The Monkeys Want an Autograph

There’s so much I want to write about my trip to Borneo, but as Im off to research dancing bears in Bhopal tomorrow I haven’t time for it all yet. So this is just a start…





When it comes to seeing wildlife I’m not lucky. I’m like the guy in the kit kat advert, patiently watching for days to get a shot of the pandas, which emerge for the one moment when he turns his back. I am usually getting dust out of my eye, sneezing, in the loo or on the bus home when something exciting turns up.

But the trip to Borneo from which I have just returned was different. I was there with my World Land Trust hat on, to look at the forest conservation projects that WLT sponsors and to meet some of the wonderful people working for its partner organisations in Sabah, HUTAN and LEAP. The crucial factor though, was that I wasn’t wildlife spotting alone but part of a group that have been helping conservation projects world wide and so clearly packed a powerful planet-karma-punch: Bill Oddie, (birder extraordinaire and gibbon funk artiste), Simon Barnes (wildlife columnist for the Times), David Bebber (Times photographer and frog enthusiast), Astrid Munoz (photographer, supermodel and WLT supporter), Mary Tibbett (WLT Project Coordinator) and Emma Becket (PR consultant and rainforest defender). Not only were they all fabulous, and frequently hilarious, company, but their wildlife attracting aura meant that we actually saw things.

Our first stop was at the Tangug Eco Lodge, run entirely by local organisation MESCOT, and consisting of a set of tree houses that a ten year old would dream of, on the bank of a lake. Within seconds of arriving, Simon and Mary had spotted a snake bird, two species of kingfisher, a bee eater and an Indian roller. We didn’t even have to move, the lake and the forest around it were like a stage that animals just appeared on: a crowd of Bushy Crested Hornbills flopping around in the tree tops like drunks chucked out of a pub; a huge monitor lizard swimming malevolently into view; a pygmy squirrel running up and down a tree trunk like something out of Sylvanian Families on a zip wire. In the dark we caught, lorises in our torch beams, a lantern bug with a big blue snozz and bats, bats, bats. All around us, all the time, there were sounds of wildlife we couldn’t see, frogs, cicadas and who knew what else. An unidentified percussion section of zips and peeps, plunks and wee-oo’s. I woke in the night and tried to write down the sounds on a time line, but the rhythms were far too complicated for anyone short of Evelyn Glenny to get a handle on. Best of all for me, was waking to a sound I’ve wanted to hear all my life, distant but distinct, the morning songs of gibbons fluting through the misty air.

The next two days we tootled up and down various stretches of the Kinabatangan river and I couldn’t help wondering if the animals, like some of the guides, were ‘Goodies’ fans, keen Times readers, or followers of fashion; everything wanted to sit in the trees and look at us as we passed. Were the macaques trying to summon up the courage to ask  Bill for an autograph? Were the six different species of hornbills there just to make sure Simon wrote a column about them? Did the herd of elephants cavort in the water yards from our boat to be sure of a double page spread in the Sundays? When a fully adult male orang utan peered at us seductively, as he made his bed in a tree top, I felt sure he’d seen Astrid’s Vogue covers.




Our last night was spent down river, near the mouth of the Kinabatangan, where the forest turns to knot-rooted mangrove, in a house in a village called Abai.

We arrived at our homestay hosts as the sun went down. It was so cosy and welcoming, our hosts so smiley and kind, that seeing more animals felt almost like too much chocolate cake. But we saw ‘em anyway. Another group of proboscis monkeys, like fat furry fruit dripping from the trees, and, after dark, firefies flashing en mass in the trees, like sets of fairy lights on a dodgy plug.There was a fishing owl, grumpily looming at us in the torch light and a fishing cat, the marvelously named Flat Headed Cat. We were so light headed with it all that Bill began humming possible blues tunes featuring flat headed cats. My favourite line:

‘Nobody tells the flat headed cat where to go…’

I won’t tell you about all the other things. You’ll only be jealous if you hear about the silver leaf monkey and her tiny orange baby, the rare endemic Storm Stork or the Irrawaddy dolphin we spotted from the boat to the airport. Not even our guides could believe it. Instead of saying what guides normally say when I’m around, things like “You should have been here last week”,  they grinned and shook their heads in disbelief. Minchu, our wonderful guide from the community based wildlife tour outfit Red Ape Encounters summed it up “You guys are so lucky, you should buy a lottery ticket.”

But of course it wasn’t just luck. The Kinabatangan river is extraordinary. It’s described as the best place to see wildlife in South East Asia, and what makes this even more extraordinary, is that the forests that support this ridiculous abundance aren’t undisturbed tracts of primary forest, with huge trees and a canopy at 70 m, but beleaguered strips and patches of secondary forest – that is, forest that was logged to hell and then left to get on with it as best it could. The good news is that wildlife thrives in secondary forest so long as it’s undisturbed and extensive enough. The bad news is that all around these surviving bits of forest are palm oil plantations in every direction, always threatening to engulf them.


There is no magic solution to this situation, we can’t wind back the clock to the 1950’s when there were still huge areas of

untouched primary forest. We must deal with the situation pragmatically: palm oil  has brought money to Malaysia and transformed the lives of many people. As Sam Mannan, the Director of Forestry in Sabah, told us ‘We must not be green beggars’. So oil palms are here to stay. To keep some forest, and the biodiversity it shelters, we have to negotiate with the plantations: enforce best practice to keep forest strips beside rivers and on steep slopes, protect the most diverse spots by private ownership or gazetting as reserves and replant bare patches to join up the mosaic of plots into continuous cover. This is what WLT with its partners, LEAP and HUTAN have been doing. Luckily Sam Mannan is fiercely proud of Sabah’s forests, and although a great pragmatist, as his remark about ’green beggars‘ demonstrates, he’s happy to help and do some pretty tough horse trading to protect as much forest as possible.

WLT and partners have just closed the deal on another two small but crucial patches of riverside forest, that go further towards
closing up some of the gaps, but to safeguard the future of the finest wildlife spot in South East Asia, they need to buy up, bit by bit, plot by plot, another 25 thousand hectares. Land in Sabah is expensive so it’s going to take a great deal of money to do this;  around million quid just to safeguard the next 80 acre piece of the Kinabatangan mosaic. But it can be done – bit by bit – so if you put your hand down the back of a sofa and find a tenner, or you have a book whose PLR you could donate you could be part of the story of Kinabatangan’s forests. Like my mum always told me ‘little drops of water, little grains of sand, make the mighty ocean, and the promised land.”




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