Thursday, October 06, 2011

Stalking pygmy elephants

We are on the hunt for Bornean pygmy elephants. It's a warm, steamy afternoon as we board a small safari riverboat and set off upstream along the mighty Kinabatangan River in Sabah, North Borneo, to stalk these Asian elephants - but only to view and shoot pictures.

I ask our guide about the thunderstorm brewing in the distance. "Oh, nothing to be concerned about," she replies. "That storm going other way downriver."

Sure enough, as we motor upstream, the storm moves away to the east. We glide gently along the wide river, passing crocodiles basking on the muddy riverbanks while colourful kingfishers perch in the branches.

Boats from other lodges are also searching for the pygmy elephants and word soon spreads of a sighting on a grassy bend on the river. The tall grass begins to move and a trumpet blast is heard. A family of wild elephants slowly emerge from the grass, tearing and munching as they go.

From the boat's viewing platform we can see adults, adolescents and babies in the herd of about 12. One of the younger elephants slides down the bank to take a bath in the river near our boat.

Kinabatangan is Sabah's longest river, flowing from the mountains to the Sulu Sea, and its lower reaches support one of the world's most diverse ecosystems. During the wet season, the basin becomes the biggest forested floodplain in Malaysia and animals and plants thrive there thanks to its status as a long-established nature sanctuary.

Apart from the elephants, wildlife such as orang-utans, long-tailed and proboscis monkeys, Sumatran rhinoceros, crocodiles, otters, tree snakes and many bird species, including eight species of hornbill, can be seen from a river safari boat.

On our way back to our river resort, we stop to view families of proboscis monkeys, huge-bellied, big-nosed primates with long white tails who live by the river and are most active during dusk or dawn, when they socialise or forage for food.

Earlier, I had checked in at the Myne Resort with my wife, Robyn. Set on a hill overlooking a bend in the river two hours from Sandakan, the family-run resort feels like an undiscovered treasure. It's one of a handful of small jungle lodges near the villages of Bilit and Sukau, though it is newer than most and a little more up-market.

Tucked amid the jungle, the well-appointed wooden chalets have ensuites and are connected via pathways to the open-air dining and reception area and viewing deck.

Just after sunset, we arrive back at the resort's floating jetty and prepare for an alfresco dinner of delicious local cuisine. As we eat, wild pigs emerge from the jungle to graze on the nearby grass.

The following morning, we embark on a downriver safari cruise. Through a soft mist we can hear birdsong and animal calls. Fishermen wave from the bank as they check their prawn traps. We spot a male orang-utan eating fruit in a fig tree. He proves to be rather bashful, turning his back on us and hiding his face but sneaking the odd glance at our boat. Our guide, Vivian, says his behaviour is unusual and speculates that he's noticed Robyn's red hair and thinks she is a female orang-utan. I manage to click a few pictures of him showing his face.

Continue reading (Incl. Pic) at: Stalking pygmy elephants

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