A Survivor

Not a whisper broke the silence, but there was an unmistakeable crackle of excitement in the air as the armoured, football-sized sphere that Elisa had placed so carefully on the ground began to unravel. First, a pink nose twitched nervously from side to side, like a submarine periscope peering out, scanning for danger in the strange, unfamiliar world above. Gradually, the tight ball of scales uncurled, and the periscopic nose gave way to a long snout, then a head, armoured above but pink and fleshy below. Then two black, beady eyes finally appeared, like little black marbles protruding from the side of the head, giving the animal a strangely cartoonish appearance.

After a couple of minutes of checking for danger, the bizarre animal clumsily hauled itself to its feet, as if waking from a deep sleep, and revealed its full profile. The slender head led to powerful forelimbs, a hunched, arching back, and a thick, plated tail trailing behind. It was a pangolin – an unusual, prehistoric-looking mammal which is like a cross between an ant-eater and a tank, as it is covered from nose to tail with an impenetrable armour of shield-shaped scales. In fact, the pangolin is the only truly scaly mammal in the world, but sadly this unique defence mechanism has become its downfall, as pangolin scales are highly sought-after as ‘traditional’ Chinese medicine.

FB_IMG_1534249853324
Wira recovering from his ordeal in the DGFC lab. Credit DGFC/Miriam Kunde

Pangolin scales are made of keratin, the same substance as human hair and fingernails. Just like rhino horn, the scales have become steeped in myths and falsehoods that tell of healing properties, curing cancer, and even stimulating nursing mothers to lactate. A kilo of this specially-adapted fingernail can fetch anywhere between $600 and $3,000 on the black market,[1], [2] and the initial poacher can expect to sell a captured pangolin for up to $500,[2] about two months’ salary for an oil palm plantation worker. When threatened, pangolins roll up into a tight ball, like a hedgehog, to protect their vulnerableunderbelly. This is a great strategy for protection against forest predators such as leopards and tigers, but it means that any human passing by can simply pick them up from the floor and walk away with them. When a pangolin wanders innocently through a poor rural village in southeast Asia, you can understand what normally happens next.

The insatiable demand for pangolin scales in China, and pangolin meat in Vietnam, dwarfs even more infamous markets in rhino horn, elephant ivory and the primate pet trade, to make the pangolin the single most trafficked animal on Earth. According to the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature), more than a million pangolins were poached in the decade up to 2014, meaning we are losing pangolins from the wild at a rate of 100,000 per year, before natural mortality is even factored into the equation.[3] What’s worse, is that we don’t even know how many pangolins are left in the wild across all eight species, so we have no idea how much time we have to stop the trade and save this special, unique animal.

FB_IMG_1534249845852
Sunda pangolins are ‘Critically Endangered’, having lost up to 80% of their population in just 20 years. Credit DGFC/Miriam Kunde

We do know, however, that the Sunda pangolin (the species present here in Borneo), is classed as ‘Critically Endangered’ on the IUCN Red List, having lost up to 80% of their population over the past two decades.[4] If demand in China and Vietnam isn’t brought under control soon, other pangolin species will go the same way, even those roaming the African savannah, a world away from the street markets of Hong Kong or the restaurants of Hanoi. Until recently, the four African pangolin species have been insulated from the devastation happening on the other side of the Indian Ocean, but no longer. As populations of the four Asian species hit the floor, demand has begun to outstrip supply, and the long reach of the black market has turned its attention to Africa.

Just like in southeast Asia, poverty is a catalyst for opportunistic poaching of African pangolins. As always, the ones who get filthy rich are not the poachers themselves, but the middle men and women who buy the pangolins and illegally smuggle them into the Asian markets through transit hubs like Bangkok and Jakarta.* To give a sense of the scale of illegal trafficking out of Africa, last November Chinese authorities in the port city of Shenzhen seized a record haul of 12 tonnes of pangolin scales, equating to 20-30,000 individual animals.[5] Consider this: INTERPOL estimates that 90% of illegal wildlife trafficking manages to evade seizure,[6] so for every pangolin seized at the border, how many more slip through the net, dead or alive?

