SABAH

THE WILD WORLD OF DANUM VAL­LEY

DestinAsian - - FRONT PAGE - BY JOHNNY LAN­GEN­HEIM

Linda is eat­ing wild figs. She’s do­ing it with the stu­dious air of a con­nois­seur, an ef­fect that is height­ened by her bouf­fant auburn hair­style. Even more im­pres­sively, she is 50 me­ters above the jun­gle floor, clutch­ing a vine-en­tan­gled hard­wood with one hand while her baby clings to her back. There’s a cer­tain fris­son that comes with wit­ness­ing orang­utans in the wild—it feels as if a lit­tle bless­ing has been be­stowed. And they just beg to be an­thro­po­mor­phized. With her big hair and ru­mi­na­tive man­ner, Linda re­minds me a bit of Ju­lia Child.

I’m dis­tracted from these mus­ings by a leech that’s snuck onto my leg. I flick it away, only for it to land on my friend’s neck, to which it quickly at­taches it­self. I sti­fle a guf­faw. Con­rad may have found his heart of dark­ness in the jun­gle, but I’m hav­ing a blast.

It helps that I’m stay­ing at the Bor­neo Rain­for­est Lodge, an up­mar­ket, low-im­pact base from which to ex­pe­ri­ence one of the last pris­tine tracts of low­land rain for­est in Asia. Think cozy tim­ber chalets be­side a purl­ing river and a cen­tral pavil­ion where enor­mous buf­fets are served three times a day be­tween jun­gle hikes. There are dra­matic wooden walk­ways and view­ing plat­forms sus­pended 25 me­ters up in the for­est canopy, im­mers­ing you in a ca­coph­ony of bird­calls. Prince Wil­liam and Kate Mid­dle­ton even paid a visit dur­ing their Ju­bilee tour last year.

This is the Danum Val­ley Con­ser­va­tion Area in Sabah, the north­ern­most state of Malaysian Bor­neo. At 438 square kilo­me­ters, it’s the largest area of pro­tected rain for­est in the coun­try and is home to ev­ery­thing from orang­utans to clouded leop­ards, pygmy ele­phants to pythons—plus some of the world’s last re­main­ing Su­ma­tran rhi­nos. Then you’ve got your tar­siers, mouse deer, gib­bons, pro­boscis mon­keys, var­i­ous snakes, frogs, and lizards (some of which can fly—well, glide at least) and a myr­iad of large and of­ten malev­o­lent in­sects, such as the vi­o­lin bee­tle, which will spray you with par­a­lyz­ing bu­tyric acid if you get too close. All in all, the Danum Val­ley is home to some 550 mam­mal and bird species and more than 200 types of tree.

Bor­neo Rain­for­est Lodge ac­tu­ally be­longs to the govern­ment-funded Sabah Foun­da­tion; tours and ground ar­range­ments are or­ga­nized by its sub­sidiary, Bor­neo Na­ture Tours. All prof­its go back into the foun­da­tion and to

WE CLAM­BER UP A STEEP TRAIL LED BY DEN­NY­SIUS ALOY­SIUS, THE LODGE’S LONG­EST-SERV­ING GUIDE AND SURELY ITS MOST EX­U­BER­ANT. HE CAN SMELL IF A CLOUDED LEOP­ARD IS NEARBY, AND HAS AN EN­CY­CLO­PE­DIC KNOWL­EDGE OF LO­CAL BIRD­CALLS

so­cial-wel­fare and con­ser­va­tion pro­grams. It’s a tightly man­aged oper­a­tion that weds slick hos­pi­tal­ity ser­vices with a gen­uinely im­mer­sive na­ture ex­pe­ri­ence. The lodge’s rangers are all lo­cal and li­censed, mean­ing they’ve un­der­gone ex­ten­sive train­ing.

Linda is one of an es­ti­mated 500 wild orang­utans liv­ing in the Danum Val­ley, a pop­u­la­tion that’s a spe­cial area of fo­cus for re­searchers thanks to the pris­tine state of the ecosys­tem and the ease of ac­cess (from Kota Kin­a­balu, you fly to La­had Datu and then take a four-by-four 70 kilo­me­ters into the jun­gle along a well-main­tained log­ging road). On our sec­ond day, we meet Por­tuguese PhD stu­dent Re­nata Men­donça sit­ting rather for­lornly at the foot of a tow­er­ing hard­wood. She’s been track­ing a fe­male ape for a week, a process that in­volves… well, sit­ting un­der trees and oc­ca­sion­ally squint­ing through a pair of binoc­u­lars. What she tells me is fas­ci­nat­ing, though: only dom­i­nant males de­velop the dis­tinc­tive flanged fea­tures—fat cheek pads, pen­du­lous throat sac—on their faces. They’re big­ger than the un­flanged males, too. “It’s called bi­ma­tur­ism, where there are two dif­fer­ent types of male,” Men­donça tells us. “You’ll only find one flanged male in each home range. He will tol­er­ate un­flanged males be­ing around, but not an­other dom­i­nant male. We think maybe he gives off a hor­mone which in­hibits the growth of the other males in his range.”

