16 April 2010

Danum Valley

Danum Valley Conservation Area is a 438 square kilometer tract of relatively undisturbed lowland dipterocarp forest in Sabah, Malaysia Borneo. This incredible patch of rainforest holds unique status in the sense that before it became a conservation area there were no human settlements within the area, meaning that hunting, logging and other human interference was non existent.

Established in the year of my birth, 1986, for the purpose of scientific research and biological conservation of the rich lowland dipterocarp forest, a once common but now increasingly rare tropical rainforest eco-system that has been systematically degraded by rampant logging and clearing for palm oil over the past few decades.

More than 120 mammal species are found within Danum Valley, including all ten of Malaysia Borneo's primate species, from the red leaf monkey to the graceful Orangutan.

So after arriving in the nearest town of Lahad Datu, we took the 3 hour min bus through quite heavily logged secondary rainforest. With a continuous stream of logging trucks loaded with recently felled trees of a significant width, it was a stark reminder of Borneo’s high rate of ecological degradation.

Finally we arrive at the Danum Valley Field Centre right on sunset. After a delicious dinner and introduction to another group of Australian naturalists, we head out into the rainforest around 8PM.

As we cross the foot bridge into the Primary rainforest, our first sighting is of a Malaysian Civet with a single young who at first looks a lot like the marsupial possum from back home in Australia.

The sound of the forest is absolutely mind blowing, a complete symphony of more species you could poke a stick-insect at. On our way back to the Dorm we spot a fish owl up in the tree. It is immediately clear this place is over-flowing with wildlife, testimony to its pristine and untouched nature.

Just after 5AM I awake to the most incredible sounds of Bornean gibbons calling off in the distance, the very same primate species we witnessed trapped in a cage at the crocker range ‘mini-zoo'

What a beautiful sound that echoed throughout the forest for kilometers. I couldn't lay idle a moment longer, packing my gear and crossing the foot-bridge over the river into the living, breathing, mist covered, lowland rainforest.

An incredibly grounding experience.

Walking through the forest during pre-dawn is as close an experience to landing on another life-bearing planet I could possibly imagine, making the movie Avatar truly seem like a lame computer generated cartoon.

The sounds are verging on scary and many completely alien to anything I have heard before arriving in Borneo. This is the pre-dawn insect symphony, mixed perfectly into the birds and gibbons, celebrating the twilight transition where nocturnal species take rest, hidden within the foliage and the diurnal species wake to greet the beginning of another rainforest feast.

As breakfast nears I return to share a meal with Tony and our new Australian comrades, a few ecologists from Canberra, some Herpetologists from Sydney and their extended friends and families, totaling about a dozen Australian’s who all share a love and passion for the natural world. On top of this we have two American teachers currently living in Chiang Mai and of course the surrounding community of people who make the running of this research area possible.

After breakfast, Tony and myself feel drawn to climbing the tree tower platform, an established viewing area with two canopy vantage points, at 20 and 40 meters above the ground. This is where the action is often centered in the rainforest canopy.

We notice from up above that many of the Dipterocarp species are in flower, a mast event that has most likely been spurred into action by the recent dry weather, resulting in the sweet subtle smell of nectar permeating the humid air.

After about 15 minutes, I look out across the canopy and see a most unforgettable scene, a young Orangutan stretched out, arm to arm, peering over at us from her tree-top flower garden.

“Tony! An Orangutan!!!”. (pronounced by the Aussie contingent as Orang'a-TANG)

What a beautiful moment, a wild Bornean Orangutan (Pongo pygmaeus) just 30 or so meters away watching us. She is foraging on the Dipterocarp flowers, a complete feast of delicious nectar infused goodness.

We observe her for about half an hour, as she slowly moves up and over to the next tree, effortlessly climbing from branch to branch in search of the freshest flowers, until finally disappearing out of view.

