Saturday, 11 November 2017

Borneo - an Introduction

Earlier this year, I was approached by Quest Nature Tours to see if I had any interest in leading a tour to Borneo and Bali for 12 days in October of 2017. Borneo had always been on my short list of must-visit destinations and so I jumped at the opportunity. It would be a different kind of tour for me as well. While past tours I've led for Quest have been traditional nature tours, this trip would be with an alumni group from Dartmouth College in Hanover, NH. The college has a travel alumni organization that helps to organize trips for their members throughout the world, often accompanied by one of their professors who is an expert in their field. This trip would consist of eight days in Borneo and three days in Bali, with the Borneo portion focused on wildlife and ecology, while the Bali segment would have more of a focus on the culture and religions of the area. The group would be accompanied by Dr. Nate Dominy, a world renowned anthropologist and evolutionary ecologist at Dartmouth College who specializes in primate behaviour, morphology and ecology. I would act as the Quest representative, and we would also have local guides with us throughout the duration of the trip. With only four travelers signed up it would be a nice cozy group!

Having never been to Asia before, I made the prudent decision to fly in about a week and a half ahead of the tour. This would give me a chance to get my feet wet with the ecology and wildlife present in Borneo, and though I would still have a lot to learn as the trip commenced at least these extra days would give me a bit of a running start. Not only that, but it was an opportunity to explore on my own, in one of the most biodiverse corners of this world. A good decision, I think.

Before I get into the meat of the report, I wanted to briefly provide some background information on the island of Borneo. 


The island of Borneo is the third largest island in the world, only trailing Greenland and New Guinea. Located southeast of mainland Asia and northwest of Australia, Borneo is actually composed of three different countries.  The northern 1/3 of the island belongs to Malaysia and the southern 2/3 belongs to Indonesia, while the sovereign state of Brunei is located in the northern part of the island. The Malaysian side is composed of two states: Sarawak in the south and west, and Sabah in the northeast. Several other large islands are located near Borneo. To the east is Sulawesi, to the south is Java and to the west is Sumatra. 


While Borneo is currently manifested as an island, over geological time this is usually not the case. The waters between mainland southeast Asia, Java, Sumatra and Borneo are all quite shallow, and during periods of low water levels (such as during glacial maxima) these areas can be all connected by land, which is the case about 80% of the time.  Collectively, this part of the world is known as the Sundaic shelf and Borneo, Java, Sumatra and mainland Mayalsia/Thailand share many species as a result.   

Sir Alfred Russel Wallace was one of the first naturalists to devote a lot of his time to understanding the biogreography of the Sundaic shelf and the Indonesian archipelago; in fact he is often referred to as the father of biogeography. Sir Wallace is perhaps most famous for conceiving of the idea of the theory of evolution and natural selection based off of his findings and discoveries as he traveled throughout the area. He came upon the idea independently of Charles Darwin, prompting Charles Darwin to rush to publish his thoughts. One of Sir Wallace's other important findings was the discovery of Wallace's Line; that is, a deep sea trench that essentially splits the Indonesian archipelago in half, running north-south and passing to the east of Borneo. Wallace found it interesting how the islands of Bali and Lombok, despite only being separated by 35 km, had vastly different flora and fauna. In his book "The Malay Archipelago" he states "In Bali we have barbets, fruit thrushes and woodpeckers; on passing over to Lombok we see these no more, but on Lombok we have an abundance of cockatoos, honeysuckers and brush-turkeys which we do not see in Bali or further west". Wallace observed similar differences between the fauna of Borneo and Sulawesi, and elsewhere in the archipelago. We now know that deep-sea trenches form Wallace's Line. Even during times of glacial maxima when sea levels are at the lowest, the depth of these trenches prevent land bridges from joining the islands on either side of the line. As a result, the flora and fauna west of the line are Asian in origin, while to the east of the line the flora and fauna are decidedly Australasian in origin. Many species groups will not cross over open water, causing the line to act as a barrier preventing gene flow.

One tenet of island biogeography is that in general, biological diversity is proportional to the size of the island. Being one of the largest islands in the region Borneo is quite diverse, even rivaling the mainland (Thailand, Malaysia) in species diversity. While formerly Borneo was blanketed with tropical forest, deforestation within the last 60 years has affected most of the island. The Indonesian portion of the island has been the most heavily affected and forests are continually being turned into oil palm plantations each and every day. While only about 30% of the original forest cover remains in Borneo, many organizations have been hard at work in recent years advocating for the protection of the remaining forests. The Malaysian government has stepped up and now some areas in the Malaysian side of the island receive protection. Ecotourism has exploded in recent years as world class eco-lodges have began popping up over the northern part of the island (Sabah province). Hopefully this will lead to more interest in Borneo and more protection for the areas that has not yet been exploited by deforestation.