FB_IMG_1534249838346
Wira is fitted with a GPS tag under the watchful eye of our Pangolin Conservation Officer, Elisa Panjang. Credit DGFC/Miriam Kunde

That is why Elisa’s pangolin, released back into its natural rainforest habitat, is so lucky. The little guy had been through a lot. Like so many of his kind, he was picked up wandering through a rural village in Sabah, and as the villagers bickered about who would have the right to sell it to a trafficker, a local teacher stepped in, rescued the pangolin and passed it to the authorities, who then contacted DGFC to release it back into the forest. After going through such an ordeal, the pangolin was named ‘Wira’, meaning ‘warrior’ in Malay, and he’ll need no shortage of warrior spirit if he is to recover from his traumatic experience and prosper in his new forest home.

Apparently, the teacher who handed Wira over had learnt about the plight of the pangolins when a team of scientists and conservations visited their school as part of a community outreach programme, which just goes to show the importance of education and communicating conservation issues to the public. It can sometimes seem like a thankless task, but without it, little Wira would not have got the second chance that so many of his kind are not afforded.

However, if we are to save pangolins altogether, we need massive, effective education campaigns in consumer countries (mainly China and Vietnam) to debunk the baseless myths surrounding pangolin products. As long as pangolins have a priceover their head, poaching will continue, and the senseless killing of pangolins like Wira will continue unabated. This has worked in the past – concerted public information campaigns are estimated to have reduced demand for shark fin soup in mainland Chinaby up to 80%,[7] and that once relentless industry is now, finally, beginning to ease off. Another effort like this is needed to save the pangolins of Africa and Asia.

So, watching little Wira wander off into the undergrowth that day was certainly an emotional experience. Wira is a survivor, a refugee if you like, taken from his home by malevolent forces far beyond his control or even his understanding. Relocated animals often struggle to overcome the stress of capture, rescue, and release into unfamiliar territory. Here’s hoping that Wira can continue soldiering on, continue surviving, in his surrogate rainforest home.

*For a great explainer of this Savannah > Bangkok > China supply chain, check out the powerful BBC documentary that aired recently in the UK: ‘Pangolins – The World’s Most Wanted Animal’

[1] Zhao-Min Zhou et al. 2014. ‘Scaling up pangolin protection in China’, Frontiers in Ecology and the Environmenthttps://esajournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1890/14.WB.001

Scaling up pangolin protection in China – Zhou – 2014 …

esajournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com

Corresponding Author. State Key Laboratory of Vegetation and Environmental Change, Institute of Botany, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing, China

 

[2] CNN – http://edition.cnn.com/interactive/2014/04/opinion/sutter-change-the-list-pangolin-trafficking/

The most trafficked mammal you’ve never heard of — CNN.com

edition.cnn.com

Inside a metal vault here in rural Vietnam is a creature believed to be the most trafficked mammal in the world. No sounds come from its cage. No squeaks or howls. A padlocked door creaks open to reveal an animal that seems far too unassuming to be traded by the ton. It looks like a … “Dragon …

 

[3] IUCN – https://www.iucn.org/content/eating-pangolins-extinction

Eating pangolins to extinction | IUCN

www.iucn.org

The enigmatic pangolin, or scaly anteater, is literally being eaten out of existence according to the latest update of The IUCN Red List of Threatened Sp…

 

[4] IUCN – http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/12763/0

Manis javanica (Malayan Pangolin, Sunda Pangolin)

www.iucnredlist.org

Thank you for taking the time to provide feedback on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species website, we are grateful for your input.

 

[5] Reuters – https://www.reuters.com/article/us-china-pangolins/china-makes-its-biggest-seizure-of-endangered-pangolin-scales-state-media-idUSKBN1DT1KG

China makes its biggest seizure of endangered pangolin …

www.reuters.com

Chinese customs have seized 11.9 tonnes of scales of pangolins, the world’s most poached animal and under threat of extinction, in their biggest seizure of its kind, state media said on Wednesday.

 

[6] WCS – https://www.wcs.org/get-involved/us-ivory-ban-questions

 

[7] WildAid – https://wildaid.org/sharksincrisis/

Threats to Sharks Shift Away From China – WildAid

wildaid.org

Consumption of shark fin soup in China is no longer the single greatest threat to sharks, according to a report released today by global conservation organization WildAid.

