Monday, January 7, 2013

Borneo Part II: Bako National Park

There are places in Borneo where the visitor is rewarded for trekking for long hours through the jungle, using his or her skills and know-how and enduring discomfort in the pursuit of animal sightings. Then there are places, like Bako National Park, where the wildlife just makes it all too easy.

Arriving at Bako felt like an adventure, being deposited on the beach after a scenic small boat ride. Shoes in hand, we walked up the sand to the dining hall where we met some fellow Aussie ‘herpers’ who had been there for a couple of days already and who proceeded to take us on a little tour of the nearby area.

Colugo (Flying Lemur)

This is how, just a few minutes after landing, we saw our first Colugo.
This creature is also known as a Flying Lemur – a misnomer as the animal neither flies (it glides), nor is it a lemur (it actually belongs in a distinct order containing only two species, the Dermoptera). Clinging to a treetrunk, the creature looked like a rather unlikely animal. Something like an earless, tail-less possum, with a bit of flying-fox thrown in there, crossed with a mouldy dishtowel, yet somehow rather handsome at that. The Colugo is another of the many creatures of Borneo that had at some point in their evolutionary history decided that the effort it took to climb tall trees and the heights attained justified not falling, or at least turning a fall from something possibly lethal into a controlled glide.

Colugo (Flying Lemur) Mum and baby

We discovered that the Colugo had a passenger when a small dusky orange head with white spots poked out from beneath the skin flap that stretches between fore and hind limbs to the body (the pterygium). You might think a gliding animal would have a bit of trouble carrying a youngster around on its aerial jaunts – our Aussie gliding possums are happily provided with pouches to keep them in. As it turns out, the mother Colugo creates a sort of pouch by folding forward her tail and its associated flaps of skin.

Juvenile Wagler's Pit Viper (Tropidolaemus wagleri)

Just a stone’s throw away we were shown a Wagler’s pit-viper (Tropidolaemus wagleri). Somewhat disconcertingly, these venomous, and let’s face it, mean-looking snakes hang around on vegetation, often beside tracks, motionless and in an ambush posture, looking very ready to strike. However, we found them to be remarkably relaxed in response to the antics of photographers; not that we were keen to provoke them. Adults are a mottled aquamarine colour while juveniles are bright green. They’re creatures of habit, and may be spotted in the exact same position day after day.

Hearing a crash, we looked up to see a large monkey had landed on the roof of one of the cabins, having jumped from the trees above. Paying us no attention, it leapt to the ground and sidled off. It was our first encounter with a Proboscis Monkey - so named for the comically long nose sported by the male of the species.

Loitering Long-tailed Macaques

The other monkey species that was more commonly seen around the accommodation was the Long-tailed Macaque. Nicknamed ‘cheeky monkeys’ by the staff at Bako, these animals cause a lot of trouble. We were told that animals were fed there in the past, and the clever monkeys had learned to steal, raid and intimidate humans. On the day we arrived, the macaques were strangely absent, but afterwards they were generally somewhere around, hanging out like delinquents on the boardwalks, playing in the mangroves, or staking out the dining hall (one favourite trick here was to swing down onto the tables on the balcony to grab someone’s food). It’s quite a disturbing experience to find a monkey that’s less than two feet tall confidently face up to intimidate you, at which point you notice the wild gleam in its eye and its rather impressive teeth.

Bearded Pig patriarch

Other denizens of the area that required no effort to find included a family of Bearded Pigs. These native pigs sport an impressive bushy moustache and beard and can generally be seen somewhere rooting around in the vegetation or near the huts. On one occasion, George insisted upon taking photos of the largest male pig at close quarters, and had to be shooed away by staff when the pig began to take exception.

Silvered Langurs

Wherever we went in Borneo, we were befriended by the local guides, who were happy to meet people with our enthusiasm and knowledge. We would swap hints with them about where we’d seen things along the walking trails, and show them photos of creatures we’d seen elsewhere. One of the guides at Bako gave us a heads-up about some more monkey sightings so we set off to find them. They turned out to be Silvered Langurs, sitting in a tree in a way that could only possibly be described as languid. We were given a lesson in just how invisible these animals can be when hidden quietly amongst foliage – it was only after 15 minutes of photographing the first pair we saw that we noticed another group of ten or so just a few metres away.


We made one of our luckier discoveries of the expedition after a little early-evening frogging while the group was heading back along the top of the plateau. This was a distinctive area covered with vegetation that was bizarrely reminiscent of Sydney sandstone heath (though the ant plants and Nepenthes shattered the illusion). Our friends were walking a little way in front of us and heard something trundling through the bush just off the side of the track. In Australia it would be an Echidna – in Borneo it proved to be a Pangolin! These armoured mammals are seldom seen and quite rare as a result of hunting for the meat and the collection of the armour plates for traditional medicine. When they are seen, we discovered they have two defences – the first is to roll into a ball and wait, and the second is to climb a tree with surprising agility.

Vine Snake

George also demonstrated, not for the last time, his dedication to the viewing of an exciting animal. After we spotted a very slim snake perched, sleeping, very high above us on some very thin branches, George climbed half-way up before shaking the tree with such vigour that the snake was, ahem, forced to descend with rapidity into our waiting hands. It was a Vine Snake (Ahaetulla prasina), a distinctive South-East Asian species, thin as a reed and bright green: very elegant.

Rufous-backed Kingfisher

We would find a couple of other reptile species at Bako - a Red-Bellied Keelback (Rhabdophis conspicillatus) perched on a footbridge peering into a small stream, perhaps trying to catch a fish (nearby, a brilliant Rufous-Backed Kingfisher seemed to have the same idea). We also came across a Striped Bronzeback (Dendrelaphis caudolineatus) , and frequently spotted Water Monitors (Varanus salvator) patrolling the coastal areas.

Our little trip to Bako had been fruitful. Leaving the beach shrinking behind us as our boat puttered back in the direction we’d come, we were buzzing with the excitement of what we’d seen, yet still hopeful to see much more as we continued our adventure. 

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