It’s 3am. I jump off the back of the Land Rover and stand in the humid darkness, exhausted and elated, unable to believe what I’ve just seen.
I’m in the Malaysian state of Sabah on the island of Borneo, somewhere that has long been on my wishlist of places to visit. Borneo is huge — the third-largest island in the world. The southern half is part of Indonesia, the kingdom of Brunei takes up a small corner in the north east, and the remainder is Malaysian. The whole island was once entirely covered in thick rainforest, which, at 140 million years old, is one of the world’s oldest. But for the past couple of centuries, it has been heavily exploited for its timber and in more recent times, huge swathes of primary forest on the flatter land around Borneo’s coasts have been cleared to make way for palm oil plantations.
Europe is one of the biggest importers of palm oil, where it is used in hundreds of products, including (and the irony of this won’t be lost on many of you) as a component of biodiesel. The timber and palm oil industries are the mainstay of both the Malaysian and Indonesian economies, but have come at a terrible cost to the island’s wildlife: iconic species, such as the orang-utan, have suffered devastating losses in numbers in recent years and are now classed as endangered. So, although my reason for going to Borneo was for the wildlife, I did wonder, as I flew in over the serried, sterile ranks of palm oil plantations — how much I was actually likely to see.
Siti, my guide, met me at the airport and it became instantly apparent that this young Malaysian woman was fascinated by every aspect of the natural world. We dropped my bag at the Sepilok Nature Resort and headed straight into the forest, pausing to admire a pair of magnificent rhinoceros hornbills sitting in a tree just outside my room. “It’s a great place for birds,” she told me, `pointing out swiftlets and swallows skimming over the pond around which the rooms are built, “and it’s not unusual to see orang-utans here, too.”
Dusk was falling when we entered the forest, and almost immediately Siti spotted a red giant flying squirrel perched high up on the trunk of a tree. We watched it, hoping it would give us a show of its extraordinary gliding skills. Moments later, it launched into the air, limbs spread-eagled, revealing the wing-like membrane that allowed it to drift effortlessly to a tree over a hundred metres away. We walked on, Siti’s torch alighting on a tiny mouse deer skulking in the undergrowth, and several jewel-coloured kingfishers, motionless, roosting at the end of branches. We caught a glimpse of an owl hunting, another flying squirrel — the smaller Thomas’s — eyes glinting up in the canopy and then a rustle in the undergrowth alerted us to a funny little black and white creature that made us both squeak with excitement — a Malay badger. And all this within only an hour of walking.
We left the next morning and took a boat to the Kinabatangan Wetlands, where, again, I was surprised by the sheer number of species we were able to see in a few hours of effortless wildlife viewing: short-clawed otters, Sambar deer, crocodiles and a wonderful array of birds including a fly-past by four great slaty woodpeckers — the biggest in the world. I saw my first Borneo primates, too — four different species including a group of the bizarre-looking endemic proboscis monkeys, sitting in a tree by the river, unfazed by the efforts of an unseen karaoke singer in the tiny settlement on the opposite bank trying — unsuccessfully — to be Beyonce.
So far, we had stuck to the well-worn tourist trail, but the next day, after visiting the visually stunning Gomantong Caves, we left for lesser-known territory. The drive to the forest of Deramakot is a long one, first on tarmac roads and then on a rough track that winds, somewhat depressingly, through acre after acre of palm oil plantation and past forestry depots where trunks of what were once mighty trees lie in towering stacks. It certainly doesn’t feel like the approach to what, just four years ago, was discovered to be a wildlife hotspot, with a diversity of species that researchers are discovering is even wider than it is in untouched, primary forest.
We arrived at the forest department headquarters, where there is rudimentary accommodation for wildlife-obsessed visitors, who have started to trickle in to this area of Borneo with high hopes of seeing rarities. Deramakot is 55,000 hectares of rainforest and, although it hasn’t been conventionally logged for 20 years, it is still sustainably logged. But I was sceptical. How sustainable can commercial logging really be? And is it really possible it has no detrimental effect on wildlife? “It took a long time to make it work,” Peter Lagan, the assistant district forest officer, told me. “It is only recently we began making a profit, but now we are, we are able to demonstrate it is possible to manage forest resources for the benefit of industry without having a negative impact on wildlife.”
The regulations for sustainable logging — which allows timber to get FSC certification — are rigorous.
The 55,000 hectares is parcelled up into sections and each one can only be logged every 40 years. Trees that bear fruit can’t be cut down, neither can trees with trunks with a circumference of more than 47in. Anything on steep ground or near a watercourse can’t be touched, and the timber has to be extracted along one main inroad.
Sound too good to be true? Well I was only going to find out by getting out there. Finding and watching wildlife in an area with lots of trees is never easy. Deramakot has one main forestry track that runs through the whole reserve for about 40km, so our search would be done by driving very slowly along that road, standing in the open back of a Land Rover. And because many of the forest species are nocturnal, we would be going out overnight, as well as during the day. I couldn’t quite believe we were going to see anything, but within moments of setting out that first night, Siti asked the driver to stop. “Slow loris,” she said. I trained my binoculars along the beam of the spotlight and high above us, in the crook of a branch, was a saucer-eyed creature with orange fur, hanging upside down by its toes, eating leaves.
And so began five days and nights of wildlife viewing that was unlike anything I had ever done before. Because if you are prepared to put up with torrential downpours, long hours of seeing nothing and not very much sleep, Deramakot’s rewards are many. On our first morning, we woke to the haunting song of gibbons, and not long after we were watching them dancing among the branches. We saw orang-utan, maroon langur and got a rare glimpse of a yellow-throated martin. But it was after dark I got a real sense of the astonishing diversity of this forest. Because every single night, we saw something we had not seen before. Species that not only had I not seen, but I also had never heard of. The ancient, mysterious colugo, a sort of flying tree shrew that scientists once thought was a primate. A moonrat. There were regulars: the flying squirrels, palm and Malay civets and the gorgeously decorated banded civet and most nights we saw the small, exquisitely patterned leopard cat. One evening, we crept on foot into the forest to find tarsiers and a Wallace’s flying frog. A scientist had rigged up a camera trap and it revealed a small herd of elusive wild cattle called banteng. A long night of seeing very little culminated in the sighting of two sun bears, only a few hundred metres from our base camp. We followed a trail of ripped up vegetation and piles of dung and it led us to a family group of diminutive Borneo elephants.
There is one animal that has really made Deramakot’s name, though. It is a show-stopper; the rarest and least known of the world’s big cats: The clouded leopard. Mike Gordon, one of the first people to come to the forest to assess its wildlife viewing potential, has probably had more sightings of clouded leopards than anyone one else on earth — he had 33 in Deramakot last year. So, although the chances of seeing one here might be higher than anywhere else, many leave unsuccessful, including me.
But there is another animal found here, one even more rare and elusive. It was two years before Mike discovered they lived here. It is called an otter civet, and there, in the beam of Siti’s torch, was this extraordinary animal, snuffling along in a ditch. We looked at each other with amazed delight that we should be so lucky.
We humans make huge demands on our planet’s resources, often at the expense of all other species. But what I discovered in Deramakot, is that it is possible to use nature’s resources in a way that satisfies our demands for things like timber, provides jobs and generates income, but not to the detriment of a habitat and its wildlife.
And with that optimistic realisation I finally drifted off to sleep as the first light crept into the sky and the gibbons started to sing.