Advertisements

Spying on a Forgotten Bear

This week, one of the projects I have been most excited about here finally got underway. At long last, Miriam has been able to set up camera trap stations to try and find out more about one of Borneo’s most charming but elusive inhabitants: the sun bear.

Sun bears are sometimes referred to as the ‘forgotten’ or ‘neglected’ bear, as they are the least researched and understood of all bear species. But don’t tell that to the small group of dedicated scientists and conservationists who are beginning to unravel the secrets of these unique and charismatic animals, before it is too late.

oznor
Sun bears are semi-arboreal, meaning they spend much of their time in trees

Sun bears are the smallest of the eight bear species found on the planet, with adults maxing out at about 150cm (5ft) in length. While they are generalist omnivores, they feed primarily on bees and honey. Their incredibly long, serpentine tongue stretches up to a foot in length, or about 20% of their total body length, perfect for delving deep into beehives and extracting the nutritious insects and honey hidden within. In Malay, they are known as ‘beruang madu’, literally translated as ‘honey bear’, bringing to mind a certain honey-obsessed bear that we all know and love from our childhood.

dav
Stingless bees – their honey is the sun bear’s favourite food

Despite their cuddly appearance and inquisitive nature, these are no cartoon bears in a red crop-top. Sun bears have the largest canine teeth of any bear relative to their body size, along with a disproportionately large head and jaw muscles, which allow them to bite into the bark of hardwood trees typical of their rainforest home. Each paw is armed with a set of five long, sickle-shaped claws, adapted for digging and tearing apart rotting logs in search of ants and termites, another staple of the sun bear diet. Frankly, they could tear your guts out if they wanted to, and it is this combination of a lovable disposition with the potential for mortal danger that makes sun bears, and bears generally, such magnetic animals, and frequent poster children for conservation around the world.

 

A couple of weeks ago, I and a few other volunteers from DGFC took a short break from the rainforest and spent a weekend in the nearby town of Sandakan. On the way back, we stopped by the Borneo Sun Bear Conservation Centre (BSBCC) in Sepilok, to get our first look at a sun bear for ourselves. BSBCC lies just across the road from the more famous, and more crowded, Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, and when we arrived the small car park was thronged with tour buses on day trips from Sandakan.

cof
Outside the BSBCC

 

Fortunately for us, the vast majority of tourists were only interested in the primates, and we were able to wander around the Centre with just a couple of other groups for company. Rightly or wrongly, some species capture the public imagination more than others. This may be great for the conservation of the species as a whole, but I couldn’t help wondering how true ‘rehabilitation’ could be possible for the 200 or so orangutans in the Sepilok reserve, with such a constant stream of selfie-hungry tourists passing through each day.

 

Across the road all was calm, and we were very impressed by the small but well-designed centre. The enclosures seemed relatively open and stimulating for the bears, with an undulating topography, a variety of tall trees and low shrubs, criss-crossed with deadwood and fallen logs that formed bridges and dens. From raised walkways and viewing platforms about 5 or 10 metres off the ground, we were able to watch the bears going about their daily business. A gaggle of juveniles were scrabbling around in the dirt below us, and we could spy on the adults lazing high in the trees through telescopes dotted around the Centre. It was a lovely, serene place and a great way to spend an hour or two if you are ever in Sabah.

While BSBCC is dedicated towards rehabilitating rescued and orphaned sun bears with the eventual goal of releasing them into the wild, at DGFC Miriam is more interested in monitoring the wild population along the Kinabatangan River. Sun bears, however, are notoriously difficult study animals, being generally secretive animals with large home ranges, and naturally occurring at low densities. Added to that, fragmentation of their rainforest home has reduced their numbers by approximately 35% in the past 30 years, placing them as ‘Vulnerable’ on the IUCN Red List.[1]

So, there’s really not that many of them around. That said, in March Miriam was very excited when a sun bear showed up in one of our permanent camera trap stations, and occasionally we come across the tell-tale claw marks of where a sun bear has been climbing a tree. At least we know that they are here. Unfortunately, so little is known about wild sun bear populations in Sabah that we are really having to start at square one: how many are there here? where do they go? how big are their home ranges?

