The Lost World

One of the most exciting parts of my PhD, for me, is the chance to work in some truly wild places, little explored by people. For some reason Wilderness just does it for me. I think it’s because such places are some of our most tangible connections to the past. And I don’t mean back to Ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia or even the Mesolithic. I mean back tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of years. You can wander a towering dipterocarp forest in Borneo and feel that you’re in the depths of something truly primeval.

You might ask, in turn, why that excites me. I don’t have a clear answer to that. Perhaps it’s just all a part of the spectrum of human variation: some people want to explore entirely new places, some want to make a good go of it where they find themselves. All I know is that, back in the day, I would have been the one asking “what’s over that hill?” or “what’s beyond that river?”, “who’s up for striking out and taking a risk?” The natural tendency for us humans to explore (few other species do it so enthusiastically) perhaps explains our rapid dispersal across every continent on the planet, following our first forays out of Africa just 60,000 years ago. We even have people living more-or-less permanently at the South Pole these days. Not to mention on the International Space Station.

So, this brings me to the Maliau Basin. It’s one such wilderness, just waiting to be explored. As an extreme tourist (the park isn’t officially open yet), you can go on a 6-day tour around a circuit of trails in the south of the park. But much of the remaining area is unexplored. Some brief visits to the north have been made by helicopter drop, but that’s it. National Geographic dubbed it Borneo’s Lost World. After all, it was only “discovered” by the outside world post-WWII (by a pilot who almost crashed full on into the Basin rim, so the story goes). More on all this later.

© Google Earth

© Google Earth

I had the privilege last year of visiting the place, and it is truly spectacular. I can’t wait to get back there. I’ll keep you posted on developments. Here are a few photos to get you started… 

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Leeches don’t suck

Far too much has been written on leeches. I don’t mean scientifically. I mean sensationalist scare-mongering. It’s all over the internet. Truth is, leeches really aren’t a big nuisance. I’d take them any day over a tsetse fly (infuriatingly persistent) or a horse-fly (painfully rasps open your skin) or a swarm of sweat bees burrowing into your every orifice. Welcome to Africa, on all accounts.

Best thing of all, leeches don’t spread any (known) diseases. If anyone can tell me why, let us all know. Here’s an animal that seems just a perfect vector – it’s so good at finding (and latching onto) hosts. Is it something about the frequency of bites, or the number of different hosts a given leech bites? Or the mechanics of how it bites? Anyway, it’s a blessing, and means that leeches are certainly no reason to be apprehensive over visiting Borneo’s forests.

For those of you who are interested, here’s what (terrestrial) leeches looks like in Borneo, and what their bites look like afterwards:

Of course the worst aspect of leeches is their uncanny ability to seemingly teleport to any part of your body. And I mean any…

Posted in Field work, Rainforest Fauna | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments

New Year’s Expectations

Mount Kinabalu, the highest peak between the Himalayas and the mountains of New Guinea, is also supposed to be one of the most accessible ways to climb above 12,000 ft. No mountaineering required. All you need is an ability to climb up a few thousand stair steps! It’s also a popular mountain, drawing a couple of hundred tourists from around the world each day. Everyone, from kids to grandmas, has been up it.

So I had fairly low expectations. I anticipated a slow procession to the top, the guide pointing out a pitcher plant or two, and a queue at the summit for those all important Facebook profile pics (people, folks back home really don’t want to see smug photos of you standing by some placard or other). In fact, I was due to climb it across New Years, so the expected anticlimax was befitting!

Well, I was in for a surprise. It turned out to be one of the most rewarding and exciting climbs I’ve done.

For a start, I got a last-minute cancellation on the evening before the climb. I was therefore entirely unprepared, which always makes things more exciting. I had no cold weather clothing: I used some luminous gardening gloves to save my digits, and wore all my t-shirts. This was taking the layering principle to the extreme. When I arrived at HQ (“base camp”), I met people who had been staying there getting acclimatised to the altitude, and going for early morning runs. Hmmmm. How difficult was this mountain? I was also late, as I’d taken a local minivan to the park, rather than being with a tour group. It was one of those buses that needs to fill up before it goes – it being New Year’s Eve, perhaps, it was a slow day. Three hours later, when I eventually got to Kinabalu park HQ, they seemed to have no record of me on their system, apparently because I was a last-minute cancellation. They then explained to me that they had no guides for me and I’d have to climb another day! With the day’s climbing window (up to 11am) fast closing, I eventually persuaded them to let me set off alone and they could assign me a guide at the 1st day’s stopover, at the Laban Rata Hut (~3300m). Phew. I collected my “packed lunch” (hilariously provided in a huge box, and a boutique bag – both ditched) and set off with my rucksack in pursuit of the day’s climbers.   

