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LIFE in the LAHG Research Station in the Sabangau Forest

I grew up very near the zoo with the second most number of species in the UK at the time, and spent a lot of my childhood there because I was able to sneak in for free through the woods at the back, and when I was a teenager I worked in the zoo restaurant until the general manager caught me red-handed throwing a sausage roll at one of my school friends who was also working there. I wasn’t so aware of the animal welfare issues back then when many of the old cages were unacceptable by today’s standards, but I loved being there and it really helped to nurture my fascination with the animal kingdom. Living in the LAHG camp is something like living in a zoo but without any bars, cages or barriers to prevent the wildlife coming and going from the surrounding forest. I relished the opportunity to search for small creatures in the lush wild garden between the buildings, but there was something much bigger awaiting my attention in the swamp beside the kitchen and dining area where dinosaurs from the forest came to dine as well. This was not just a fantasy childhood zoo but also reminiscent of the garden that I grew up in, and I mean “in” because I was always immersed in it.

At the time when I was regularly frequenting Paignton Zoo I lived in a big house with my 6 brothers and sisters with a garden that was like a nature reserve to a budding young naturalist like me. On the bushes I could find at least five different kinds of caterpillars and at least ten different species of birds were nesting in the trees. I couldn’t resist lifting up rocks and wood to see what was hiding beneath, and I could always be sure of finding at least one slow-worm or toad. There were frogs and newts in the pond that I had introduced, and my eldest brother even found a record-size grass snake slithering across the lawn, which ended up at the zoo. At night-time you could hear hedgehogs snorting as they went about their business of controlling the population of slugs and snails. But as anybody from my generation knows only painfully too well those days of the natural abundance of British wildlife, even in an urban setting, are long-since gone, and I’m both grateful to have experienced it and sad for the children of today who have been denied that kind of natural childhood.

Stepping out into the garden of the LAHG camp every day was like stepping back into my childhood with my eyes peeled like a hungry hawk for any motion or anything unusual. Colourful butterflies were instantly on view and flitting around tantalisingly with their catch-me-if-you-can aerial dancing, and I rarely do! It seems as if the larger and more spectacular the butterfly the harder they are to photograph. Quite often you have to just feed off scraps as the butterflies are feeding on your laundry or you tempt them with an irresistible patch of fresh urine, but there were more than enough fragrant blooms in the garden to entice the butterflies to give me a fair chance. In addition to butterflies flitting from flower to flower above it’s an ideal habitat for many species of damselflies and dragonflies just above the water. The gathering of invertebrates includes crickets and spiders, and one of my best finds was a gorgeous green and pink praying mantis, which actually came to introduce itself to me when I was working in the office. I carefully transferred it to a fern outside, which was the most complementary to its elegant form for photos. I have always loved praying mantises but like butterflies they can be very elusive for photography. One of their most intriguing characteristics is their uniquely flexible neck, which enables them to follow your movement with their over-sized motion-detector eyes, so there’s not much chance of sneaking up on a praying mantis! When a praying mantis fixes its hypnotic gaze on you, for a moment you can’t help but feel like its prey and pray that you aren’t. I stumbled across this dandy on two more occasions so it was evidently just as satisfied with the life on offer in the camp as I was. I only managed to find one stick insect in the camp and unfortunately it was eaten by a spider not long afterwards because it was visible in the daytime, which is unusual and not recommended for a stick insect as it transpired. Probably the commonest insect that you bump into in the camp is one that’s more likely to bump into you, and that’s the big clumsy rhinoceros beetles that come careering towards you like out of control helicopters, and sooner or later either end up in the water or struggling on their backs after yet another collision. It doesn’t matter how many times you rescue them they still end up in the wrong place. They seem to be the most hapless victims of the lure of lights with the absence of any kind of innate object avoidance system like a drone.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One of the commonest creatures around camp are the metallic sunbathing skinks. They are like the equivalent of cats and dogs just hanging out watching the world above them pass by. They are most active around the dishwashing area at the back of the kitchen where they manage to grab some scraps from the dirty plates or even get the occasional handout from Lis, the cook. One of my favourite occupations when I was a young boy was stalking and catching lizards, which required a lot of speed and agility; here it was more likely that I would accidentally step on one. But the skinks were not the apex scavengers around the kitchen, and I’m not referring to myself even if my eating habits have often earned that ranking. Virtually every day at least one large monitor lizard slinks into the kitchen swamp to see what’s on the menu. It was like another childhood fantasy to find myself dining in the company of large monitor lizards, but I didn’t have any intention of stalking one and leaping on it with handkerchief in hand to smother it. These giant reptiles quite clearly rule the swamp with their heads held up haughtily and their long tongues flickering menacingly like whips. I don’t normally encourage feeding wild animals but they were already regular customers so I couldn’t resist tossing them some scraps. But like any animal that has become accustomed to having access to a varied menu unlike anything available beyond the human café they have become somewhat fussy eaters and turned their noses up at some of my offerings.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

With monitor lizards visiting the kitchen and dining area regularly I was guaranteed that there would never be a dull day in camp. But I had to wait a while for the big spectacle – the big showdown! Sometimes I saw more than one monitor lizard but they appeared to be keeping a safe distance from each other, and the smaller ones made a quick exist as soon as a big bully arrived. One day I was photographing one at very close quarters from the deck at the back of the kitchen. It was literally right at my feet and seemingly not bothered by having a paparazzo following its every move. Then out of the corner of my eye I noticed another big one emerging from the shadows beneath the kitchen and they were slowly heading towards each other, and probably not for a handshake or a hug! Then in a flash they flew at each other like a couple of sumo wrestlers and there was a hug, but with claws dug in and blood flowing. They toppled over into the water still locked in a deadly embrace and thrashed around with tails whipping like scorpions. The agitated water was flying around like bullets from these dinosaurs enacting a wrestling match from a 1950s Godzilla movie. It was indeed fortuitous that I had been in exactly the right place at the right time, and had a ringside seat for this big no-holds-barred bout. It was all over very quickly and the victor was able to reclaim his lunch voucher and get on with the important business of being a scavenger.

