very first examples of Borneo’s infamous tiger leeches on my very first day in the forest here. The Danum Valley is renowned for its leech population but so far this whole trip I’ve only seen three leeches so I was hopeful that the DVFC would be just as leech-free. In any case, leeches have never been a problem for me. I’ve had hundreds of leeches on me over the years and only once has one ever taken a bite. I had been a bit apprehensive about the tiger leeches though because they don’t come at you across the ground like regular leeches but instead wait in the undergrowth, hanging from leaves to latch onto your upper body as you brush past. I’d heard stories of people getting them in their ears, up their nostrils, and even on their eyeballs! I met the first individual as I was trying to get into a position to see what sort of monkey was up in a tree. As I pushed past the saplings I felt something land on my arm, and there it was, a good 5cm long. I flicked it away before it could bite but then noticed another on a nearby leaf, and then another, and another. I was literally surrounded by dozens of tiger leeches, all of them stretching off the leaf edges, waving their loathsome bodies at me like I was in some kind of lame student horror movie. I figured I may as well get a photo of one, but as I was lining up the shot the leech disappeared from view. It had just dropped off the leaf onto the ground to get to me, which was surprising as I’d been under the impression they didn’t do that. I looked down to see where it had gone and the entire surface of the ground around my boots was a moving carpet of tiger leeches. The ends of the trousers were already turning scarlet from my blood. I’d read that unlike that of the little terrestrial loopers, the bite of the tiger leech is painful but I never felt a thing. Otherwise I’m sure I would have noticed sooner that one adventurous little blighter had made it all the way up to the top of the inside of my trouser leg and attached itself to my scrotum! The funny thing with leeches is that they are actually completely harmless. Sure you lose a little blood and get your clothes a bit ruined, but they don’t carry any sort of disease whatsoever, unlike mosquitoes or fleas. And yet they fill most people, myself included, with revulsion when they afix themselves to your person. The next day I unpacked my leech socks.

A lot seems to have changed at the DVFC recently. Now, for example, you have to have a guide on all the trails except the 500 metre Nature Trail, and the guides cost 20 Ringgits per hour which mounts up quickly if you’re a birder out in the field for fifteen hours every day. Really nobody (visitors and staff) seemed to be paying any attention to this guide-only rule though. In any case it apeared that almost all the trails were officially off-limits. You weren’t supposed to be on any of the grid system, not on any of the longer trails, and the Elephant Ridge and Rhino Ridge trails were completely out-of-bounds. The pretty lady said I could walk the main track of the grid system by myself so long as I didn’t stray from it and came back the same way. So that is what I did. Unfortunately my bad trekking skills meant that I accidentally, completely by mistake, made a wrong turn at the W21 marker and, oh dear, ended up on the Elephant Ridge trail. The reason the Elephant Ridge trail was so important to my visit was that there was supposed to be a rhinoceros wallow there. The rhinos in Borneo are, despite their common name, Sumatran rhinos (so-called because that’s where most of the remaining world population is found now). They’re quite small, very hairy, and very endangered. On Borneo they’re almost extinct. A chap by the name of Vladimir Dinets had seen a rhino in its wallow on this trail and had the photographs to prove it, but his website’s directions weren’t exactly pinpoint. The gen was also several years old, but rhinos live a long time and are generally pretty faithful to their territory. The chances I’d find the wallow were iffy, and the chances that there’d actually be a rhino visiting it at the same time as me even more iffy. There had been a National Geographic film crew in the Danum Valley for two months before I got there and while they were getting fantastic footage of all sorts of wildlife they hadn’t seen any rhinos, so the outlook for me wasn’t good but, nevertheless, I had to give it a go. The reason the trail was no longer allowed to be walked was because the maintenance of it had been abandoned. It certainly was quite rough in places where the vegetation had swallowed all traces of the path, and fallen trees and tangles of vines blocked other parts, but I’d read Bear Grylls’ survival manual so I was prepared. Fortunately, and surprisingly, the trail was almost devoid of leeches. It was even more devoid of rhinos. I found a large depression about halfway along that looked very much like it had once been a rhino wallow but it was now dry and filled with small saplings. I went all the way to the end of the trail at the Segama River, and that was the only place where there could have been a wallow. So the rhino hunt was a failure. But on the way back, as I rounded a corner in the track, I saw an orangutan! He was huge, looking like he probably weighed as much as I do, and he was only about 20ft away and about 6ft off the ground. I suspect he had come down to the ground to cross to another tree (as the big males often do due to their weight) and he’d heard me coming so decided to head up the nearest tree. He shinned up the tree at what I guess was a rush for an orangutan and once up in the canopy (about 30ft because he’d picked a small tree) there was a furious shaking of branches causing a cascade of leaves to shower down. I just sort of stood there for a minute or so, not really sure how a wild male orangutan would react next to my presence, but the path led right under his tree so I didn’t have much choice about going closer. Remarkably, as I was going past and looking up to see where he was, it was as if the tree was empty. How something so big can vanish amongst the branches is surprising. If I hadn’t seen him go up there I would have walked right on by not even suspecting I was that close to an orangutan. As you may recall, I’d seen “wild” orangutans at Semenggoh but that was just a pale imitation of what its like to see a real wild one, hours into the forest from the nearest humans. Sometimes the fleeting encounters are the most memorable. (Afterwards I found out that orangutan sightings are very common in the Danum Valley, even right around the Field Centre, but that doesn’t take away from my moment).