The above map shows each of the locations that I visited, numbered by the order that I visited them. I flew into Kota Kinabalu in the northwest, rented a car at the airport and explored the area for nine days. I then returned the car and flew east to Sandakan to meet my group. We explored the eastern side of the island and flew out of Tawau, arriving later that day in Bali. Red lines note travel by car/bus, green shows a flight, and blue represents a boat. A brief synopsis on each location that I visited:

1. Gunung (Mount) Kinabalu.
This is one of the most famous names in southeast Asia for birders as southeast Asia's highest peak also is the easiest location to see many of the endemic species found in Borneo. Mountains lack species diversity but they are often hotspots of endemism, and Mount Kinabalu is no different. Within the national park exists an excellent trail system that provides access to pristine forests from about 1400 m to 1800 m. The summit trail allows one to explore the elevations of 1800 m to the summit at 4,095 m; unfortunately day passes are no longer available and the only way to visit the high elevations along the summit trail is to sign up for a two day trip with a guide, to reach the summit by sunrise on day 2. This needs to be booked well in advance and is not cheap; needless to say I missed the few endemics that are only seen along the summit trail! There are a wide variety of accommodations either in the national park or in the nearby town of Kundasang. I spent the better part of three full days within this part of the national park.

2. Poring Hot Springs / Langanan Waterfall
While also located within Mount Kinabalu National Park, the Poring Hot Springs are located at the low elevation of 500 m. A trail leading to the Langanan Waterfall starts at the hot springs and finishes at an elevation around 1200 m, providing access to lower elevation forest than what one can explore near the main entrance to Mount Kinabalu National Park. I spend one full day walking to the waterfall and back, and since it is only located 45 mins from the entrance to Mount Kinabalu National Park it is easy to do in a day trip.

3. Crocker Range: Gunung (Mount) Alab 
The Crocker Range starts north of Mount Kinabalu and continues to the southwest, effectively separating the east and west coasts of Sabah province in north Borneo. Near the Gunung Alab substation and Rafflesia Information Center is access to high quality submontane forest where several of the tough mountain endemic birds can be found more reliably than at Mount Kinabalu. The only accommodations are in the very basic Gunung Alab "Resort" (quotation marks added by me).

Crocker Range - Sabah Province, Malaysia

4. Tanjung (Point) Aru
This beach is located within the city of Kota Kinabalu. I made a brief stop here during the heat of the afternoon to look for the introduced Blue-naped Parrots, a scarce Philippine species that has established itself at this park. Unfortunately I dipped on the parrots, but the park does provide a great introduction to the common coastal species.

5. Klias Peatswamp Reserve
Peatswamp forest is one of the rarer forest types in Sabah Province, though it is much more common in the Indonesian side of Borneo. A field station located within the Klias reserve has constructed an extensive boardwalk which provides access to this unusual forest type. Some of the main target species for visiting birders are the scarce Hook-billed Bulbul, Gray-breasted Babbler, Scarlet-breasted Flowerpecker, Brown-backed Flowerpecker and Red-crowned Barbet. I stayed at the River Hotel in nearby Beaufort, which was excellent, and I birded the Klias reserve for one morning.

6. Sepilok Rainforest Discovery Center
Located on the edge of lowland rainforest, the Sepilok RDC has an extensive trail system and excellent canopy walkway. This is one of the better locations to encounter the highly sought after Bornean Bristlehead, while most Bornean lowland species can also be found here. Within the village of Sepilok is also the Orangutan Rehabilitation Center and Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Center.

Black-and-red Broadbill - Sepilok RDC

7. Kinabatangan River: Sukau
The Kinabatangan River is the second largest river in Sabah, flowing from the highlands to the coast near the city of Sandakan. Most of the forest surrounding the lower reaches of the river is protected, and a number of eco-lodges are located in several clusters along the river. All excursions are done by boat here, cruising the main river and some of the tributaries in search of Proboscis Monkeys, Orangutans, Bornean Pygmy Elephants, Reticulated Pythons, Saltwater Crocodiles and a wide variety of birds and other wildlife. We stayed at the Borneo Nature Lodge, near Sukau.

8. Gomantong Caves
This is one of the largest limestone caves in Sabah Province providing habitat for millions of bats and swiftlets, including the famous White-nest, Black-nest and Mossy-nest Swiftlets. Surrounding the caves is high quality lowland rainforest, and wild Orangutans can sometimes be seen here. We only made a brief stop here to break up the drive to the Danum Valley.

9. Danum Valley 
The crown jewel of Sabah province, the Danum Valley is a 438 sq. km tract of undisturbed lowland forest, representing some of the best quality primary forest in southeast Asia. Almost every bird species known from the lowlands of Sabah has been observed here at some point. We stayed at the decadent Borneo Rainforest Lodge for three nights and explored the surrounding forests on foot. A seriously impressive canopy walkway and an excellent trail system provides access to the forest, while the guides here are some of the best in Borneo. Spending time here among the colossal trees and surrounded by Red Leaf Monkeys, Orangutans, civets, snakes and more was easily the highlight of the trip for me.

Ok, that is enough rambling for now. The next post will cover my first few days in Borneo!

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