To answer these simple questions, Miriam is trying to take advantage of another quirk in sun bear anatomy and behaviour. Sun bears have a large crescent of golden fur on their chest, which is said to resemble a rising sun, and each of these crescents is unique to each individual bear. Hopefully, we will be able to photograph these unique markings to identify individuals, and work out how many different individuals are photographed, how often they are ‘seen’, and how many camera traps detect a given individual. Using some clever maths, this will enable us to estimate how many individual bears are in our area, where their home ranges are, and the ‘structure’ of the population (e.g. ratio of males to females, juvenile vs older bears, etc). It is basic, but crucial information.

Whether it works, time will tell. For now, we just have to wait and see what our cameras will reveal.

[1] IUCN. 2008. http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/9760/0

Jurassic Park

This post is a little overdue. It’s actually about some visitors to DGFC a couple of weeks ago, but I just couldn’t leave it off the record. The wifi is, let’s say, ‘intermittent’ here, and I haven’t been able to post as often as I would have liked over the past couple of weeks. But I suppose I didn’t come to the rainforest for the bandwidth!

You might remember from a previous post that we had gotten word that elephants were in the general area, thanks to the GPS tags that we have on a couple of individuals in the LKWS. However, we had so far been restricted to watching the herd from a boat, when travelling along the river to and from our survey sites. Friday was very different. I was scheduled to go out at 9am with Sarah, another volunteer here, to find the slow loris sleeping site. But when I got to the centre for breakfast at 8ish, we were told that the herd was practically on top of us, and that all activities were suspended until the staff could be sure that the forest trails were safe and clear of four-ton herbivores.

We spent the morning biding our time, waiting for the all clear to go out. Every so often we would hear the foghorn of an excited young elephant reverberating around the jungle, or the visceral rumble of an adult bull, like a thunderstorm creeping ever closer. And they certainly were getting closer. By lunchtime they were just on the other side of the oxbow lake beside DGFC, and we ate to a soundtrack of roars and growls that seemed to be taken straight from Jurassic Park. Even without seeing the elephants, the noise alone was enough to stop you mid-sentence and laugh nervously. Hearing such a powerful sound coming from so close by, but being unable to see where (or who) it was coming from, was a strange experience. It was wonderful and unnerving in equal measure.

Soon after lunch, things stepped up another notch. We had already spent all morning cooped up indoors waiting to go out into the forest, then we heard that the elephants were at the jetty, just a few hundred metres from the centre. The experienced local staff headed off down the path to try and discourage the herd, if they could, from ploughing through the centre. The rest of us waited on the patio steps for news from the jetty. Soon enough, we saw Samsir and Koko walking slowly back towards us, always with an eye over their shoulder. ‘They’re coming through’ Samsir signalled with his arms, and sure enough, we could just about spot the flapping ears of two large females through the undergrowth.

We sat with baited breath on the steps, cameras at the ready and talking only in whispers. For 15 minutes or so, maybe longer, Samsir and Koko seemed locked in a stalemate with the two females. Elephants are notoriously skittish, and can be very dangerous when they feel threatened, so Samsir and Koko just sat against a tree, perfectly calm despite the two giants just a few metres away. Suddenly, a shrill trumpet came shaking out of the undergrowth to the right. A third, smaller female marched through a gap in the forest to pass right in front of the Centre. Samsir and Koko wisely backed away. When a wild animal is this big, they tend to do what they want, and there’s not much a little human us can do to stop them.

Eventually, more and more of the herd came to feed on the vegetation in front of the Centre, including juveniles and babies, and there aren’t many things on this planet that are cuter than a baby elephant. It was a beautiful, serene scene, and one which you couldn’t quite believe was playing out before your eyes. It just so happened that this was the last day of a two-week field course from Cardiff University (which helped establish DGFC in 2008), and it was one hell of a send-off for them.

Things got even more dramatic, though, when the females and juveniles moved off. There was a lull for about ten minutes, and then out of forest marched a massive bull, bringing up the rear and keeping a watchful eye over the herd. The magnificent animal paced up and down in front of the steps for a couple of minutes, as if to parade his impressive bulk in front of the strange, goggle-eyed apes sat watching him from the stairs. More likely, he was examining us, checking us out to see if we were a threat to him and to the herd. “Careful guys, he can turn pretty fast” said Meaghan, one of the PhD students and de facto responsible adult making sure nobody let their excitement get the better of them.

