Denise Goodfellow (vice chair, WTA)

In mid-September I received a letter from the Sabah Tourism Board inviting me to speak at the Borneo Bird Festival in mid-October.

Sabah, in North Borneo, is one of thirteen Malaysian states and home to some of the highest mountains in SE Asia.  The Bird Festival is held at the Rain Forest Discovery Centre, Sepilok, not far from Sandakan, on the east coast.  Sandakan was the site of the infamous death march, on which thousands of Japanese prisoners of war, most of them Australian, perished.

Driving through Sandakan I began to shape my perceptions of the place.  The town in parts looked neglected and there were weeds, and out of town, oil palm plantations.  Yet the coloured statues at every roundabout – a crocodile here, an Orang Utan there, and a sign, “I Love Sandakan” were all rather endearing.  I tried to imagine such monuments in Australia, and couldn’t!

The famous Orang Utan Sanctuary was within walking distance of our accommodation, the Sepilok Jungle Resort, and the Rainforest Discovery Centre where all the action was to take place, was a five-minute drive away.  The resort owner, Datuk John S. K. Lim, a member of the Sabah Tourism Board and PATA, had built this homely, comfortable lodge himself many years before.

lakes in Datuk Lim's gardenThe gardens at the resort featured many lakes and plants ranging from tall trees to minute herbs. Michael and I spent quite some time watching birds there.  And the birds were spectacular – from the common Brown-throated Sunbird, a little iridescent gem, and spiderhunters, to a pair of Pied Hornbills (see below) and Crested Serpent Eagle perched high in a tree.  Then there was a little Blue-eared Kingfisher fast asleep on a branch in the dark near the dining area – the staff all knew this regular and excitedly showed it to me.  A cheeky little fantail ie Rhipidura sp. (?White-throated) often flitted around the front door.

hornbillsWhile humid, the Sabah climate turned out to be cooler and more comfortable than the Top End.  It rained most days and one night there was a severe thunderstorm and a short power blackout – I felt quite at home.  After all we have such weather during the Top End wet season.  One pleasant surprise was the lack of mosquitoes and leeches.  I saw two of the former in five days, and no leeches.

emergent dipterocarp at sunriseThe rainforest contained some very tall emergents (see right), many of them dipterocarps, a family possibly of Gondwanan origin (though not found in Australia).  Borneo has the largest number of species of dipterocarp – 155.   Some plants I recognised from the Top End, eg a Melastoma (see photo below), on which we found the most beautiful little Yellow-rumped Flowerpecker feeding (the fruits resemble and taste like black currants, and I like them too!).  And there were huge-leaved, three-veined Smilax sp.  This genus is also a native of Texas.

melastomaButterflies and Odonata abounded in the forest and many were truly magnificent.  However, I must admit a little emerald damselfly caught my eye – it perched on a leaf for several minutes following me with its large, beautiful eyes as I struggled to take a decent portrait!

As in the Top End birds were not that easy to find in the rainforest, or identify in many cases.  However, our first triumphs were of two gorgeous little kingfishers, Ruddy and Oriental Dwarf.  Anna and John of Singapore were among several birdwatcher/photographers to peg out this spot, a road above a shady stream in the rainforest.  Anna, not as keen as her husband who attached himself to his telescope, had brought along a stool and suggested cheekily that I take a photo for my research on birding couples.  As we watched some men came along with signposts for the various trails, this one being the Kingfisher Trail and others the Pitta Track and Woodpecker Avenue.  In fact the signage was very good.  There were also posters along many of the roads featuring the birds.

Through the forest canopy ran a magnificent canopy walkway, and early one morning we walked there with Hamut, a local guide.  He showed us where a sunbear had climbed twenty metres up a completely vertical, unbranched trunk, to tear its way into a beehive.  On other walks there we spotted a small flock of Grey Slaty Woodpeckers and Slender-billed Crows, a luminous Red-bearded Bee-eater, and two broadbills – the Common Black and Yellow, and the scarcer Banded.  Throughout the forest were large nest boxes often many metres up a very tall tree.  One marvelled at the dedication of the staff who placed them in such difficult spots.  Emerging from such a box one night, was a large squirrel.  In fact we saw numerous squirrels – Plantain, the beautiful red-bellied, black Prevost’s Squirrell, and most spectacular of all the Giant Flying Squirrel.  We watched a pair of them gliding from tree to tree at sunset.

greater squirrelOur most intimate contact came with a Giant Squirrel that had made its home right next to the walkway.  For some time it sat in its hollow only its nose showing.  Meanwhile the number of photographers and curious schoolchildren grew.  We walked away to return an hour or so and the squirrel was perched outside his home, happily gnawing away at something, and not at all fazed by the growing crowd.

Hamut also showed us where oil palm plantations were being relplaced with native species.  As the soil had been compacted it needed to be tilled before the trees were planted.

There were several stalls set up in the grounds of the Rainforest Development Centre representing bodies from Nikon to the Philippine Bird Club.  Paddle boats were available on the nearby lake and many took advantage of them.  Up the hill was a cafeteria, the theatre in which I was to speak, and to one side the canopy walkway. One day  we spent a couple of enjoyable hours with David Hogan, a media person from Kuala Lumpur and our driver, Hassim (?), drinking coffee and eating the most delectable cakes in some little local place in downtown Sandakan.