Within a few minutes a much larger Male appears at the base of the same tree. We watch him climb vertically up the trunk to around 40 meters above the forest floor, in direct view of our top canopy platform. He too is engulfed in the abundance of flowers, munching on them continuously, with a stream of white flower petal debris falling from high up in the massive canopy emergent, we were truly in Orangutan heaven!

After about half an hour watching the life of Pongo, our American friends join us and observed their first Wild Orangutan sighting from the perfect view of the 20 meter canopy platform. Such excitement watching a species that has 96.4% the same DNA structure as ourselves. One of the four grape ape species, and the Earths largest arboreal mammal.

There are estimated to be around 500 Orangutans within the 478 square kilometer Danum Valley Conservation Area, which equals about 1 Orangutan per Square kilometer. Despite the abundance within this reserve, their population has plummeted more then 90% in Borneo over the past few decades alone, and due to increased clearing of land for Palm oil and Logging activities, their population continues to decline.

With day 1 of our Danum Valley experience starting with two close encounters with two Orangutan’s, we both felt it was the perfect choice to spend our last week in Borneo within some of the last preserved Primary lowland dipterocarp forest, home to an astounding diversity of lifeforms. This is one of the jewels of Borneo, one of planet Earths ‘Biological Hotspot's’, a prime example of an eco-system that contains more then half the terrestrial species on Earth.

Over the next few days we continued to observe the young female orangutan, building her nest on 2 occasions and waking early to join her amongst the canopy as she feasts on the flowers of the forest.

We also saw the glowing ‘Red Leaf-tailed monkey’ and long-tailed macaques in small troupes cruising through the mid-canopy, unafraid of our presence but still wild enough to keep their distance.

The gibbons were a regular sound during the pre-dawn walks, but no direct sightings for us.

The forest floor was an exciting place to observe the myriad insect life, and on occasions stumbling across Mycillium fungi networks that would have totaled 100 square meters, a single organism spread out in vast networks breaking down the left litter and converting the flower debris into more base elements.

We even came across some Pygmy Elephant Dung, an endangered species of Elephant found only in northern Borne. The fungi was again feasting on the excretions of another species, a perpetual cycle of nutrients and energy as the entire eco-system functions as one interconnected whole, harvesting light from the sun and perpetually recycling its nutrients.

We spent hours delving into the micro-cosms found in many of the forests nooks and cranny’s.

During our stay we saw two beautiful speies of Owl, one a fish owl

            one of the many giant moths that fluttered by the food area

These forests have some massive seed pods

And of course, the giant fungi breaking down the lignum (wood).

So that concludes the Borneo Journey, big thanks to Brother Tony Allison for sharing in the adventure and all the other travellers and locals we have connected with.

I am certain I shall return to Borneo and can see a massive need for ecological restoration aimed at habitat connectivity between the remaining patches of forest..

Some sad news to share, the death (and rebirth, and then again death) of my Canon 400D Digital SLR camera...  a camera that has been through the swamps of Hinchinbrooke Island, all through the Border Ranges back home, through Sumatra and Borneo and now it rests in India.

Am currently trying to find a replacement body asap so I can photograph this incredible county and hopefully some of its remaining wildlife, I still dream of seeing a Tiger.. and considering its the Year of the Tiger and I am a tiger... maybe, just maybe... ?

Lots of Love for the plants & animals, including of course the people, of planet Earth.





Joanne Paxton said...

your adventures are amazing and so well written. love and peace in india and safe trip home :)

Gemma said...

Darling Paulie bird,

I just love reading your blogs.. I was thinking that you should write a book about your adventures as you're such a gifted story teller...you've got all the great lingo and the imagery is so rich & well expressed.

I'm so excited to read about your Indian adventure ~ even though I get a good chunk of info via email! Now you know what I mean about India...such a hearty place..full of colour, fragrance and extremes of every description.

Love always ~ your number 1 blogspot fan! :-)

Gem xoxoxox

FP said...

Very interesting, well-organized blog to which I want to return.
Best wishes