Friday, January 25, 2013

The Giant Pygmies of Borneo

On the trail of the world’s rarest elephants on Malaysia’s Kinabatangan floodplain

The humid air stirs more from buzzing legions of insects than from our boat’s gentle progress on the river. I yawn and promptly inhale several of the most attentive of them.

We are cruising the only highway this land will ever know, the Sungai Kinabatangan, Sabah’s longest river and a premier wildlife haven. Our goal: to track down and photograph Borneo’s famed pygmy forest elephants, reputedly the rarest in the world.

Proboscis monkeys crash rowdily through the foliage above. An hour ago we’d have stopped the boat to get shots of them, but now they offer little consolation. It has been three hours since we set out and we have found few signs of our quarry. I fiddle listlessly with my cap.

Suddenly the lead boat erupts with excitement, its two passengers frantically snapping pictures of shadows we cannot yet distinguish. Straining my eyes, I think I see something moving behind the façade of foliage. Something huge.

“Up ahead,” announces our wildlife guide and boatman, Osman Umi. I glance back, hoping he will say the magic word. He grins and gives the slightest of nods.


Borneo by boat

The mighty Kinabatangan springs from the mountains of southwest Sabah and snakes 560km towards the Sulu Sea, east of Sandakan.

I first heard about the river after summiting Mt Kinabalu in November 2007. Fellow travellers regaled me then with tales of mist-wreathed waters and swamps teeming with wildlife, but I had to wait four years until I could return to Sabah, along with a Filipino hiking group called the Loyola Mountaineers, to finally see the ‘Father River’ for myself.

Scouring the web for tours of the area, Osman’s name had quickly come up, along with testimonials to his skills as tracker and boatman.

Soon we had a three-day, boat-based trip set up, based out of Osman’s own riverside house. Simple but spacious, its five rooms sit atop solid stilts, insurance for when the river swells each December. A row of upturned rubber boots – essential tools of the trade here – adorns the porch.

Barely an hour after our arrival, we are cruising at two knots along the Menanggul River, looking for movement amid the foliage and snapping pictures of long-tailed macaques and a skateboard-sized monitor lizard which had somehow hauled itself up a perfectly vertical trunk. After four years, I am finally in the elephant’s backyard.

The Kinabatangan is among the oldest rainforests on Earth, formed 130 million years ago. Here a verdant profusion of trees, ferns, vines, mosses and countless other plants jostles for space and sunlight, home to what the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) estimates is more than 250 bird, 50 mammal and 20 reptile species.

Occasionally, this area blesses a lucky adventurer with a fleeting glimpse of the rare Bornean clouded leopard or the even rare Sumatran rhinoceros. More commonly, even without binoculars, visitors spot birds, crocodiles and up to ten types of primate, especially when the water recedes each summer to leave bare expanses of mud over which animals must fly, slither or skitter.

The elephants are one of the stars of course. Borneo’s pygmy forest elephants (Elephas maximus borneensis) are smaller and more docile than Asian elephants with males standing around 2.4m tall and tipping the scales at 3,000kg, and females slightly smaller. They have straight tusks, larger ears and tails long enough to give them an almost comical appearance. Only about 1,500 are left, prompting some scientists to consider them the rarest of elephants, with the largest remaining herds concentrated around the lower Kinabatangan.

At one point I ask Osman about another animal on my list: the tembadau or banteng, Malaysia’s wild cattle. “Not likely to see,” he says. “Ever since palm-oil plantations come nearer and nearer to the forest. Many wildlife now gone.”

Sadly, up to 90% of the Kinabatangan’s forests have been cleared, mostly for African oil-palm plantations. Feeding the 20-or-so processing mills that dot the region, these sprawling plots produce oil for soap, fuel and other commercial purposes.

“But elephants easier to see now, for the only good forests left are near the river,” says Osman. “Sometimes though, even they must pass through plantations, looking for food. Guards scare them off with explosives.” As if on cue, a baritone boom reverberates across the Kinabatangan. I look at him, but he is staring at the river – worrying perhaps, that the elephants might be going the same way as the banteng.

Continue reading (Incl. Pics) at: The Giant Pygmies of Borneo