The climb up to Laban Rata was initially easy-going and I caught up with the bulk of people, but the last 2 km were punishing. It was all the steps that had been nailed into the path. I tried to avoid them where I could, but my thighs needed pushing down on with my hands by the end and cramp set in. It also rained for most of the climb. (Tip number 1: bring an umbrella! This last minute purchase was far better than any rainjacket or poncho.) I eventually got to Laban Rata, having taken just over 3 hours to get up there. Maybe I needn’t have rushed!

I had been assigned the Gunting Lagadan Hut, which, helpfully, is up a massive hill from where you get food (back at Laban Rata). Most people from my hut didn’t bother going to breakfast in the morning because they couldn’t face hiking back up! It was also freezing cold and my bed was wet. No chance I’m having a cold water shower at 3300m. (Tip number 2: bring a waterbottle which can withstand boiling water. Hey presto, you have a hot water bottle. Awesome.) That evening, after debating the merits of oil palm with some Aussies (stangely, I found myself defending it as a development tool), we drunk a Dioralyte toast to the New Year. Despite it being New Year’s Eve, we were all in bed by 9pm. A mischievous tree shrew who had locked himself in the kitchen, and proceeded to rattle around the bin, woke me up a few times, but I otherwise slept soundly until my alarm rudely sounded at 1.30 am.

My newly-assigned guide had arranged to meet me down at Laban Rata at 2am, with the rest of his group. 2.30am: people leaving, still no sign. 3am: lots of people gone, still no sign. OK, screw it, I’m off. I’d heard that the 2nd day’s climb, up to the summit, is treacherous and slippery. Effectively you’re clinging on to ropes drilled into a huge granite slab which slopes up to Kinabalu’s highest peak (“Low’s Peak”). But with porridge in my stomach, I was feeling good this morning, if a little short of breath. Today I had rhythm, and rhythm is key. I ended up over-taking quite a lot of people (much to their chagrin; it had got competitive now we were near the top). Within about 20 minutes there was suddenly a big gap to the next group – I could see feint lights bobbing about in the dark up above me. The ropes started. It was steep now, with water gushing down the face of the rock in places. Steep enough that if you fell…well, you wouldn’t stop. When you grasped onto them, the ropes squeezed out freezing cold water like sponges.

After 20 mins or so, I reached a little man sat half-asleep in a box, with a candle burning beside him. This was the last checkpoint. I set off and looked for the lights; surely I was approaching them now. Wait, where are the lights? Maybe they’re obscured by some bit of cliff I can’t see in the dark. After 10 mins or so, I was suddenly aware that it was deathly quiet. Just the sound of my breathing, the rain spotting onto my jacket and NOTHING. It was completely dark all around me and I suddenly realised I was at the front. I was going first up this mountain!

At times I could see a snake of lights following below me, but mostly it was just me, the mountain and a white rope stretching off into the darkness. Fortunately for me, this was just how I wanted it! I felt like I was getting a rare communion with Gunung Kinabalu. Beyond the Facebook pictures and Lonely Planet descriptions. Sure, I’d have liked the company of a fellow climber, but I didn’t really want to talk. I just wanted to climb. And fully appreciate and awe at the mountain which supported me. I turned off my light and stopped, letting my eyes adjust and begin to make out the feint silhouettes of the huge crown of different peaks which sits atop Kinabalu. I had no idea which one was in store for me – the twisting path of the rope gave no clue.

It took just over an hour and a half and the rope finally disappeared below some big boulders. This was the final scramble to the highest point of the mountain. Upon reaching the top, I wasn’t suddenly rewarded with a view – it was still dark, after all – but it didn’t matter. I was elated to have received a rare insight into this most popular of mountains.

Of course, a cold hour and a half later, I had been joined by scores of people, and we were all treated to the spectacular first dawn of 2011. This time the toast was with Jameson’s!

Happy New Year! Hope it’s a good one for you…

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Team Tikus

In the week before Christmas, I assembled a crack team (see below) of chain-smoking, parang-wielding Research Assistants to help me cut and mark my trail system.

