Thursday, March 08, 2018

TheWildlifeDiaries: Looking for the wild cats of Borneo in Deramakot @WildDiaries

Riding through the night in the back of a beat up 4WD truck converted into a makeshift safari vehicle, we are perfectly exposed to the tropical downpour that hasn’t let up for the past two hours. Soaked to the skin, we sway with the truck as it slides in the mud and thunders through the crater-like wheel ruts cut into the main road of Borneo’s Deramakot Forest Reserve.

Eventually, the rain eases off just in time for us to spot the first mammal of the night – a Colugo – one of Borneo’s gliding mammals and one of its strangest. Also known as a Flying lemur, Colugo doesn’t actually fly, nor is it a lemur. But it is an excellent glider, equipped with flaps of extra skin that extend from its face all the way to its tail. 

It labours onto a branch about 40 meters above the forest floor and as it hangs upside down above us, a small face pokes out of the folds of its gliding membrane. It is a young Colugo, clinging to its mother’s belly and surveying the dark jungle around it.

“They are so weird”, muses Duncan, one of my companions in the car. “Said a bunch of people who went for a drive in the rainstorm” quips Pieter, his husband. “And paid for it!” pitches in Steve, the fourth member of the team, and we lose ourselves in a fit of laughter. 

In search of the wild cats of Borneo

This is the third night of our 10-day mammal-watching trip in Deramakot Forest Reserve in the Malaysian state of Sabah in Borneo and so far, it has rained every day and every night. But we are a team on a mission. We are here to see the elusive wild cats of Borneo, particularly the Clouded leopard – a cat so rarely seen that not much is known about its life in the wild.

Led by Mike from Adventure Alternative Borneo, we ‘go nocturnal’ to match the leopard’s activity pattern: up for most of the night, asleep for most of the day.

Mike has been organizing mammal watching tours in Deramakot for three years and in that time, he has probably seen more Clouded leopards than anyone else in the world. The sightings are not frequent – one or two a month; sometimes two in one night and other times none in more than a month, yet this is the highest success rate of anywhere else on earth.

It is counter-intuitive that a logged forest would be the best place in the world to see a rare feline. Yet in Deramakot, the Sabah Forestry Department seems to have attained the perfect balance between sustainable logging and wildlife conservation – an achievement recognized by the international Forest Stewardship Council. An impressive 75% of mammals in Sabah are found in this 55,507-hectare reserve, including all five species of wild cats of Borneo.