Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Borneo: A Land of Dwarves and Deadly Giants

Borneo is a bit like Alice in Wonderland: a topsy-turvy land where animals have been drinking magic potions that make them grow into giants or shrink into midgets. The kind of place where the world's smallest frog, about the size of a pea, is dwarfed by the world's longest bug -- a stick insect that grows to over two feet.

I love freaks, so when I hear that there are even pygmy elephants, I have to film them for my new National Geographic show, Freaks and Creeps. But this particular adventure almost ends in an intimate encounter with one giant you really don't want to meet close up.

The Danau Girang biological field center is situated on the banks of the mighty Kinabatangan river, which winds its way into the heart of Borneo. When I arrive, director Benoit Goosens welcomes me to his jungle kingdom and informs me there is just one rule: no swimming in the river. Its chocolate-colored waters are home to the world's biggest reptile: the saltwater crocodile. These ancient monsters grow to over 20 feet long and have a taste for human flesh; almost 40 people have been attacked in the area in the last decade. Rarely has swimming seemed less appealing.

Our primary reason for visiting the center is to join Benoit's team on a mission to radio tag a wild proboscis monkey -- a freaky primate with a giant bulbous nose, massive pot-belly and Donald Trump hair. This can only happen under the cover of darkness. So I persuade Benoit to take us up river to see the elephants before sunset.

It's a gorgeous, sunny afternoon and I'm in a great mood. I love biology field stations as they allow me to release my inner geek. Everyone here is as obsessed with nature as me. Nobody thinks you're weird to be totally over excited about an encounter with a pygmy pachyderm. What could possibly go wrong?

The journey itself is pretty exciting. Benoit has to take care to avoid the massive tree trunks, deadly detritus from Borneo's logging industry, hurtling towards us in the swollen waters. An hour and a half of weaving speedily upriver and we spot the elephants, about twenty of them hanging out on the bank. From the safety of the boat we can get quite close, although Benoit doesn't want to get too close and frighten them. They are much less aggressive than their African relatives and only two-thirds the size. They really do look tiny. Especially the baby, which is having a ball learning how to use its trunk by squirting water on its back. I shudder to admit it, but it's really rather cute.

Elephants are not native to Borneo. The origin of these miniature mutant mammoths is shrouded in mystery but the most popular story casts them as royal refugees. Back in the fourteenth century the Raja of the nearby island of Java gave two Javanese elephants to the Sultan of Sulu. Centuries later, the descendants of these two elephants were sent by the Sultan to Borneo to help with the shipbuilding industry but were released into the forest. With Javanese elephants extinct, these exiled specimens are ironically the last of their species. Sadly their population has also shrunk by half thanks to deforestation but Benoit is working hard to establish a conservation plan for them.

On the way back we are all in high spirits when suddenly a storm looms and we're engulfed by a menacing black sky. Then, for no apparent reason, the boat starts taking on water. Phil, my intrepid field producer, asks me to pass him something to start bailing out but all we have is my sun hat. At this stage it doesn't seem very serious and Eric, the cameraman, and I are laughing at Phil doing his best to eject water with a floppy boater whilst Benoit tries to re-start the engine.

Continue reading (Incl. Pics) at: Borneo: A Land of Dwarves and Deadly Giants