Be­cause fe­males never will­ingly mate

with un­flanged males, the lat­ter re­sort to what is rather del­i­cately de­scribed as force­ful cop­u­la­tion. But Men­donça’s area of re­search is the close bond be­tween a mother and her off­spring: ju­ve­nile orang­utans live with their moth­ers un­til they’re about 10 and will con­tinue to visit for an­other six years or so. Such pro­longed con­nec­tions are rare among mam­mals—only hu­mans take longer to cut the fig­u­ra­tive um­bil­i­cal—and sci­en­tists still don’t have a de­tailed un­der­stand­ing of the na­ture of the re­la­tion­ship.

All of this casts Linda and her baby in a new light, at least to my an­thro­po­mor­phiz­ing mind. Fi­nally we leave them to their fruit feast and con­tinue clam­ber­ing up a steep trail to our des­ti­na­tion, the View­point, led by our im­prob­a­bly named guide Den­ny­sius Aloy­sius (Denny for short). It was Denny, of course, who spotted Linda for us. He is Bor­neo Rain­for­est Lodge’s long­est-serv­ing guide and surely its most ex­u­ber­ant. Denny can smell if a clouded leop­ard is nearby, has an en­cy­clo­pe­dic knowl­edge of lo­cal bird­calls, and on one oc­ca­sion cheer­fully points out a type of psy­choac­tive tree bark that “gives en­ergy and courage but makes you reck­less.”

The el­e­vated View­point of­fers panoramic vis­tas of the sur­round­ing for­est. At least it would if it weren’t pour­ing with rain. We stash our gear un­der a tree root and my flip-flops

As the down­pour slows, I wan­der over to the edge of an es­carp­ment and gaze at the mist ris­ing from a jun­gle canopy that is thought to have been here for 130 mil­lion years, mak­ing it one of the old­est rain forests on earth

(which had ear­lier drawn dis­parag­ing looks from a Rus­sian guest decked out in jun­gle boots, leech socks, and full-body mos­quito net) at last come into their own. As the down­pour slows, I wan­der over to the edge of an es­carp­ment and gaze at the mist ris­ing from a jun­gle canopy that is thought to have been here for 130 mil­lion years, mak­ing it one of the old­est rain forests on earth. Then I hear a rustling be­low me. I crouch down to see a troop of red leaf mon­keys (a.k.a. ma­roon lan­gurs) just a few me­ters away. I watch them for a few pre­cious mo­ments, and then they are gone.

There’s noth­ing like tak­ing a dip af­ter you’ve been trekking, es­pe­cially when it’s in the pool of a lit­tle wa­ter­fall in a sun-dap­pled jun­gle glade. Af­ter­ward, I bask on a rock, my feet dan­gling in the wa­ter … un­til some­thing nib­bles my toe. I yelp in­vol­un­tary. Then I re­mem­ber what Denny told us: these aren’t pi­ran­has, they’re carp. I set­tle back and let them ex­fo­li­ate my dead skin.

I’d love to re­port that our trip cul­mi­nates in a sight­ing of pygmy ele­phants; these are, af­ter all, the big­gest res­i­dents of the Danum Val­ley. One of our guides tells us they’re de­scended from a group of Su­ma­tran ele­phants gifted to the Sul­tan of Sulu in 1750 by the Bri­tish East In­dia Com­pany. It’s a quaint tale, but apoc­ryphal: re­cent DNA anal­y­sis traces the an­i­mals’ pres­ence on Bor­neo back 300,000 years, dur­ing which time they evolved in­de­pen­dently from their cousins in Su­ma­tra and main­land Asia, be­com­ing smaller, chub­bier, and—from what I can tell from pho­tos at the lodge—cuter. But all we see of them en route to the Danum River is a prodi­gious pile of fresh dung. Denny says it was left by a big male out scout­ing for the herd. “Maybe half an hour ago, no more.”

Such iswildlife tourism. By wayof com­pen­sa­tion, I spend the rest of the morn­ing float­ing down­river on a gi­ant in­ner tube, con­tent to watch the pri­mor­dial jun­gle drift by.

ON THE RIGHT TRACK

Bor­neo Rain­for­est Lodge guide Den­ny­sius leading guests on an ear­ly­morn­ing hike through

the Danum Val­ley.

WEL­COME TO THE JUN­GLE Clock­wise from left: Over­look­ing the Danum River; chang­ing rooms at the Jacuzzi Pool wa­ter­fall; an en­counter with a wild orang­utan; a park ranger on the look­out. Op­po­site, from top: On a sec­tion of the val­ley’s 300-me­ter­long canopy walk­way; board­walks con­nect the guest chalets at Bor­neo Rain­for­est Lodge.

CREA­TURE COM­FORTS Morn­ing mists cloak the tree­tops be­yond the break­fast ter­race at Bor­neo Rain­for­est Lodge, left, which also comes with plenty of a cozy sit­ting ar­eas from which to take in the jun­gle’s nighttime hum.

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