North Borneo

August 2015

Why is biodiversity relevant for us? What actually happens when natural habitats are converted and wilderness is displaced? Within a given area, which proportion of land needs to remain in a natural state to ensure a viable base for wildlife?​

This excursion to North Borneo, to the last remaining wild places of Malaysia’s Sabah State has been yet another reminder of the ongoing process of global mass habitat conversion. I write this not to point fingers. This land conversion is not driven by local farmers, but by the world’s multinational corporations and their thirst for palm oil as a base ingredient in food and cosmetics. Furthermore, I see no difference between an oil palm plantation and extensive grain, soy bean or eucalyptus monoculture elsewhere on the planet. In many aspects Malaysia is neither better nor worse than any other place I have been to so far, including my home country Switzerland.  

Travelling to Sabah
Two non-stop flights bound for Singapore depart from Zurich daily:

Singapore Airlines SQ 345  11:45h – 05:55h next day
Swiss Int. Airlines LX 178 22:45h – 17:20h next day

As all other carriers, Singapore Airlines are duly avoiding the classic route which would have lead over the Ukraine.

I chose Singapore Airlines for this trip and, to play it safe with onward connections, a buffer day was planned to be spent in this Asian metropolis. Singapore has a lot to offer and my travel companion could even fit in dinner arrangements with friends. The hotel had prepared for our early arrival and after a refreshing shower it was time to enjoy breakfast over at the Tiffin Room in Raffles Hotel, to get ready for a day exploring the city (If you manage to include this legendary place in your travel plans and enjoy Asian influenced cuisine, I recommend the Raffles Omelette).

Singapore scenes:

Onward travel to Borneo was arranged through Silk Air and MASwings. I had booked the morning’s first flight MI392 to Kota Kinabalu and a connection to Lahad Datu. From a previous trip, I remembered Kota Kinabalu airport to be so small that a 40 minutes transfer time to a domestic flight seemed more than reasonable. Things had changed. Terminal 1 was renovated and extended as of mid-2005 and the new terminal building was now so big, we had to race across it to make our MASwings flight at the very last second. It was much worse still on the way out, but I will get to this later. Note to self: when flying through Kota Kinabalu, make absolutely sure to know which terminals are involved and allow as much time as you would need to change planes at London Heathrow. No less than 90 minutes.

MASWings flight from Kota Kinabalu to Lahad Datu

Landing in Lahad Datu just after 13:00h, our transport to Danum Valley was ready and after a quick stop at the reservations office to complete disclaimer forms, we were on our way. It took 30 minutes on tarred roads followed by 2 hours on a well maintained gravel road to reach the turn-off to Borneo Rainforest Lodge. When I travelled on this forest road in March 2010, there were many big trucks hauling freshly cut timber from the valley. Now not a single one of these trucks came our way. Our driver confirmed that logging had ended a while ago and no trees were taken from these forests now.

Borneo Rainforest Lodge
The very attractive forest lodge has been extended. A few hundred steps downstream from the main building and the standard and deluxe chalets, new luxury villas overlooking the river have been built. Activities are still as they were back in 2010. Several hiking trails and the gravel road leading up to the lodge allow for forest explorations. BRL arranges night drives and guided walks. The highlight, I suppose still is the 260m tree top canopy walk.

Profile of the Canopy Walk © Borneo Rainforest Lodge

© Borneo Rainforest Lodge

Spotting wildlife in the dense forest is not easy and my recommendation to any one is to get a local guide at the lodge. As we only had two nights here, for this visit I thought it would be easier to leave away the guiding and just head for the forest independently when energy levels and light would be good. It proved to be an excellent way to adjust to this time zone.

As a general rule, dusk and dawn on the tree top canopy walk and along the river are very interesting. We observed flying lemurs, giant squirrels, Müller’s Bornean gibbon, wild boar, pygmy squirrels, slow loris and many of Borneo’s attractive birds. The sambar deer and mouse deer are ever present near the lodge. Sambars enjoy the little grass plain along the river, right in front of the chalets. Many BRL staff still remember the legendary night a few years back, when a clouded leopard attempted to catch a sambar fawn right outside the lodge all of which lasted a better part of an hour.