Sure enough, Meaghan turned out to be right. The bull had moved to our left, and stopped for a few seconds, before swinging his great head round to face us and marching our way. “In, in, in!” Meaghan ordered, and we all frantically scurried up the steps and into the safety of the Centre, diving through the doors as if we were escaping a torrential downpour. For the next twenty minutes or so, we scuttled from room to room and window to window, as the bull circled the building and fed on the surrounding vegetation. Eventually, he and the herd moved off, and things eventually calmed down.

As evening fell, the complete lockdown was lifted, and we were able to go to and from our dorms in pairs, providing we had torchlight. Even so, throughout the evening and over the following night, those Jurassic sounds came echoing through the jungle, reminding us just who was boss in this environment. Besides all the photos and the excited “Did you see when…?” chat over dinner, I think the main takeaway from our day on lockdown was how little control we have over these animals. This is a busy, bustling research centre, but the elephants brought the place to a halt for a whole day and night, just through their presence. The other wildlife respects this fact too. For a while before and a while after the elephants plough through a section of forest, all is unusually still. Even the macaques are quiet when the giants of the jungle are passing through.

Everything here defers to them, and we, I suppose, are no different.

Forest People

I realise that my last post was a little heavy and maybe a bit depressing, so I want to brighten the mood a little bit with a reminder of how wonderful the rainforest can still be. A couple of days ago I was walking through the forest not far from the Centre, looking for slow loris sleeping sites with an American family who were briefly visiting DGFC. It seemed a very ordinary morning here, but it would perhaps turn out to be my most memorable day so far in Borneo.

It was about half an hour into our loris search when we heard a rustling in the trees just off to our right. As you can imagine, rustling leaves is hardly an uncommon sound here, and normally it turns out to be another of the ubiquitous macaques making mischief in the canopy. But this was a very distinctive ‘rustle’. No crashing or snapping of branches, rather a gradual, targeted swinging of one branch to another. There’s only one thing it could be: an orangutan.

And so it proved. Just a few metres away, hanging just above the undergrowth, was an adult orangutan, feeding on the leaves of a nearby tree. The four of us did our best to limit ourselves to excited whispers – this was the first orangutan any of us had seen in the wild, and we certainly didn’t want to scare it off. Thankfully, it didn’t seem unduly bothered by our presence, and continued going about its business after a fleeting glance our way. After a couple of minutes, it stood up on its branch and stretched out those long, sinuous limbs, reaching for the next tree in that very careful, deliberate way so typical of orangutans. They seem to glide effortlessly from tree to tree, and I can’t help but think what a satisfying way it must be to get around. Every movement seems calculated, perfectly balanced, and nothing is ever rushed.

The orangutan walked from tree to tree parallel to our trail, and naturally we followed, postponing our loris search to make the most of this rare moment. About fifty metres on, the orangutan came to a halt at a tall tree, and began climbing vertically upwards. Our eyes followed her into the canopy – now we could be sure it was a ‘her’ – and saw a ball of fluffy red hairs perched on a ‘V’ where a branch split off from the trunk. It was a baby, perhaps just a couple of years old, peering down at us over its shoulder with its huge, dark eyes. It was a heart-stopping moment, fixing the gaze of a young but supremely intelligent animal, who seemed to be studying us as much as we were it. Just like a baby human, young orangutans learn by investigating and experimenting with their environment, as well as watching their mother’s every move. It was a privilege to watch this youngster reach for various leaves and twigs, constantly touching, smelling, and tasting the world around it, constantly learning. And we were just another object to be studied. In Malay, ‘orang utan’ translates literally as ‘forest person’. It may sound corny, but I think it is a very fitting name for these charismatic beings.

We also felt extremely lucky that this female felt comfortable enough around us that it could lead us straight to its baby, occasionally even leaving the baby in our watch while she went to feed on a tree a few metres away. I can only hope that this level of trust is a good thing and doesn’t make her and her child vulnerable to the poaching that unfortunately persists here in Borneo. I would like to think that as long as her home here in the LKWS remains protected, she will be safe from harm in the future. For now, though, we were just thrilled to have wandered into her forest home and not been treated as hostile intruders.

