The Drenched, Burgeoning Rainforest Of Borneo

First published in Sanctuary Asia, Vol. 43 No. 12, December 2023

By Ram Gopalakrishnan

Look ahead,” exclaimed our guide Sabinus Sadah, as a pheasant strolled across the road, with the sun, for all practical purposes, setting his back on fire: it was the male Bornean Crested Fireback Lophura ignita. Before I could push the ‘off’ button on the video recording, a loud snap of bushes announced a rare ground visit by Lom, one of the resident male orangutans, barely 10 m. away in the undergrowth: he had come down to feast on ginger roots. A few moments later, loud grunts and shaking foliage gave away the location of a pair of mating Asian forest tortoises!

Morning fog over the Danum Valley in Borneo. The author’s destination was the iconic Borneo Rainforest Lodge (BRL), built in 1994 on a bend in the Danum river. Photo: Public Domain/Chrsitopher Michel.

The Way To Wild Wonderland

Borneo: the name conjures up an exotic, mystical, lush, primaeval tropical rainforest with rare primates and scarcely-believable bird species. Our destination was the Danum Valley Conservation Area, in the eastern part of the state of Sabah, Malaysia. We had flown from Kuala Lumpur to Kota Kinabalu, and from there into the tiny airport in Lahad Datu on the northeast of the island, from where a three-hour drive took us to the iconic Borneo Rainforest Lodge (BRL), built in 1994 on a bend in the Danum river. The Danum Valley lowland forest is one of the oldest and most diverse primary (never logged) dipterocarp rainforest in Asia, and is home to some 380 bird species and iconic mammals such as the orangutan.

My wife Meenakshi and I got a chance to visit BRL in February 2023, at the tail end of the rainy season, rather than the popular months between June and September. We were taking a gamble on the trip getting entirely rained out with the leech count exceeding the bird count! “Let’s just enjoy the rainforest experience, and let any birding be a bonus,” we decided. But to our delight, fortune favoured the brave.

Treasures Of Borneo

On the drive to BRL, a mother and baby orangutan at the top of the canopy boded well for the days ahead. The lodge offers a splendid panoramic view of the river from the dining area: a red leaf monkey Presbytis rubicunda, which is endemic to Malaysian and Indonesian Borneo, clambered up the canopy on the other side and a Blue-throated Bee-eater kept us distracted as we lunched. A Lesser Fish-Eagle swooped from its perch to scoop up fish from the river. An introductory slide show was followed by a stroll on the thoughtfully-constructed boardwalk within the thick rainforest; it allowed us to experience the joy of appreciating many endemic tree species without getting our shoes muddy. Flowerpeckers (Yellow-breasted, Crimson-breasted and Yellow-rumped) and Spiderhunters (Little and Bornean) kept up constant background music on the flowers and bushes outside our verandah.

A night drive into the rainforest on a soundless electric buggy was truly magical. The heavy rains had brought out an army of bullfrogs and they struck up a raucous duet with the cicadas. The strong torches picked up the eye reflection of a variety of nocturnal residents, both awake and asleep. An island palm civet Paradoxurus philippinensis clambered up a branch, while a red giant flying squirrel Petaurista petaurista looked most sluggish until it took a breathtaking leap of almost 30 m. by spreading out its patagium (skin between its limbs)! A Yellow-bellied Prinia and a rare Black-crowned Pitta slept peacefully despite the bright torches on them.

A Blue-banded Pitta Erythropitta arquata in the thicket. The bird’s mournful whistle was the background score to the forest’s sights and sounds. Photo: Public Domain/J.J. Harrison.

The highlight of Danum Valley has to be the canopy walk in the morning. A 360 m.-long wood and metal structure with a maximum elevation of 27 m. above the ground is strung between several large compassia trees, whose smooth bark keeps honey lovers such as bears away from the numerous honey bee hives on them. We watched a Raffles’s Malkoha construct its nest at eye level, while a Stork-billed Kingfisher zipped across the river below us. Whoever named the Black-and-yellow Broadbill forgot to include the stunning mauve on its belly. A Blyths’ Paradise Flycatcher unfurled its long white streamer, not from above us, but below!

