Friday, 6 July 2012

A glimpse of Borneo

An un-edited version of my photo-essay published in the June 2012 edition of Outlook Traveller.

The forest welcomes us into its folds, the smell of the wet earth carried by the cool breeze whipping my face. Through trees shrouded in mist, tantalisingly unknown calls and sounds emanate. Then the veil-like mist lifts oh-so-briefly, and my jaw drops. The rough landing of my flight & the churning knot in the stomach are forgotten. Everything is worth this. The sun pierces through the thick, grey, evening sky to illuminate a beautiful tree here & another there, each towering over the next. And then, the veil drops once more. I step out of the car to watch the drama unfold, raindrops gently pelting my face; listening to the pitter-patter of the rain that I love so much. Everything says, loud & clear: “Welcome to the rainforest, my child!” Instantly, I’ve lost my heart.

I’m at Danum Valley in Sabah, Borneo. One of the protected and hence least-disturbed tracts of pristine, un-logged rainforests, Danum Valley is all that you ever imagined a rainforest to be. And more.  For, once you actually walk through the forest, you realise how un-imaginative your imagination has been. Over the next week, I allow the forest to envelop me with its sounds, smells & feel. I submit to everything vying for my attention: barely visible fungi, gigantic trees, tiny insects, impossibly-hued birds, large primates and even the omnipresent leeches.

Borneo awes me with its splendour, humbles me & shows me why it deserves admiration, love and respect. And, as if to further drive home the point, I am shown the heavily logged forest at Sukau, along the Kinabatangan River. Even as I drive to Sukau, the contrast couldn’t be starker - the dense rainforest slowly gives way to Oil palm plantations. Boating along the river, watching the exotic primates, birds or reptiles who still call this thread-bare forest home, I’m reminded of a very grim problem: logging & deforestation.

Borneo still hasn’t revealed all its secrets to me; it is a lesson in patience. Though I’ve made my peace with it, I have unfinished business there: there are vertigo-inducing climate towers to be climbed, Argus pheasants to be goggled at and Pygmy elephants to be admired. And, of course, old friends to be met; secure in the knowledge that their home is safe.

Danum Valley extends a rainy and misty welcome. I watch as the mist reveals trees of varying heights, including a few emergents. Until then raining and a gloomy grey, the vista suddenly turns blue after sunset. It succeeds in converting me into a moony-eyed admirer with a very wet camera; the first of many such moments ahead.

A typical primary (un-logged) rainforest will dwarf you with its sheer scale. Note the ant-like people at the bottom of the photograph. Nothing can be more humbling than looking up and not being able to see the other end of the tree.

If that’s what the forest looks like from below; this is what it looks like, from above. I stand on a viewing deck and watch the forest gradually emerge from the morning mist; every bit as theatrical as it sounds. Here, a lone emergent catches the sunrays and waits for its companions to break through the mist. I wonder what it must look like from the top of the climate tower; like heaven on earth, maybe. Had my fear of heights not struck just as I was four rungs up a very open metal ladder, I could’ve been in that heaven. Right now, I have to make do with a slice of it.

Walking through a rainforest is such a sensory experience due to all the small, serendipitous discoveries awaiting you. Be it on the ground or on trees, there’s a host of insects, fungi, creepers and flora for you to revel in. Drive past it, and you miss an intrinsic part of the forest. Here, the Pill millipede curls itself into a ball when touched, as a defense mechanism. This is one of the many wonders that the leaf litter on the forest floor offers you.

Fungi of all shapes, sizes and colours grow in profusion on damp surfaces in the rainforest. They play a major role in recycling organic material.

Many fungi reproduce by discharging spores into the air. These are fungal spores on a leaf, shot with a macro lens. To my naked eye, it looked just like talcum powder on the leaf. Had I not been told to take a look, I would have walked past this, unawares. The white heads that are seen are about 1mm in diameter so it can only be imagined how slender the stalk of the spore is. One of the things in the forest I like to call ‘magic’.

A path through the forest.

Back-lit moss on a tree trunk. The dampness results in life growing everywhere.

Assorted climbers share space as they make their way up a sturdy tree trunk.
A beautiful, back-lit epiphyte grows on the branch of a tree. Epiphytes are non-parasitic and depend on their host only for support. Orchids and Mosses are commonly known epiphytes. Epiphytes receive moisture from the air, rain or from the surface of the host tree. Their leaves generate the nutrition they need, through photosynthesis.

Buttressed roots of trees are a common feature in rainforests. There are various theories suggesting the evolution of buttressed roots. According to one, roots spread horizontally so that they can cover a wider area for collecting nutrition from the nutrition-rich top layer of soil. In a rainforest, the soil is not too rich deeper down. Another theory suggests that since trees here are tall but have shallow roots, they need these buttresses to provide physical support. Some trees have such large buttresses that an adult human can easily hide behind them.