One objective was to evaluate whether BRL would be suitable for research and photo trapping in search of Marbled cat and Flat-headed cat, as wildlife biologist Malini Pittet was planning to arrange such a project. We could not be sure what the results would be regarding these two particular species, but Danum Valley consists of very attractive habitat for Borneo’s felines and I imagine an extensive monitoring and research project would bring to light many a surprise. I am still wrapping my mind around SLR camera trap photography and hopefully, one day I can return here and set up some cameras.

Malini checking out some dangerous wildlife (...leech socks, anyone?)

The two nights here were just perfect to clear jetlag, find my bearings and adjust my senses to forest life. Around lunch time of the third day it was time to head back to Lahad Datu. The drive was smooth and I was getting excited about visiting the next destination on this trip: Tabin wildlife resort. We changed over into the Tabin vehicle at the airport, where Tabin’s town office is conveniently located.

To Tabin Wildlife Resort
Driving out of Lahad Datu, now in an easterly direction revealed again just how much land has been converted to oil palm plantations. After 20 minutes on a main road, my driver turned left onto a rough, rocky gravel road which we followed for about an hour. All the way up to Tabin Wildlife Resort we drove through oil palms. On my trip in 2010, I had heard about Tabin being surrounded by oil palm, but nothing could have prepared me for what I was to face right at the entrance to the nature reserve: this plantation had been cleared and replanted with young oil palm trees. A frightful sight, even though it wasn’t secondary or primary rainforest that had been cleared, but a 30-year-old stand of oil palms. It was a contrast of life restored and destruction, and I can only imagine how horrifying the destruction must be like in Kalimantan on the Indonesian side of Borneo right now, where thousands of hectares of primary rainforest are illegally cut and burnt to make place for oil palm plantations.

Malini getting a camera trap ready to be deployed in Tabin

Backup at lunch time

Jungle fern (Paku Pakis), collected in the reserve and then prepared for lunch by the restaurant chefs.

Nothing as rejuvenating as a hand full of mud volcano on the face...

Established in 1984, Tabin Wildlife Reserve covers an area of just over 1’220km2. There is one guest resort, the Tabin Wildlife Resort and a nearby wildlife ranger station provides much needed protection for the reserve and for Tabin’s Sumatran rhino breeding centre, operated by the Borneo Rhino Alliance. Tabin Wildlife Resort offers comfy chalets and an attractive open restaurant and lounge area. There is a small curio shop and in one of the buildings on the resort, TWR offer special facial treatments with mud from the nearby mud volcano. Right on the grounds of the resort some very interesting wildlife can be observed. We had pig-tailed macaques, hairy-nosed otters, a large gibbon family, and a spectacular variety of birds and small reptiles, as well as the cute least pigmy squirrel moving through the resort.

Tabin’s core area is not accessible to visitors, but large portions of the reserve, as well as the area around the mud volcano can be explored on roads and walking trails. For the five days we had reserved here, I had arranged a private vehicle with driver (Ishmail) and guide (Rafel). A new Toyota Hilux pickup with seats mounted on the back was ready for the task and we agreed on morning and afternoon drives for general observations and identification of camera trap sites, and additional night drives to focus on cats.

Tabin is dense. The area was logged five decades ago and the secondary forest that has grown back now has a dense undercover with a canopy standing no more than 30 metres in most places. Morning and afternoon sightings included orang utan, Müllers’s Bornean gibbon, pig-tailed macaques, wild boar, some considerably sized monitors and an impressive variety of birds. Highlights included the Bornean banded pitta, whiskered treeswift, blue-throated and red-bearded bee-eaters, scarlet-rumped trogon, Wallace’s hawk-eagle and several species of hornbills and broadbills. The night drives brought to our spotlight banded palm civet, Malay civet, slow loris, fruit bats, a total of 8 different leopard cats and some very interesting nocturnal birds such as the Sunda frogmouth.