Even so, we were aware that we were on their patch and didn’t want to outstay our welcome. So after half an hour watching this intimate motherly scene, we left the pair to continue our search for the slow loris’ tree. We did it with a spring in our step and a memory to cherish forever.

What It’s All About

Yesterday I went out again with Elisa, a Malaysian PhD student studying pangolins in the Lower Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary (LKWS), where DGFC is based. As we had done a few days previously, we were doing environmental surveys of potential pangolin habitat to try and determine what sort of environment they prefer. This time, however, we were not conducting our survey in the rainforest, but in a huge palm oil plantation just a few minutes downriver from DGFC.

I would love to tell you that our Field Centre is buried deep in pristine, virgin rainforest, a true wilderness far removed from human interference. Unfortunately, the reality is quite the opposite. As isolated and ‘wild’ as this place can sometimes feel, the truth is that we are surrounded on all sides by palm oil plantations, that have replaced the majority of the rainforest here in Sabah, northern Borneo. As part of my orientation at DGFC, I was shown a graphic of rainforest cover in Sabah between 1982 and the present day, taken from satellite imagery. It really was shocking. Vast areas of forest green switched to white at an unbelievable speed. Where just 30 years ago most of Sabah was covered in rainforest, now just a narrow strip – the LKWS – remained to connect the coastal mangrove forests with the jungles of Borneo’s interior.

Now, that is not to say that the degraded, fragmented nature of the LKWS rainforest makes it any less important or interesting as a study site. In fact, this is the very reason that DGFC exists – to understand how different species respond to deforestation and habitat fragmentation – and the LKWS is an ideal, concentrated site to study these changes. In many ways it is a microcosm of what is happening in rainforests all over the world. In 2017 the world lost an area of forest the size of a football pitch every second, be it for soya beans in the Amazon, coffee in Central America, or illegal timber in equatorial Africa.[1]

The culprit in Southeast Asia? Palm oil.

The palm oil issue is vast, complex and tied up with the economics, politics and the wider geopolitics of Southeast Asia, so I will try to keep things to the point here. The oil palm plant is the single most profitable plantation crop on the planet. Harvestable every two weeks, the crop is ten times more profitable than soya, and five times more profitable than rapeseed. [2] The high-yielding, versatile oil is almost ubiquitous in consumer products all around the world, from confectionary to cosmetics, and from margarine to soap. A typical 10,000 hectare plantation can generate $20-50 million of revenue per year, and with plantation workers earning a measly 900 Malaysian Ringgit per month (working out at about 75p per hour), it has become an astonishingly profitable, and destructive, business.[2]

In Borneo alone, over 75,000 km2 of rainforest was converted to palm oil plantation between 1973 and 2010,[3] with disastrous consequences for the populations of some of the island’s most iconic wildlife. To put that into perspective, scientists estimate that converting 100 km2 of rainforest to plantation results in the loss of 28 elephants, 5,000 of our ancient relatives, the colugos, and 200 of our evolutionary cousins, the orangutans.[4], [5], [2] The rainforests of Borneo are, of course, a hotspot for biodiversity, and being the oldest forests in the world (perhaps twice the age of the Amazon) evolution has had time to sculpt the wildlife into myriad different species, many of which are endemic to Borneo (found nowhere else on Earth). Borneo is home to 63 species of endemic mammal, 59 endemic birds and a staggering 6,000 species of endemic plants.[2], [6] The loss of these rare and unique species would be a tragedy for Borneans and for the world, and it’s happening on our watch.

Besides destroying the home of these animals, the plantations carry a secondary, more sinister threat. Converting swathes of land from once impenetrable forest to oil palm plantations, along with all the roads and other infrastructure necessary to keep a plantation running, makes the rainforest accessible for hunting, poaching and logging. But this is no one-way street. Suddenly, with dwindling forest habitat, and almost unlimited supplies of free, nutritious oil palm fruit on their doorstep, many species forage in the plantations, with obvious ramifications for human-wildlife conflict.

