“The oldest rainforest in the world” and other tall tales

My PhD fieldwork in Borneo has come full circle, though not through design. My first few months included Christmas in Singapore and New Year’s at the top of a granite slab they call Kinabalu. Since then, I’ve managed to get home for Christmas and celebrate with friends and family. On the final trip of my PhD, I find myself waylaid in the jungle for Christmas/NY once again: this time in the one-of-a-kind Danum Valley, a veritable mecca for tropical ecologists and one of the most important study sites in this respect in Southeast Asia.

Danum’s a place I’ve heard a great deal about over the last few years. Indeed, to a first approximation, if you’re an ecologist in Borneo, you work in Danum. Most of these scientists seem to put Danum on a special pedestal, and suggest it has no rainforest equal on the island. I’ve long thought they might just be right. After all, amongst the tales told to me, it’s the place where you might meet a sun bear, otherwise incredibly elusive, peering into your fridge when you come down for your cornflakes (Eleanor Slade, a reliable source, told me that one), or you might come across two, yes TWO, clouded leopards feasting on a mousedeer right in front of your eyes (thanks Jen Sheridan for taunting me with that one). It is also one of the last remaining patches of truly undisturbed, lowland (with significant areas < 300m elevation) rainforest in Southeast Asia, and has most likely been subject to very low levels of human activity throughout its long history stretching back into the Quarternary period and perhaps beyond. But having never been there and, perhaps more importantly, having a special attachment to the Maliau Basin, I’ve usually argued that the improbable wildlife sightings and the record-breaking species lists are just an artefact of the vast numbers of people that have visited or studied the place.

So far, though, it seems to be very much living up to the hype. I’ve seen scores of bird species I’ve never seen before (racket-tailed drongo, the Siberian blue robin, two new species of Malkoha, trogon and pitta, and many more), as well as my best ever sightings of maroon langur and the busy little short-tailed mongoose. Night surveys have yielded an array of frogs, giant tarantulas and centipedes, more sightings of the rare Ranee mouse than I’ve come across before, as well as civets (Malay, common palm and banded) and flying foxes. Whilst here, we’ll be doing night surveys every night that the rain holds off, so stay tuned for more…

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