It went surprisingly well, if exhausting. My parang (curved machete) skills are improving and I’m learning every day about the forest and how best to work with it. Bound by the statistical necessities of a random sampling design (ahem), we’re forced to explore parts of the forest here that have probably rarely been walked. At one point, we came across a steep drop down towards a small waterfall. Clambering down the vertical hillside, using tree roots as make-shift hand-holds, was a bit of a Bear Grylls moment. Equally dumbass, no doubt. And we had an Indiana Jones moment, coming across a network of caves buried in a tangle of vegetation clinging to the side of a steep valley. Without a torch, I wasn’t up for taking on a pit of snakes. Another day.

Wildlife sightings are coming on, if still woefully inadequate. So far, from both the roads and forest, we’ve had Bornean gibbon, bearded pig, barking deer (or Bornean red muntjac), long-tailed macaque, pig-tailed macaque and yellow-throated marten (two of the latter were almost roadkill). Oh, and sun bear tracks! Worryingly, one of my research assistants said he was sure it was an orang-utan footprint. Perhaps an orang-utan in need of a pedicure.

Posted in Conservation, Field work, Rainforest Fauna, Scientific Research | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Twice-logged hill forest fun

So I spent my first weeks at my new forest home recceing and planning how best I am going to go about collecting my data. It always takes a while to get accustomed to the ways of a new forest, but this one, being especially degraded and impossibly steep, seems to be resisting my usual tactics. The key is usually a trio of patience, tolerance and understanding. In dense tropical forest, you have to have the patience to accept that walking 1 km will not take the usual 15 mins, and may take all afternoon; after all, you can’t rush anything in 100% humidity. You have to have the tolerance to withstand insect attacks, a shower of needle sharp thorns and punishing inclines. And you have to have understanding of two sorts. The first sort is plain old knowledge of the forest; sorting the good plants and animals from the decidedly bad, in order to make the day as uneventful, injury-wise, as possible. But the second type is the most important of all: understanding that the jungle is neutral.

I’ve witnessed many an exasperated jungle trekker, including myself. The mad frustration creeps up on you as you get more and more exhausted and more and more hot. You know the hot I mean: when you’re convinced that your organs may very well be cooking inside you. It’s at this point that you become aware that you seem to be the target of all the insect attacks; that every tree you grab on to is encrusted in spikes; that the vines seem to be grabbing at your wrists and ankles; that the tree roots seem especially greasy or the mud especially slippery. It’s at this point you take it personally. The jungle is out to get me! And the more maddened by it you become, the more the forest sends out its army of wasps, hairy caterpillars, biting ants and thorny vines to get you!

To break this cycle, you have to repeat the jungle is neutral. It neither notices nor cares if you are there, it just is. Any frustrations you are imposing upon it are purely your own. If you make it this far without returning home (and telling everyone what a boring and unsightly mess the rainforest was), then you’re in for a real treat. Which is of course why you were ever there in the first place! For the Atlantic forests of Brazil, Darwin described it thus

Delight itself, however, is a weak term to express the feelings of a naturalist who, for the first time, has wandered by himself in a Brazilian forest. The elegance of the grasses, the novelty of the parasitical plants, the beauty of the flowers, the glossy green of the foliage, but above all the general luxuriance of the vegetation, filled me with admiration…To a person fond of natural history, such a day as this brings with it a deeper pleasure than he can ever hope to experience again. (20th Feb, 1832)

Different forests yield their treasures in different ways and with different amounts of generosity. So it is that many rainforests are perfectly delightful places to walk around. Virgin rainforest in the Amazon, particularly, is as open as temperate woodland. The Gilbertiodendron dewevrei forests of the Congo Basin, if you happen to find one, are as open and breezy as a beech hangar in the Chilterns. Southeast Asian forests can also be wonderful places – the lowland forests of Danum Valley are beautiful and (relatively) easy to work in.

The problem is that much of the forest in this part of the world is heavily disturbed, most often by intensive logging. By a quirk of fate, Bornean forests, despite all their diversity, are dominated by a single family of trees, the dipterocarps (Dipterocarpaceae). This means that much of the standing timber has similar properties and is often marketable under a single name. The logging is consequently intense, and can be tantamount to local deforestation. The same cannot be said for the standing timber of the Amazon or Congo basins; each new species, more or less, has to be marketed anew. The logging is consequently of lower impact.