A chat with Rafel
An interesting phenomenon about Borneo is that all wildlife seems to shy away from humans more than in other wilderness areas I have visited. By comparison, I can get close to fantastically beautiful birds in Brazil’s Atlantic rainforest, pumas in Patagonia or large elephant bulls in Africa. But in Sabah, from the smallest birds to elephants in the safety of their herds, almost all animals keep well clear of humans. On one occasion after observing a very shy red-bearded bee-eater, I asked Rafel whether he knew which wildlife used to be hunted by tribal people. I was impressed to learn that he himself was from a rural village of hunters in the upper Kinabatangan area. His explanation was that in the old days, indigenous peoples would hunt everything that could be turned into a meal, while today, rural hunters would focus on wild boar. Even as a kid, wild boar with crackling from the open fire had been his favourite, but catching a monitor lizard would also mean a tasty supper. It is likely that these hunting practices would have affected most wildlife.

Ishmail (l) and Rafel in front of the fence-off food growing area for the rhino project.

Tabin guidesTabin guides

Some species like the leopard cat do well in oil palm plantations. There is enough ground cover for small rodents and birds as a prey base and the cats seem to be left alone by people. Still, seeing a beautiful leopard cat perched on a bare rock in this stretch of plantation destroyed and replanted right outside Tabin was not the most appealing wildlife observation I have ever had. Again, I was wondering what the situation over in Kalimantan would be like, where thousands of hectares of primary rainforest are being destroyed right now.

End of the forest (Tabin)End of the forest (Tabin)

Leopard cat (Prionailurus bengalensis) on a rock in cleared oil palm plantation.

Leopard cat (Prionailurus bengalensis) in a cleared forst areaLeopard cat (Prionailurus bengalensis) in a cleared forst area Outside Tabin Wildlife ReserveOutside Tabin Wildlife Reserve

This monitor sadly got run over by a construction vehicle in the park. Malini collected it to be set up with a camera trap. 

Malini retrieving a monitor killed on the roadMalini retrieving a monitor killed on the road Malini and Rafel at a camera  trap siteMalini and Rafel at a camera trap site

Sightings of clouded leopard and marbled cat have been recorded, but they are very rare. Malini set up four camera traps in various places and when we found a big monitor lizard that had been killed by the careless driver of a construction vehicle, she collected the carcass and set it up with another camera trap. The only results, however, remained wild boar and civet.

On the last morning at Tabin we headed out to collect the photo traps. Ishmail and Rafel then loaded our bags into the vehicle and we headed back to Lahad Datu airport, where we would meet up with Cede Prudente for the next part of this excursion.

Visitors to Tabin Wildlife Resort please note: the lodge only accepts cash payments and anyone wanting to settle open bills and bar taps by credit card must do so at the resort’s airport office in Lahad Datu. I made use of this process and soon after we were loading our bags into Cede’s minivan, to transfer to the lower Kinabatangan river.

To Kinabatangan
Today there are many lodges offering accommodation, from simple to luxury on the lower Kinabatangan river. For the five days we would spend on the river and Cede Prudente arranged for us to stay at two different places. The first one, Myne Resort, was set near the village of Billit. It can be reached in 2 hours driving from Lahad Datu and is perfectly situated to access the area further upriver. The second one, Borneo Nature Lodge was downriver, near Sukau village. From here we would explore smaller tributaries and an oxbow lake of the Sukau area.

Travelling to our lodges on the Kinabatangan

Malini Pittet and Cede Prudente exploring the forest behind Myne Resort

Myne Resort is relatively new, overlooking a large river bend. There are walking trails and an observation tower in forested hillside behind the lodge. Myne’s chalets are spacious and comfy. A well-stocked bar and solid cooking makes for a very pleasant guest experience. Instead of using Myne’s boats for our cruises, Cede had arranged through his company North Borneo Safari for boat guide Tapo to pull up one of their boats to Billit. Cede’s boats are very well equipped with powerful four stroke engines and an additional electric motor that is put to use on slow flowing, narrow channels and calm lagoons.

