Primates

25 04 2008

The name “Borneo” has always conjured up images of wild apes and monkeys for me. Maybe from reading National Geographic, maybe from the animal flash-card game we had when we were kids, maybe from obsessively memorizing animal facts during various pre-adolescent zoology phases. But here I find myself in the northeastern corner of Borneo, absolutely swimming in primates.

And palm oil. I’ve been trying to write something capturing the magnitude of the environmental devastation here, under a blanketing monoculture of palm oil plantations. Imagine the corn fields of Nebraska, except infinite rows of palm trees covering what only a few decades ago was one of the world’s oldest and most diverse rainforest ecosystems. I don’t really have the photos to tell that story, so I’ll save the polemics, but there’s plenty of context on wikipedia and the like. What wildlife is left here, much of it endangered, is cornered into tiny and beleaguered sanctuaries of mostly secondary forest. In recent days I’ve been to a proboscis monkey sanctuary, an orangutan sanctuary, and a protected forest park along the Kinabatangan River. Excellent wildlife spotting, and there’s an overwhelming calm beauty to the jungle landscape. However it’s hard for it to match the unrelenting hype from the package-tour industry, and prices for some attractions here have gone well beyond western standards. It’s easily the most expensive place I’ve been to in southeast Asia, with every half-day excursion forcing you into an overnight stay with full board via a single concessionary, everything at obscene markups. And there’s simply no way to conceal the plantations or hide the fact that you’re visiting the very, very last examples of these critically endangered and disappearing animals. So the wonder of it is obviously a litle bittersweet.

So enough depressing rants, let’s look at some animals.


Black macaque


Proboscis monkeys


Hmm, bananas… don’t mind if I do


I am officially calling for a caption contest for this photo



Baby monkeys: officially cute

Those are all semi-wild animals, living near the feeding stations in the sanctuaries. The following are all wild, around the Kinabatangan River.


Yellow-eyed rumpled eagle


Silver mud crocodile


Rainbow-freckled kingfisher


Two-headed macaque


Three-beaked hornbills


Yellow-spotted nozzlenose bug


Broom-nosed leaf bug


Clear-tipped reef dragonfly


Leopard-spotted zebra moth, emerging from the chrysalis (in case you haven’t guessed yet, I’m making up all these names, I really don’t seem to be very keen at remembering species names)



My new arch-enemy and denizen of my nightmares: the brain-sucking zombie leech. Words cannot describe the horror of these wriggling little annelids, moving at improbable speeds by doing slimy little end-over-end cartwheels. Turn over a leaf, and there can be half a dozen of them, excitedly smelling brains nearby, reaching out and flapping about, anxious to crawl in your ear or under your skin and work their way into your brain and bring about the zombie leech apocalypse. One found his way up my shirt, through my buttons, and into my armpit. Another crawled up my leg, wriggled through the tiny gap in the zipper of my zip-off pant leg, and inserted himself into my thigh. One got on the inside top of my backpack when I set it down for a second, eager to drill directly into my spinal cord. One got on the bottom of my camera and flapped against my lips when I brought it up for a picture, perhaps seeking the direct route, or maybe looking for an eye. Don’t believe anyone who denies the undead zombifying nature of these demonic creatures; they’re already under the control of the zombie leech overlords.


This 5000-volt electric fence surrounded our jungle bungalows, in response to one of their buildings being trampled by a herd of pygmy forest elephants last year. No bullshit. Didn’t see any elephants (or the pygmy forest rhino, one of the rarest species on earth) but did see some elephant tracks, and apparently visitors do see them from time to time.


More proboscis monkeys, wild ones, and critically endangered – though you’d never know it from how common they are along this river.


Big male proboscis monkey lets it all hang out. These guys keep harems of up to a dozen females, enforced by violence and lots of hooting and frequent sex.


The fig tree – essential staple of many of the primate species here.

Plenty more photos visible here – these are just a quick selection.

Currently I’m in Sempurna, Sabah – jumping of point for Sipidan Island and many other renowned dive sites. This, according to many extremely experienced divers I’ve met, is meant to be one of the best dives sites in the world. I’ll let you know in a week or so.

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