So I’m not with Darwin yet, but I’ll let you know! Maybe Darwin would have been similarly exasperated, had he ever tried to collect his orchids in a twice-logged Southeast Asian hill forest…

Posted in Conservation, Field work, Logging | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Orphaned at Christmas

Yep, that was me. Fellow researchers returning home to loved ones, camp winding down, friends and family variously dispersed around the world, I was left to my own devices this Christmas. Luckily, I received a generous invite from some new friends in Singapore and they made my Christmas a keeper.

To Jen the biscotti hottie and all-round host extraordinaire, James the ever-helpful comment maker, squeaky clean Nancy, Eeva the ice-skating Queen and Rach the underage drinker….THANK YOU for making it so much fun!

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Kuznets Curves and an Old Tree

There’s an old development theory that is supposed to predict what a country will do with its natural resources, depending on how rich it is. It’s based on the idea of the Environmental Kuznets Curve (EKC), after Simon Kuznets. Stick with me. Basically, the theory says that, during the early stages of a country’s increase in wealth, it increasingly degrades its environment at a faster and faster rate. We can crudely compare, say, the Republic of Congo (which is still desperately poor and retains its vast forest estate) and Ghana (which is wealthier than Congo-Brazzaville, but still poor, and which has traded in much of its forest capital over recent decades). At some point, however, a country should make a transition towards protecting and, later, even restoring its environment. Today, we can see this in some developed countries that have undergone rapid reforestation in recent times. For example, the UK has seen an increase in its forest cover since a low point after the First World War; in fact, the Woodland Trust now aims to actively double native forest cover over the coming decades. Here’s a nice graph of the supposed process:

Assuming it’s a valid concept, we know that an indicator of wealth, such as GDP, should indicate when a country might make the transition to environmental protection. But what, in reality, causes this transition? One intuitively obvious notion is that increasing wealth provides the financial security to allow environmental matters to finally get a look-in.

Importantly, countries often “overshoot”; sympathies for the environment often come far too late, at a price of both the services that natural ecosystems provide and their component biodiversity. Moreover, the loss of primary habitat and its biodiversity is largely irreversible. An important question is therefore what makes some countries able to “transition” efficiently. In turn, this leads to the idea that a key “pressure point” could exist, for the conservation agenda at least, to persuade countries to make the transition in good time.

With all this in mind, I’m currently trying to figure out if this applies to Malaysia, and where Malaysia might sit on this supposed trajectory of development. I present exhibit A:

This is the front page of one of the regional newspapers; in fact, one of the first things I picked up after arriving. What does it mean that on the front page there is a plea to save an old tree? OK, forgive me, but I think this is significant. Combined with the frequent references to “biodiversity” (the Sabah Times trumps even the Guardian on this), as well as the popular knowledge of Sabah’s unique natural heritage that I’ve come across, this seems to show that Malaysian Borneo is thoroughly onboard with the conservation agenda. Has Malaysia, still burdened with extreme poverty, begun to make the Kuznets transition whilst retaining more than 60% forest cover?

Unfortunately, the jury is still out. Much of the remaining forest has been intensively logged (often twice), and is therefore of unknown conservation value (we’re looking into it!). Moreover, the national newspapers are state controlled – most of the articles are about government appointments or planning announcements. It makes for dry reading, I can tell you. Trying to get a sense of the national mood from them is, at best, hard work. At worst, it’s like trying to nail jelly to a tree. Frustratingly unfruitful. Even more importantly, any environmental sympathies at large may well be just lip service to the conservation agenda, when the real motivation is in developing tourism. And tourism and conservation are not always easy bedfellows.

Hopefully, some of this will become clear in the months to come.

Posted in Conservation, Development | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

Crossing Borneo

There’s a book I’ve been recommended more times than I can remember. It’s called Stranger In the Forest, and is (apparently) an absorbing and accurate account of a truly remarkable feat: crossing the breadth of Borneo on foot.

Forget Redmond O’Hanlon’s Into the Heart of Borneo, which camps up a journey that is, by all accounts, quite run-of-the-mill (if you have a few thousand dollars for equipment and guide/porter hire). Rather than finding this book “hilarious” at every turn (as promised on the front cover), it was actively cringe-worthy, in its descriptions of both dayak life and forest life.