Our first outing lead us about an hour upriver, where in beautiful afternoon light we found families of pygmy elephants feeding and drinking along the river. There was no other boat in sight for the entire duration of this observation and only the setting sun eventually forced us to head back to the lodge. All along we had some great birding. Knowing we were hoping to find some of Borneo’s small cats, Cede took us to a few special areas further downriver the next day. Instead of finding cats we did very well on primates, reptiles and birds. On the second day it was decided and confirmed that we would shift camp further downriver for the last three days. Malini had set up some traps in the forest behind Myne Resort, but the weather changed and heavy rain limited animal movement.

Edible birds’ nests
The drive from Myne Resort to the jetty from where one can transfer across to Borneo Nature Lodge is about 30 minutes and leads through extensive oil palm plantations. From time to time one passes odd looking built up structures: multi-storey buildings without windows to attract Edible-nest swiftlets (Aerodramus fuciphagus). For about 400 years, bird’s nests have been part of Chinese cooking. Nests have been and are still collected from colonies in natural nesting places, such as the Gomatong Caves near Billit.

I visited the caves and it was the “sustainable” harvesting season. Very interesting to observe and I could not help but to think the way this is organised would open all sorts of doors to misuse and corruption. Apparently the colony is stable in population, but I wonder what this means. With current prices of up to USD 2’500 per kg and Malaysia alone exporting about 145 tonnes of birds’ nests there is a lot of money changing hands in this fast growing industry. In addition to natural nesting sites, it has been found that the cute swiftlets tend to move into abandoned buildings. The obvious next step was to create building shells that would attract swiftlets to nest. It worked: at the end of 2014 there were more than 7’000 premises for Edible nest swiftlet farming in Malaysia. At first glance this may seem like a good idea: helping birds to breed and collect some nests, generating income for communities in remote and rural areas. The following article by Craig Thorburn highlights some of the issues and challenges caused by this practice. In addition to this, my big question is: if this particular species thrives because of vastly improved nesting opportunities and, how long will it be before other species of birds (not just swifts, swallows and bats) competing with these swiftlets for food start to struggle?

Time will tell. I hope the effect of increasing swiftlet populations will not be too severe on other, more delicate species.

Borneo Nature Lodge
This place is smaller and its chalets are more modest than the setup at Myne Resort. The lodge is nestled in dense cover along the river and there are many fruit bearing trees attracting monkeys and birds. A great kitchen and well stocked bar round off the guest experience, but most importantly, some of the very attractive tributaries to the Kinabatangan river, as well as a large oxbow lagoon can be reached within minutes from the lodge’s jetty. This is particularly important for anyone wanting to head out well before the crack of dawn, to ensure being deep in the jungle when it gets light. Or to stay out late and enjoy nightfall on the river. With Cede’s guiding, we would make use of both first and last light, go out again after supper and, on the last night, actually head out at 01:00h, returning well after sunrise for breakfast only.

Cede and Tapo preparing a hot coffee as the weather clears 

First light of dawn after a long night out on the rivers and lagoons...

There is something about boats on rivers. I thoroughly enjoy exploring wilderness areas by this means, as it sometimes is quite easy to get close to wildlife. This is particularly important in an area such as North Borneo, where forests are dense and animals tend to be shy. Cede Prudente really took things to the next level with the additional electric motor mounted to his boats. Cruising up and down the slow flowing tributaries turns into a magically peaceful, silent experience. As a side effect, the water is disturbed less and as I often photograph using a long lens on a tripod, having a steady boat is a huge advantage. Days and nights can be long on this river. Cede always had hot water, coffee and a biscuit ready when it mattered most.

Although the area would be perfect habitat for flat-headed cats, luck was not on our side regarding felids. There was a very short glimpse of what probably was a Clouded leopard, but no chance to capture it on camera.