A Bornean forest dragon sunbathes in the paltry morning sunlight filtering through the thick rainforest canopy. This sunlight was sufficient, though, to give its skin a metallic sheen. Belonging to the genus ‘Gonocephalus’, also known as ‘angle-heads’ due to the shape of their head, they change colour depending on their mood. Their tail, once broken, cannot regenerate. When you see them, it indicates that a source of running water is not too far away, for they always stay by one.

As if to justify the sighting of the Bornean forest dragon, we came across this water cascade and pool further along the trail. In a hot, humid forest where sweat pours down in rivulets and clothes literally cling to you like second skin; it took me all of a minute to decide to jump in. The surprisingly cold water did refresh me on this typically muggy day, even as I tried to avoid being tickled by nibbling fish intent on giving me a pedicure.

A Lantern bug. Despite what their name suggests, Lantern bugs do not emit any light. Their head resembles a snout and can sometimes be half as long as their body. Their wings also have unique and colourful patterns, probably the only thing about them that is remotely suggestive of a lantern.

A rarely spotted nocturnal primate, the Tarsier. Their eyes do not reflect light, which is why they are difficult to spot with a torch. Their hind limbs are about twice as long as their body. Tarsiers are the only entirely carnivorous primates. They catch primarily insects (and sometimes birds, lizards & bats) by jumping at them. Tarsiers are such a rare find that it had us running into the forest one night, without our leech socks. I ran out faster, after being bitten by Fire ants; a small price to pay, though, for a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see the Tarsier.

A primary (un-logged) rainforest is home to many species of birds and mammals which prefer to dwell only in the higher levels of the canopy (tree-cover). Bridges like these allow you to walk across the tall rainforest canopy at eye-level. This provides a good opportunity to try and spot wildlife that would have otherwise been difficult to see, from the ground level. Known as ‘canopy walk-ways’, these bridges are built using strong rainforest trees as anchors. 

A silhouette of the forest canopy on a rainy evening. The silhouette shows trees of different heights in the rainforest.

A male Rhinoceros Hornbill, with his colourful casque (an enlargement of the upper mandible of the beak). One of the larger Hornbills, these birds are found in Borneo and a few other regions of SE Asia. The female lays eggs within hollows in tree trunks and seals herself there with the eggs until they hatch and the chicks grow a little. Until then, the male brings food to the nest for the female and the young ones and feeds her through a small slit created in the sealed hollow for that purpose. Rhinoceros Hornbills are threatened, primarily due to logging of large rainforest trees, which are so critical for them to nest in. The other threat to them is hunting, for their casque and meat.

A male Orangutan enjoys a feast. The much-loved face of rainforest conservation, Orangutans are endemic only to rainforests of Borneo and Indonesia. Highly arboreal, they eat leaves, shoots and fruits and are very rarely found at lower levels. You can imagine my rapture then, when this Orangutan slowly made his way down the tree and crossed the path in front of us.

These are the most solitary amongst apes and also the most intelligent. Orangutans are endangered; due to poaching, habitat loss and illegal pet trade, amongst other things.

The male Wreathed Hornbill, seen with his inflated, yellow, gular pouch. These birds are found in Borneo, SE Asia and NE India too. Like most Hornbills, they too have an interesting nesting behavior.

The region of Sukau is where you see ‘monkey business’ at its best. A heavily logged forest along the part-muddy, part-blue Kinabatangan River, the canals of Sukau are home to varied life forms, including humans. Sighting wildlife in Sukau allows you to put a face to all these residents, for whom we need to preserve Borneo. Here, a Long-tailed macaque seems to be enjoying every bit of a juicy fruit, as is evident from the pulp smeared all over his face and palms.

A Pig-tailed macaque jumps into the Kinabatangan River, to cross over to the other side. But, before it took the plunge, it thoroughly scouted the water for lurking crocodiles, with a comical, detective-like gaze. Once in the water, it swam at a furious pace and relaxed only after it had climbed a tree on the other bank. These macaques are so named because their tails are short and curled, not unlike a pig’s.

A typically pot-bellied male Proboscis monkey sits on a tree by the Kinabatangan River. So named for their long, protruding noses, these monkeys are endemic to Borneo. In Malay, they are also called ‘Dutch-men’. They live in groups and prefer areas near water, like rivers or mangroves, amongst others. They are an endangered species, threatened primarily due to habitat loss.

One of the canals along Kinabatangan River in Sukau, Borneo. Here, you can see the forest come to an abrupt end & the Oil palm plantations begin.

A truck carries Palm oil, one of the nemeses of rainforests in Borneo.

I travelled to Borneo: 
As part of an expedition led by Kalyan Varma

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