By contrast, Eric Hansen’s 1976 journey is the real deal: he’s still the only Westerner to have ever completed the feat of crossing Borneo on foot (through Sarawak and Kalimantan, in his case). What makes this even more poignant is the fact that it was achieved with the help of Penan guides. The Penan are the last of the true hunter-gatherers on Borneo, and are today all but extinct (culturally); perhaps just a few hundred have resisted settlement to the present. It’s a story which has repeated itself across the tropical forests of the world. Sadly, it is our generation – yes, you and I – which will forever be known to have witnessed (and hastened) the demise of our species’ last forest peoples, as well as their intimate connection with the natural world. The 10,000 year transformation of Homo sapiens to Homo urbanitus is nearing completion. But I digress…

I recently took a journey across Borneo of my own, though in an Airbus which had seen better days. Of course, I had read how vast the oil palm plantations are over here. But reading about “X sq km’s” here, or “Y thousand hectares” there, does not prepare you. As we neared Tawau, we flew for 10 minutes or more over continuous oil palm, as far as the eye could see (as the oil palm cliché goes). From 10,000 feet, it looked like a fuzzy velcro mat of green, made up of little spiky starbursts. All of the trees were the same height, perfectly spaced in neat rows; a monotonous, orderly and sterile landscape. A network of scorched roads was also visible, down which the oil palm fruits flow toward a central processing mill. Here’s a satellite view of a vast oil palm plantation just north of Tanjung Puting National Park in southern Borneo. The roads are rarely grid-like in eastern Sabah (where I am based) purely because of the difficult topography, but you get the picture.

© Google Earth

…and zoomed in:

© Google Earth

To many, the vastness of the oil palm plantations is no longer interesting. Descriptions borne of plane rides like my own would seem as mundane as they come. Indeed, I can already feel my naivety to the situation wearing off. Being in Malaysia, you are constantly saturated with the oil palm tree. Take a bus, take a train, take a plane, take a 4WD: you will see oil palm lining the streets and the roads and the valleys. Everywhere you look. Taxi drivers will even point it out to you, with a thumbs up and a “Malaysia-is-great!” look on their faces. Because of this saturating effect, I’m going to try and hold onto my naive first impressions of the Borneo landscape. In general, first impressions of a place and its way of doing things should be valued, if for nothing else but their clarity.

For now, I am struck by the vastness of the oil palm crop in Malaysia. It utterly dominates whole landscapes in an uncompromising way. On the flip-side, it seems that the plantations inspire some kind of optimism and pride in Malaysians, and the vaster the better for this. It’s the same story of humans everywhere taking solace and confidence from taming what is, to Homo urbanitus, wild and wholly alien land. Of course, the plantations provide more concrete benefits too. Fundamentally, they create jobs and generate revenue on international markets, filling the gap that the decline in the logging industry has made.

Attempting to stack up the benefits derived from natural forests against this is tricky. Before we know it, we’ve usually slipped into a vain attempt at trying to balance conservation and development. However, the premise that they’re diametrically opposed is often a red herring, and a simplistic herring at that. I’ll have to get to this in a later post!

OK, now I’m off to try and get hold of a copy of that book! Oh, and ponder that old conservation vs development chestnut.

Bargain bucket or biodiversity – the choice is, ummmm, clear???

Posted in Conservation, Development, Palm Oil, Travel | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

KK in brief

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Land Below The Wind

…that’s what northern Borneo, now Malaysian Borneo, was originally called by sailors back in the day, rightly obsessed with all things wind. Though not new to Borneo, I’m new to Malaysia. Kota Kinabalu (“KK”) has been my first taste of Malaysia’s interpretation of this strange island. My experiences of Indonesian Borneo were of a tumultuous island, reeling from decades of trans-migration, gold mining, logging and, more recently, oil palm plantation expansion. I remember arriving on one of the German-built ferries that ply the Indonesian waters: the sun was blocked out by the smoke, managing only a dull amber, and fires were all around. It had the feeling of a war zone.   

KK, on the other hand, is a developed and pleasant coastal city. Not cramped, not too large, located by the sea, excellent and abundant food, host to a progressive society…In short, it makes for a nice jungle launchpad.

I walked up a precarious roped path behind some houses and eventually came out onto a road (the more traditional route perhaps?) The view down to KK at sunset was pretty awesome. Initially it was just me and this scraggy black dog with a tilted head. But as the sky set alight, teenagers and tourists with tripods came up to enjoy it too.

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