We had, however, many exquisite observations. Some of them resulting in great photographic highlights. Primates, which included long-tailed and pig-tailed macaques, silvery lutung, and of course proboscis monkeys. Reptiles such as Asian water monitors, saltwater crocodiles and a most impressive reticulated python. Birds (131 species in total), with species such as blue-eared, collared and stork-billed kingfisher, lesser fish eagle, Diard’s trogon, Malaysian blue flycatcher, brahminy kite and several species of hornbills (oriental pied, helmeted, wrinkled, Asian black, and rhinoceros hornbill).

Waiting for the weather to clear

Travelling through Sabah in the company of a leading professional photographer and guide, Cede Prudente, who knows the area like the back of his hand has very many advantages. To anyone planning a trip to Sabah: contact Cede Prudente via his safari company North Borneo Safari and check out Cede's blog and Facebook page before travelling there. Cede will be able to make a huge difference for people interested in finding wild places.

To Sandakan
The 130km transfer from Sukau village to the coastal town of Sandakan takes up nearly three hours. Again it is oil palm plantations all the way. There is a new hotel by the harbour, near Sandakan Yacht Club: The Four Points Sheraton. A neat place to spend a night before heading out to Lankayan island early the next day. In the afternoon we wanted to visit the sun bear rehabilitation centre at Sepilok and Cede arranged transfer there and back. With a bit of luck and patience, it should be possible to take interesting photos of these sun bears. The climb up trees from time to time and can easily see eye to eye with photographers standing on the observation deck. However, think twice before bringing a big lens. Sepilok charges “professional photography” fees for large lenses. Carry a lens of 500mm or more and get ready to pay USD 250 per entry.

Lankayan Island
The organisation was immaculate. We were collected from the hotel at the agreed time and taken to Sandakan Yacht Club, from where the speed boats to Lankayan would depart. Two boats were loaded and with the punctuality of Swiss railways, the drivers fired up their 250HP engines and started heading north-east into the Sulu Sea. Depending on swell and weather, the speed boat transfer to Lankayan takes about 1,5 to 2 hours. Outbound the boats are taken past small islands with settlements that, in the right light, provide interesting photographic opportunities (keep a medium size zoom lens ready if interested). Then, still on waters tinted by sediments from river estuaries, the transfer continues out past more small islands and eventually, no land is visible when deep blue waters are reached about an hour into the trip. The 1m swell rolling in the direction we were headed was no problem for our boat and we cruised at about 25 knots when Lankayan appeared on the horizon. Sitting a bit further back in the boat, by this time I had been nicely splashed with the warm, salty waters of the Sulu Sea.

Transfer speed boats taking visitors to Lankayan Island

Having been to this island in February 2010, it came as a big surprise to see the many substantial changes this little paradise has undergone in the meantime. Just like its forests and rivers, Sabah’s reefs in the Sulu Sea are under threat. Although protected within a marine park, Lankayan Island serves as an unfortunate example of the consequences pristine beaches and delicate reef gardens suffer when too many people are allowed to access at a given time. Lankayan has added more guest chalets and it can now accommodate a maximum of 60 visitors at a time. At the southern tip of the island, a boardwalk leads out 200m to a rather huge double story building that has been erected on stilts. While the wooden building has been crafted very beautifully, the many poles needing to be sunk into the shallow sand over a distance of about 200m from the island have caused currents to change. From other, if somewhat larger examples I know that even slight changes in such currents can have devastating effects on beaches through deposits and erosions of sands. Unfortunately, this has happened to Lankayan island. The tropical paradise beaches on the south and west coast of the island have disappeared completely and in order to prevent sand erosion to reach the chalets, an ugly looking wall had to be erected. Needless to say this stretch of beach has been lost not only for visitors to this jewel of the Sulu Sea, but even more unfortunate, for the many Hawk-billed and Green turtles coming to nest here.