Just as we finished the canopy walk, a heavy tropical downpour sent us scurrying back to the lodge to dry off and gloomily watch the mesmerising downpour from our room. When the rain slowed to a drizzle and finally stopped in the afternoon, we stepped out again. A Rufous-backed Dwarf-kingfisher zoomed across our path and then posed as we gleefully photographed it. A rare burst of sunlight illuminated the throat of the Red-bearded Bee-eater like a beacon. Two Black-crowned Pittas called and called and were finally triumphantly located in the undergrowth. A Rufous Piculet clung to a tiny branch. Innumerable butterflies mud-puddled on the road while the long, drawn-out mournful whistle of the Blue-banded Pitta was the background score – like so many other birds, easy to hear but very difficult to see. A Green Broadbill brought a smile to our faces just as daylight faded.

A night walk in the rainforest was a unique experience, though finding our footing on the dark, wet, slushy track was quite stressful. A lesser mouse-deer Tragulus kanchil paused to glare at these aliens shining a bright light at it. A Short-tailed Babbler slept right in the open, while a Buff-necked Woodpecker preferred a tree hollow. Two tarantulas (Singapore blue and Malaysian earth tiger) were thankfully spotted not too closely, only through binoculars!

A Blue-throated Bee-eater Merops viridis kept the author entertained as he lunched at the BRL. Photo: Dr. Ram Gopalakrishnan.

Stars Of The Forest

Heavy downpours overnight and at daybreak delayed the start of our ‘main course’ the next day, a four kilometre trek along a narrow trail to the Segama river. Our target was the Great Argus, a huge ground-dwelling peacock-like bird, which had created a small clearing for its courtship display in the rainforest. Huge dipterocarp trees with wall-like buttresses lined the narrow track, and dense vegetation surrounded us on both sides. If showers don’t drench you, the 100 per cent humidity will. Overnight rain had converted the trail into a muddy quagmire. Two ‘predators’ awaited us – the sneaky brown leech on the forest floor, and the big and actively-moving tiger leech on the bushes above one metre with its relatively painful bites; self-inspection followed by brushing them off every few minutes was needed. Calls of the Rufous-fronted Babbler, the White-crowned Hornbill and Scaly-crowned Babbler rang out overhead. No sunlight reaches the forest floor where mushrooms abounded, and the only breaks were the three narrow footbridges we had to negotiate. No, we didn’t see the remarkable pheasant – the Great Argus, but this unique habitat was a once-in-a-lifetime experience!

A final afternoon walk was our last chance to see the orangutan well, and Lom gave us some memorable close-up shots. Highly intelligent and territorial, a little more than 100,000 individuals remain in Borneo as they are highly dependent on an undisturbed rainforest habitat. However, the depredation of the rainforest has been well documented in the last few decades. Widespread conversion of forest to plantations, mainly for palm oil and agriculture, has steadily reduced the rainforest to a small fraction of what it was half a century ago. Iconic species such as the orangutan and the Helmeted Hornbill have become endangered, and may well become extinct in the next few decades. Some encouraging initiatives have arisen though – logging has stopped since 1994 and active reforestation of previously logged forests is being adopted.

As our return flight banked over Borneo’s eastern coast, the blue sea was in striking contrast to the unbroken stretch of dark green that extended inland upriver all the way up the Danum Valley. I said a silent prayer of thanks for the privilege of an experience in undisturbed tropical rainforests, aware that few in our generation and perhaps even fewer in future generations would be as fortunate. I also wondered whether the cookie on my tray table innocently proclaiming ‘palm oil’ as one of its many ingredients might just have contributed to one fewer tree in a pristine rainforest somewhere on the planet: food for thought!

Danum Valley and its iconic orangutans beckon!

Dr. Ram Gopalakrishnan A Chennai-based physician who loves to go birding in remote locations, and by writing about them, he hopes to spur interest in their conservation for future generations.


join the conversation