Rats are rife in the plantations, so predators like leopard cats and reticulated pythons hunt there. They are often killed by plantation workers as a perceived threat or, in the case of the python, for their valuable skins. Pigs, elephants and sun bears enter plantations to feed on the fruits themselves, and often suffer similar fate, the latter opportunistically hunted for their meat despite being a protected species here.

Even Elisa’s beloved pangolins, finding plenty of ants and termites (their favourite food) in the plantations, meet their end here. Pangolin scales are highly sought after in China as a traditional (read: entirely unproven) remedy for a variety of ills, making the humble pangolin the single most trafficked animal on Earth. Given the poverty of the plantation workers, many of whom are undocumented migrants from neighbouring Indonesia unable to find conventional employment in the cities, a diminutive, defenceless pangolin is little more than money on legs. The plantations are what is known as an ‘ecological trap’, where animals are tempted out of the forest by the promise of an easy meal, only to be killed at the hands of humans, who are often desperate for a lucky break themselves.

So what is to be done?

The natural response might be to boycott palm oil altogether. It sounds very noble, but in the modern world it is an unlikely proposition, unless you have the time and money unavailable to many in the West. Some supermarkets in Europe are beginning to wake up to the problem. In the UK, Iceland will ban palm oil in their own-brand products by the end of 2018, which is certainly a step in the right direction but is unlikely to be a magic bullet. Because there is no magic bullet. Rather than turning ourselves inside out to do a weekly shop palm oil-free, the best you and I can do as consumers is to ensure that all the palm oil products we buy are sourced sustainably, according to the guidelines set out by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). A handy sustainable shopping list can be found here. The West boycotting palm oil altogether will solve nothing. The void we leave will only be filled by increased exports to China, which has shown little interest in bringing this out of control industry into line. We would only be losing our place at the negotiating table.

Having a voice is crucial. We are all tiny cogs in a wider machine, but if we show producers that we will only accept sustainably-sourced palm oil in our products, they will listen. At the end of the day, money talks.

[1] Global Forest Watch
https://blog.globalforestwatch.org/data/2017-was-the-second-worst-year-on-record-for-tropical-tree-cover-loss

[2] Phillipps, Quentin. 2016.  Phillipps’ Field Guide to the Mammals of Borneo and their Ecology

[3] Gaveau, D. L. A. et al.  2014. ‘Four decades of forest persistence, clearance and logging on Borneo’

[4] Boonratana, R. 1997. ‘A statewide survey to estimate the distribution and density of the Sumatran Rhinoceros, Asian Elephant and Banteng in Sabah, Malaysia (in [2])

[5] Lim, N.  2007. Colugo: The Flying Lemur of South-east Asia (in [2])

[6] WWF http://wwf.panda.org/knowledge_hub/where_we_work/borneo_forests/about_borneo_forests/borneo_animals/

An Evening to Never Forget

The next night, we headed out with Rich on another mission in search of pythons. This time we were going far downstream, so set off before sundown. We glided smoothly over the water in the golden evening light, arcing left and right as the Kinabatangan slithered through the rainforest. The humming of crickets and the obligatory chatter of macaques provided the soundtrack for our journey, as the colours of the sky above mixed and blended like a giant artist’s palette. Golden-yellows passed through peachy oranges, ending in a pink crescendo that flushed the air with a rosy glow, like we were all literally looking through rose-tinted glasses. Talking about exotic sunsets on a travel blog may be a bit of a cliché, but this truly was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen – so what if I sound a bit cheesy?

In the afterglow we stopped for our ‘makan’, which Kila had kindly bagged up for us to take. It was excellent as ever, and we even had a mini bottle of soy sauce packed in for good measure. She could never let us go without, could she? We spent half an hour floating on the almost still water, the river sliding beneath us imperceptibly slowly. After Alut, our driver for the night, restarted the engine, we had barely covered 200 metres before he suddenly stopped again.

‘Elephant!’

In a frenzy, we all span to where he was pointing, an area of elephant grass hugging the water’s edge. Sure enough, the grass lived up to its name, and a pair of Borneo pygmy elephants were digging into their evening meal, munching noisily on the tough stems. One was also using its food as a makeshift fan, whipping the grass above its head with its tactile trunk to ward off swarms of bloodsucking insects. It seemed to be a small female and perhaps a young male, not fully-grown but displaying those archetypal white tusks. We sat watching them in giddy silence for several minutes, eavesdropping on their rumbling, guttural conversation, the crunching of their food and the gentle wafting of their fantastic ears. Eventually, the pair lumbered off into the undergrowth, and we continued our journey, grinning from ear to ear.