 

 

 

 

 

 

There were other reptilian visitors to the camp including a fresh brood of juvenile snakes that appeared from time to time. My best snake highlight from the camp was sleeping with one just as I had been dining with the monitors. One day I woke up from an afternoon siesta on my bed and when I pulled back the mosquito net I was fully awakened by the sight of a beautiful big green snake curled up on the floor next to my bed. I wasn’t quite sure what kind of snake it was, but I knew that it was a good friend because it would undoubtedly be hunting for the wretched rats that plagued me at night. I later identified it as a non-venomous grey-tailed racer (Gonyosoma oxycephalum) and it was confirmed as previously being seen eating a rat so it was welcome in my bedroom anytime, but perhaps not in bed with me. As I wasn’t sure what species it was and if it was venomous I had to exercise some degree of caution, which is never easy for me. It disappeared under the floorboards and reappeared in the office next door where I had just enough time to get a couple of decent photos.

 

 

 

 

 

 

If the rats are the mammalian masters of the camp at night when everybody else is trying to sleep then the squirrels are undoubtedly the mischievous distracters in the daytime. They have obviously become very habituated to people and on one occasion I looked up when I was talking to someone and there was one crouched right behind them on a railing as if it had been eavesdropping on our conversation. They are quite often to be found in the dining room, which they treat as a circus for doing flying circuits around the walls and ceiling; or else if I was working in the office one would suddenly appear in the window with a few twitches inviting me to chase it. I only saw two large-eared bats roosting in the camp during the daytime but there are signs in other parts of the camp that there are more that treat the camp as a very secure home. The nocturnal shift of reptiles is mainly to be found in the dining room where territorial disputes and confrontations between the geckoes is happening above your head as you eat. If a large dragonfly or moth is attracted to the lights then you can observe the comical sizing up, bluffing and bravado of competing geckoes. But there was one visiting dragonfly that would have completely befuddled their attention. I was very excited to be informed that there was an extremely large dragonfly resting on a wall. It was indeed the biggest one that I recall seeing and to confirm that I later identified it as probably being a Tetracanthagyna plagiata, the heaviest odonate in the world with only a South American species of damselfly being larger. I was also fortunate enough to find an atlas moth near the camp at night but I will include that in a subsequent post about night walks on the boardwalks leading from the camp.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As with everywhere in the forest there are birds to be heard but not so often seen because of the vegetation. The commonest bird I heard and usually saw around the kitchen swamp was a greater coucal or crow pheasant, a large non-parasitic member of the cuckoo order of birds, the Cuculiformes, a widespread resident in the Indian Subcontinent and Southeast Asia, and one that I sometimes see around my home in Palawan. Their distinctive main call is a booming low coop-coop-coop. I was able to capture some photos of one towards the end of my stay. You can sometimes see hornbills and if you’re lucky, kingfishers. There were also smaller colourful birds visiting to feed on a fruiting bush.

 

 

 

 

 

The forest insinuates itself into the camp with many creatures of the day and night but there is a singing star, which you can rarely see but can sometimes hear; a voice you can’t resist like a siren song, which compelled me to get out of bed at 5 am in the morning to listen to and record. The Bornean white-bearded gibbon (Hylobates albibarbis) represents one of the Borneo Nature Foundation’s flagship primate research projects in the Sabangau Forest (more of that in future posts) and for myself it became the most magnetic of the primates. But to be fair I already have a love for gibbons from my childhood days at Paignton Zoo where there has always been a family of lar gibbons living on an island in the zoo lake with a sign compelling you to “Look up in the trees at the gibbons!” And look and marvel I always did at their incredible graceful agility, but they remained with me wherever I was in my town because I could always hear their whooping call, and loved to imitate it as I also did the other perennial call from the zoo of the peacocks. But the call of the Bornean white-bearded gibbon seems to be more melodic and melancholic as if they’re calling out for a long-lost love. Some of my most stirring memories from the camp were being the only one up and standing alone in the dark amphitheatre of the camp surrounded by an audience of silhouetted trees with the silver moon and a haloed flotilla of clouds up in the balcony while a gibbon sang its heart and soul out. Sometimes there was a duet in stereo with gibbons in separate trees, and in the background a call to prayer from a mosque in Palangka Raya. If there was ever a plaintive cry from the forest to capture the hearts and mind of humanity to save the forest then this is surely one; a call to prayer for the sanctity of all life on earth, just as in Madagascar I was moved by the mournful call of the Indri.

 

 

 

http://www.borneonaturefoundation.org/en/

 

One thought on “LIFE in the LAHG Research Station in the Sabangau Forest

  1. Will Cabanillas says:

    Thanks so much for sharing a very good story brother, with great photographs of wildlife!

    Always a big fan! and please keep sharing your life and adventure experience. just be safe always ok.

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