Where the Wild Things Are

The Kinabatangan River in the eastern part of Malaysian Borneo has become a wildlife corridor, with small parcels of land pieced together giving refuge to the remaining wildlife of the area. It is said that orangutans used to be able to cross Borneo without ever touching the ground. As you may have read in my blog entry from the other day, deforestation has made such a journey impossible now, making these wildlife corridors all the more precious.

We spent three days in this extraordinary area, hiking, traveling along the river and doing our best to avoid leeches. At the lodge where we stayed, they had a wonderful schedule: early morning boat ride, breakfast, jungle hike, lunch, free (nap) time, afternoon boat ride, dinner, night hike. This gave us lots of opportunities to see all sorts of wildlife. The “big three” animals to see in Borneo are orangutans, elephants and the super-rare rhinoceros (according to Lonely Planet, there are only a few hundred alive). Since there are so few of these creatures left, I did my best to keep expectations low. However, I secretly hoped to be stuck in the middle of an elephant stampede.

The morning boat rides up the river afforded us the opportunity to see hornbills, the extravagantly beaked birds endemic to Borneo and surrounding islands. The trees along the river were crawling with monkeys: gibbons, macaques and proboscis, my favorite of the three. When I first saw a proboscis at the Singapore Zoo a few weeks ago, my first reaction was to think that their elongated noses and protruding bellies were rather unattractive. But watching the way they sit, quite human-like, with a foot resting on the branch they’re sitting on and an arm resting on a knee, endeared them to me. Their most entertaining habit is the way they travel from tree to tree. They’ll climb to the highest branches of one so that they’ll get plenty of air as they leap, sometimes 20 feet or more, to the next tree. It’s like watching the world’s original BASE jumpers.

On our first evening out, we saw more monkeys jumping around, grooming one another and trying to pee on the boats below them. However, the highlight was the change to see, on two separate occasions, an orangutan making his nest in a tree for the night. Every night, these apes make a new bed out of branches and leaves from surrounding trees. It was just magical to watch them settle in for the night. Considering there are only 15,000 left in the wild worldwide, we felt so incredibly lucky see have the chance to see these amazing creatures.

The following day, our hike took us through the rainforest to an ox-bow lake. This was no ordinary hike. Rain gear and Wellington boots were essential to stay dry and keep the mud off, but more importantly, they kept the leeches at bay. As we sloshed over fig and mangrove roots, we saw big spiders, several birds, and most importantly, an elephant footprint! At this point, I was wishing I’d stuffed my pockets with bananas. We continued on and eventually saw some elephant dung, but it looked a few days old. Just as I was resigning myself to the fact that I wasn’t going to see the wild pachyderms, we heard the sound of elephants in the forest. They were trumpeting and making a grumbling noise that sounded just like the engine of the backhoes we have on the farm back home. But instead of trying to get a peek at them, our guide had us run the other way! WHAT?!? I’m trekking in the rain and mud, fending off leeches only to run in the opposite direction of the creature I’ve been hoping to see? It was heartbreaking. According to our guide, the pack we heard was a group of about 15 elephants. They were especially agitated because they had a baby with them, making the extra defensive and likely to charge if provoked. As we sat in the rain by the ox bow lake, I thought that an elephant charge would be rather exciting. Just think of the blog entry I’d have!

We returned as quietly as possible back to the lodge and showered up before lunch. Back at the lodge, we found a leech that had snuggled up to Mark’s chest. Guess who’s the lucky girl who got to pull that sucker off? That evening, we were back in the boat for another wildlife search, and this time we lucked out. About a kilometer down the river, we got to see the pack of elephants we’d surprised earlier that day in the forest. Since we were in our boats and easy to keep an eye on, they didn’t run away. We cut the engines and simply watched these incredible beasts eating the tall grasses on the river bank. Our guide was right about the babies – there were two! The other elephants circled around the little ones to protect them, but from time to time, we could see their little legs running around.

One of the most wonderful memories from this evening was actually on the opposite side of the river. A group of people from the village were also watching the elephants. I assumed that they’d be as excited about seeing elephants in their backyard as I am about seeing deer run across the street back home. However, the group was there when we arrived and remained after we left. It might seem like a simple thing at first glance, but we’ve been to many places where the endangered wildlife of the area aren’t valued by local people, and therefore the animal populations have continued to decline. But to see the villagers as enchanted as the tourist gave me hope that the animals and other creatures of the Kinabatangan River might have a chance to survive.

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