Again, the pythons were nowhere to be found. Our only company along the survey route being several magnificent crocodiles, their eyes glowing red in the torchlight before they slunk off into the water. No matter, though, as on our way back we spotted yet more elephants, this time a group of five who were just clambering out of the water as we passed. What a shame that we didn’t arrive a few minutes earlier to watch them cross the great width of the Kinabatangan. Still, it was an incredible sight, and the noise was even more impressive. The low rumbling from earlier was now punctuated by the occasional trumpeting, which echoed through the blackness of the night-time forest.

Once this group had moved off again, we headed back to the Centre. No pythons again, but even Rich didn’t mind another night without python data in exchange for a double-encounter with the giants of the jungle. Just as we pulled in at the jetty, Rich received a text from Benoit, the director of DGFC who was arriving the next day. ‘Elephants heading to DG’ it read. Watch this space!

The River by Night

The morning of my second day at DGFC was spent retrieving a large, and very heavy, cage that was used to capture bearded pigs, so that they can then be fitted with radio collars. It was sweaty work in the heavy morning heat, and lowering the great contraption down the steep river bank was quite an operation. More than once my wellies got stuck in the knee-deep mud, and it was a minor miracle that I stayed upright the whole time, unable to move as a massive pig cage was sliding down on top of me. Eventually we managed to haul the cage onto the boat, then crawled inside it to be transported back to DGFC like a group of common criminals.

That evening, there was some more glamourous activities in store. After dark, we joined Rich on his river survey in search of reticulated pythons, the longest snake in the world. For his PhD, Rich is researching the ecology of these snakes all along the Kinabatangan River, so our objective was to locate and capture a python to bring back to the Centre, where our vet, Roopan, would fit it with a GPS tag before release. Just a week or so earlier, reports had reached Britain of an Indonesian woman being eaten by a massive reticulated python. This had obviously sent my mum into a panic, so to soothe her nerves I promised her that I wouldn’t be doing anything with pythons, yet here I was on my second day going out to try and capture one. Sorry Mum…

Anticipation was high as we set off downstream, our torches scanning the riverbank for any snake-like shapes poking through the vegetation. There were a couple of false-alarms early on, the bright lights casting deceptively serpentine shadows through the thick stands of elephant grass. Once we had confirmed that all we had spotted was a trick of the light, we pushed on further downstream. Sapphire-coloured kingfishers shimmered in the torchlight, owls glared accusingly at the passing boat, and long-tailed macaques broke the tension with their piercing shrieks. Out of the gloom, a large crocodile appeared. Lying parallel to the water’s edge, it’s full profile revealed its impressive length. Less intimidating but just as exciting were the civets, small forest predators which smell distinctly of popcorn, scuttling excitedly in and out of the undergrowth. The banded palm civet was particularly beautiful, its fur golden-brown with striking black markings.

Still we ploughed on, but the pythons remained elusive. It was up in the trees that we saw most of the action. As we passed an area of tall trees overhanging the water, Wan, our boat driver, cut the engine and pointed high into the canopy. I peered upwards to where the torch spotlights converged, but saw nothing, despite all the ‘oohs’ and ‘ahs’ coming from the others on the boat. ‘Do you see it?’ Rich asked me. Not wanting to come across too green, delayed for a second. Thankfully, at that very moment the animal turned its head, its eye shining red in the torchlight. ‘Yep, I see it’ I replied, my blushes spared. It was a colugo, or ‘flying lemur’, a small, elusive mammal which glides from tree to tree on kite-like skin membranes. The colugos are among our closest relatives after apes, sharing a common ancestor with primates 80 million years ago, when dinosaurs still roamed the Earth. It was like seeing a relic from our forest-dwelling past.

With that rather profound thought in mind, we restarted our search. Despite our best efforts, there were no pythons to be found. Not unusual for such an elusive and secretive animal, and it seems that the brightness of the full moon might restrict their activity. Mum, I’m sure you’ll be pleased!