Irene and other dignitariesOn the opening night a dinner was held to which all were invited.  Speakers and special guests sat in the front, at beautifully laid out tables.  The Hon. Datuk Zakaria Idris, State Assemblyman from Gum-Gum, an area just next door to Sepilok, Mr Fred Kugan, Deputy Director of Sabah Forestry Department, and Datuk Irene Charuruks, General Manager of Sabah Tourism, sat with us.

Several high school children entertained us, performing the most intricate traditional dance clad in what must be national costume of gold and scarlet. These poised young people smiled all the time – lovely to see.  Afterwards tribute was paid to deceased people who’d made the Bird Festival such a success.

My fellow speakers included Steve Shunk, a birding guide from Oregon, Quentin Phillipps, author of several fauna books on Borneo, and Dr. Bharat Jetva – Asian Waterbirds Coordinator, Wetlands International, from India.  The aim was for us to suggest ways the festival and Sabah avitourism might progress.

I expanded my topic, “Birdwatching Facilities” to cover my PhD surveys of American birdwatchers, and my work with Indigenous relatives in Arnhem Land (The Baby Dreaming Project).  There was interest in my bottoms-up approach from operators and tourism representatives who approached me afterwards.

children and their signsBy the last day there were several thousand visitors, both locals, and internationals.  Certainly not all were birdwatchers, but of those who came, most were Asian.  Having spent most of my adult life guiding birders, I was pleasantly surprised.  Nowhere did I encounter the surliness or even near-hysteria of a birder who’s just missed a prize tick.  Instead the attitude was one of “oh well, I might see it later”!

While there were events for serious birders eg a bird race, there were other events for children and families eg a colouring-in competition.Everyone was involved and knowledgeable, from my driver who knew the local butterflies to tiny schoolchildren all equipped with binoculars donated by the Forestry Department, and carrying signs depicting the local birds.

On our last day we visited the Sepilok Orang Utan Rehabilitation Sanctuary.  I was not particularly interested in joining the crowd to watch the young apes being fed.  Instead Michael and I wandered through the crowd and on down the deserted walkway.  Not another soul was in sight as we walked quietly along. In the quiet I heard a babble coming from a little hut-like corner formed from low branches bending down to touch the shrub beneath.  Peering into the dark I saw a bird a little larger than a Sacred Kingfisher sitting quietly on a twig and singing to itself – White-crowned Sharma.  It was one of those rare, often fleeting moments when one is privileged to share the world of another.

And just a few tens of metres on we shared another experience.  On the boardwalk stood one of the sanctuary’s employees.  He hadn’t seen us and yet he was conversing, not talking to, but conversing with, someone out of sight.  As we drew closer his companion came into view – a young Orang Utan.  Swinging from a vine it seemed to engage the man, its face turned towards him.   Another one of those rare and privileged moments.

Later that afternoon we joined Steve and his friend Wendy, John and Anna and Bharat on a drive to the Probiscus Monkey Sanctuary situated on the coast among mangroves.  The monkeys were relatively tame, the babies climbing onto people’s arms and exploring their watches and jewellery.  And a Pied Hornbill delighted us all as well.  The bird was wild, the staff said, but visited every day to interact with visitors.  It perched willingly on people’s arms, and I had the distinct impression that it quite enjoyed the company!

A startlingly bright Crimson Sunbird rummaged among ferns that I recognised – Achrostichum speciosum, Dollarbirds cackled overhead, a smart Magpie Robin perched on a dead tree trunk and a large Black Eagle gazed down upon us from the top of a tree.  On leaving we walked for a while, sighting more birds – Black-headed Munias and White-breasted Waterhen and a rail (possibly Slaty-breasted).

Back at the lodge we joined the others for dinner.  It was our last night.  The owner, John, came to talk with us and we took his photo.  He was a grand host, a gentle man, and Datuk to young David who had spent years working with and trying to help indigenous people.  David had a special gift, given to him by courtesy of having an autistic brother. – a kindness, patience and understanding rare among people his age.

In my short stay in Sabah I met many people who spent their lives trying to protect others, namely their fellow creatures who lived in the forest.  I met a man who, though only a driver, knew his butterflies, and school children proudly carrying signs depicting their birds; a Chines datuk who in his senior years watched over the wildlife in his garden as carefully as he did a young man called David.

On my return to the Top End I thought of all the battles we here had ahead of us to save our wildlife.  While Sabah was reclaiming its native forests, ours were being razed for housing estates or industry.  The water that springfed our monsoon forests was being drained away as the population exploded.  Few in Top End towns like Darwin and Palmerston know anything at all about our wildlife.  Too many Bininj (Aboriginal people) are losing their connection to wildlife and the land, not because they want to, but because such links are of limited interest to western society.

In his talk one speaker had said that westerners too often thought of Borneo as a place of headhunters, savages, with a ruthlessness, a blatant disregard for life.

Yet looking at the ruins of yet another Top End forest, I needn’t wonder who the true savages are.

Sabah, we’ll be back.