Quite a difference: Lankayan in 2015, and below, in 2010

Lankayan IslandLankayan Island

Malaysian BorneoMalaysian Borneo

My main focus would remain the underwater world and here, at least, a lot has stayed the way it was back in 2010. The reef gardens to the west of the island are pretty much as they were 5 years ago. On the eastern shore I discovered more diverse corals and life than I had on my previous visit. Coral bleaching is more visible now and no doubt this will become a problem here just as anywhere else.

Lankayan is a turtle island and guests can choose to be notified when turtles come ashore to nest (usually in the middle of the night) and when hatchlings are about to be released (any time of day or night). Both events would very much be worth observing, though it depends on the number and culture of observers. Many visitors do not yet know how to behave in the presence of wildlife, and especially near such delicate animals and this results in noisy chatter and screaming kids jumping about. Not a nature experience as I would like it. We observed a controlled release of about 150 green back turtles and aided some wild hatchlings through the undergrowth, to set them free in the ocean.

Scenes from Lankayan Island

Lankayan IslandLankayan Island Lankayan IslandLankayan Island Hatching of Green turtlesHatching of Green turtles Lankayan IslandLankayan Island Lankayan IslandLankayan Island

For a long time, I have wanted to try out scuba diving and on this trip I finally managed to do a proper scuba discovery dive course. This was a fantastic experience. To my surprise, the second dive took us down to 16m and it felt very natural and relaxing all the way. Unfortunately, 15 knot south-westerly winds and a current had stirred up sediments, so the water wasn’t too clear. I would like to get into this some more and will also want to read up on underwater photography. It will be interesting to see how scuba diving will complement my land and air portfolios…

The group that runs Lankayan Island Resort also operates the world renowned dive resorts a bit further south, off the coast of Lahad Datu. Places like Kapalai and Sipadan will definitely play a role in my next travel plans to North Borneo. Yay, can’t wait J

As a highlight on Lankayan, for the first time ever I saw a mother and youngster Greater frigate bird (Fregata minor) circling above the island in a gentle, tropical evening breeze. Long enough to thoroughly appreciate, albeit not to photograph.

Back to Europe
It never ceases to amaze me how nowadays we are able to start a journey at one end of the world and end up at the other end in a matter of less than two days. On the last morning, after enjoying a final breakfast on Lankayan, we headed back to Sandakan airport. Just under four hours after leaving the island I fastened the buckle of my seat right behind the cockpit of a MASwings Twin Otter (no cockpit door here, so a good view of what happens).

Sandakan - Kudat - Kota Kinabalu

The plane took off in a northerly direction and about 40 minutes later touched down for a short stop over at the town of Kudat, near the northernmost point of Borneo. From there we continued to Kota Kinabalu. As the onward connection to Singapore was booked with Air Asia, we had to change over to terminal 2. If you travel through BKI, make sure to check in which terminals your flights arrive at and depart from. Moving between one and the other requires a 15-minute taxi ride around the runway and to the other side of the airport. Luckily, our driver didn’t spare the horses and through the old terminal’s chaos with luggage checks, check-in, more security checks and emigration it was at the very last second we managed to catch our flight to Singapore.

The onward flight from Singapore to Zurich on SQ246 would leave at 01:20h on the next morning. Plenty of time to head to the city for some final Asian impressions and a tasty meal. From my first trip through here I remembered a little place called Chijmes. After a quick apéro at Raffles in the form of a Singapore Sling, we quickly moved across North Bridge Rd. The Coriander Leaf restaurant caught our attention, celebrating an exquisite culinary grand finale to this trip.

Scenes from the Coriander Leaf, Singapore

Late at night after a refreshing shower at the airport it was time to start the nearly 14-hour flight back home.

Mission accomplished: the massive Airbus A380 is back in Zurich. 

This excursion was arranged through bookings with:   Borneo Rainforest Lodge, Danum Valley Tabin, Kinabatangan, Sandakan (incl. guides, transfers, private cars and boats) Lankayan Island Resort    Flights between Singapore and Borneo  Domestic flights on Borneo    Flights from Zurich to Singapore and back


Patrick Meier - Novemer 2015