The Danum Valley is home to most of the lowland mammal species of Borneo so night-time explorations here can be very rewarding. As some examples of what can be seen on the night-drives, on the 19th (the night I’d arrived) there were spotted two species of flying squirrel, a small-toothed palm civet and a slow loris; and one in June saw a clouded leopard and two marbled cats! In 2005 I think it was, someone even claimed a sighting of a bay cat! When I arrived at the Field Centre it was already dark so the approach was like my own private night-drive, although the only thing seen was a Malay civet. The next night’s drive was fully-booked, so my first “real” night-drive here was on my third night. I was really expecting more given that this is a scientific research facility. Granted the night-drives are just a tourist thing but I think you can still expect a little more by way of identification than “owl”, “bat” or “mouse deer”. It was a very quiet night and the only highlight was a greater mouse deer. It was on this drive that I got stung by an enormous wasp. The sting hurt going in, hurt more coming out, and then the puncture site just kept getting more and more painful as the night went on, raising into a welt while the arm around it swelled and turned red. It felt like I’d poured boiling water over it. After the drive was over I could barely straighten my arm. The driver said it would be fine by morning but he must be more immune to them than I because it remained somewhat swollen and tender for the next two days. I’m writing this about two weeks later and there’s still a hole in my arm where the sting went in. Getting attacked by a wasp was the last thing I’d expected on a night-drive! As it turned out that was the only night-drive I got because the next night there was no-one else to share the 160 Ringgit cost, and the night after that it was cancelled due to rain. Walks in the forest by myself revealed only the easily-identifiable diademed roundleaf bat and a lot of unidentifiable “other” bats, a buffy fish owl, and various glowing eyes that refused to resolve themselves into animals.

All in all, looking for animals in the Danum Valley is jolly hard work. A few people there were seeing monkeys and civets and weasels all over the show, but most of us were really struggling. There are loads of birds there but half of them go unidentified because they’re too fast or too far up in the canopy. And its also one of those forests where you get a bunch of birds all at once and then nothing for hours. Mammals were even more difficult. I saw only four primates total (a red leaf monkey, the orangutan and a pair of Mueller’s gibbons, although all were excellent viewings). There were otter footprints every day on the river banks but I could never catch a sight of them, even though I waited three hours in the pouring rain one evening where I was sure some otters had holed up for the day.

Its not as hot at the Danum Valley as some of the other places I’ve been recently but its still like a Turkish bath when you’re dragging your sorry carcasse up another hill seeing nothing but tiger leeches. I did winkle out some quality birds though, including silver-rumped spinetail and great-billed heron from the suspension bridge, Oriental darter from elsewhere on the river, and from the forest white-browed shama, plain and ruby-cheeked sunbirds, grey-breasted and little spiderhunters, Malaysian blue flycatcher, brown fulvetta, striped wren-babbler, red-billed malkoha, dark-throated oriole and great argus pheasant amongst others of less note. I only found three hornbills, namely wreathed, Malayan black and rhinoceros and I just could not find the sought-after helmeted hornbill. I could hear them calling every day, all day long, sounding sort of like a gibbon building up to a kookaburra laugh, but they remained completely invisible to me. Very frustrating!

I saw three black-headed pittas one after the other in the little gullies on the climb up the hill that the main track of the grid system runs up, and on the Nature Trail also found two blue-headed pittas. Now, some of my readers may have gained the impression that I hate pittas, probably from me having written "I hate pittas" on more than one occasion. The truth is that I only hate those pittas that refuse to let me see them; the ones that I do get to see I think are quite lovely. And the blue-headed pitta has to be one of the most lovely of all. If the blue-headed pitta was a woman she would be the sort that is so far out of your league that she is naught but a dot on the distant horizon, but just to catch a glimpse of her strolling across your path brings joy to your heart. Hmmm, I think I really need to get a girlfriend.....

Prize of all the birds here though was the Bornean bristlehead which is a bizarre black-feathered crow-like thing with a brilliantly-scarlet and yellow head that is naked and covered in fleshy papillae. There was a group of about six in the trees by the watch-tower on the Nature Trail.

In total I only got 45 bird species while at Danum Valley (if I’d actually identified everything I saw it would probably be around 70) which is low but for half the time there were just no birds around. Mammal total was only eleven species which is also has to be considered low for the area. I really needed more time but because I’d booked and paid for the Kinabatangan River in advance I couldn’t change my schedule, which of course is why I don’t like to book things in advance!


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