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Sungai Kinabatangan

Home to the Orang Sungai (people of the river)

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The misty and slightly chilly forests surrounding Mount Kinabalu ( Malaysia’s first World Heritage Site) were a lovely place to spend a few nights , hiking the trails during the day and cuddling up under blankets in our sleeping bags at night after a warm cup of Sabah tea. It was here we finally were able to see the world’s largest flower: the rafflesia, which reaches up to one meter in diameter and only blooms for a maximum of seven days. What's the strangest thing is that the rafflesia is not a visible plant! It's actually a microscopic plant that depends on a type of vine to live in, and only becomes visible when it starts to bloom. That makes sightings even more special so local people have the very convenient custom -for tourists- to set up signs on the road indicating when there's a rafflesia in bloom in their property. This is how we found this one!

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From Kinabalu we headed to the lower Kinabatangan area in search for wildlife.
Deforestation and the ever-growing palm plantations are a well-known threat for Borneo’s unique wildlife, but even though you know it’s coming you can help feeling your heart shrink in anguish when the last three hours of your bus ride there is nothing to be seen other than an endless sea of palm oil cultivation.
In the 1950s the period of intensive logging in Sabah was just beginning, and in the last twenty years, 80% of Sabah’s forest habitat has been destroyed. In the 1980s over-logged forests were re-designated for permanent conversion to agriculture and palm oil plantations soon became dominant. Malaysia is constantly disputing the #1 oil palm producer title against Indonesia, and just the small state of Sabah has 1,400,000 hectares planted.

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Agriculture is a necessity and oil palm sustains major economies and livelihoods, but when you see the plantations reaching all the way to the river bank of one of the most biologically important places on Earth you feel the frustration, anger and despair of witnessing big companies not trying even a bit to make things better! The mighty Kinabatangan is being left with just small pockets of forests throughout its 560 km; too small to maintain viable populations of the animals and isolating one from the other. You would think that leaving a margin of natural forest between the plantation and the river would be the very least the government would enforce in such a unique environment, but to our sad surprise it is not happening, at least in many areas of the Kinabatangan.
However, oil palm plantations are not to be satanized per se. All monocultures have their environmental impacts and oil palm plantations may be a lot better than most of the other crops we are familiarized with. In fact, oil palm is biologically superior to other oil seed crops in terms of efficiency in the land use and productivity. But companies with no environmental consciousness eliminate this partial advantage by extending their crops over an excessive territory, and especially by removing important, beautiful and unique ecosystems to put in lines and lines of palm. Something to think about is that a lot of that palm oil will be used for the growing bio-fuel market! You may not be so happy to pour your biodiesel in your car if you knew where it came from...
In properly designated areas for agriculture palm oil plantations could very well be cultivated in relative low-impact to nature, but even then when Malaysia is getting close to the 5 million hectares the mere volume is sure to have some serious consequences on the environment.

So here we are, cruising down the Kinabatangan, a knot on our throats, looking at the plantations peek out along the riverside or behind the very thin line of forest that attempts to hide them, when the impressive array of wildlife starts to emerge from the remaining jungle.
The first we saw were hornbills flying above us. Borneo has eight species of them, and all can be found in the Kinabatangan. We spotted six of them while here. Above all the Oriental Pied is the most commonly seen, and the Rhinocerous Hornbill one of the most striking and largest (over one meter long!).

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Then our guide Arshad spotted a reticulated python curled up in a tree resting. This beautiful snake reminds you of the boas at home but can grow a lot larger, with historical records reaching the ten meter mark!!!! Please try to picture that by taking a few meter steps wherever you are right now and you won't believe the dimension.

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We then spotted a female orangutan with her baby! She was pretty high up and it was pretty dark by then but the sighting really made us happy, and then just as we were to arrive to the lodge we heard our guide Arshad mumble through a grin "you guys are so lucky", and take us straight to this big male eating ripe figs on a very low branch overhanging the river!
The experience of watching a completely wild orang-utan in his normal behavior, almost completely ignoring us except for a few glances down at us, visibly knowing his superiority in terms of strength and skill in the forest should he have to use them against us is something we will never forget. Orangutans are only found in Borneo and a small part of Sumatra, and at one-hundred kilograms make them the largest tree-dwelling animal in the world. These extremely intelligent, magnificent cousins of ours make a new nest up in a tree each evening where they spend the night, and are also the only great ape outside of Africa. Sadly because of loss of habitat the orangutan population has droped from 180- thousand to under 30 thousand in the last ten years!!!!!!!!!!! We are losing them way too fast.

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But not all is lost. Twenty six thousand hectares in the lower Kinabatangan have been set aside for conservation by the Malay government and WWF is working together with all the stakeholders on a project called Kinabatangan Corridor of Life, in an attempt to reclaim the river banks and linking existing protected blotches. Wild life tourism has skyrocketed in recent years and awareness of the situation is spreading.

So after a very impressive first ride down the river we finally made it to the lodge, where we immediately decided we would spend an added thirteen days in addition to the mere two we had originally planned on. We're posting this blog on our last day here, having experienced a couple of weeks we will always remember thanks to the wonderful new friends we made in the staff (Arshad, Risiman, Adika, Nana, Diana, Amy Vanessa, Ping, Joel, City, Lida, Rosita, Marcell...), fellow travelers on their own adventures, the joint peace and excitement of being in the jungle and of course, the spectacular wildlife! Let us share some pictures of the creatures we encountered throughout our stay.

Salt Water crocodile known more from Australia than Borneo inhabits this river. This is the biggest crocodile in the world reaching sometimes more than seven meters from nostrils to tail!

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The Pygmy Elephant (Elephas maximus borniensis), previously thought to have been introduced from the main land as a gift to the Sultan of Brunei, is now a recognized subspecies as genetic evidence suggests they have been isolated for thousands of years. These huge beasts are the smallest elephants in Asia, and travel along the riverside forests. They are somewhat shy creatures and sometimes are not seen by the guides for months at a time. We were extremely lucky and spotted them on a few different occasions. Sometimes we would hear a very loud noise, much like a gunshot but louder: it's the locals firing bamboo cannons into the air to scare away the elephants and prevent them from raiding the crops! Our own lodge actually also has to take safety precautions by setting an electric fence around the cabins to prevent people from getting trampled over in unexpected encounters between humans and elephants. Not far from here an Australian was killed two months ago by a bull elephant while she was photographing it.

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The western tarsier is a primate and one of the most unique looking creatures we can think of. The guides had told us they were around but not seen often. We were very lucky and were able to see this guy in two different occasions during our hikes at night. This is the mammal with the biggest eyes and longest legs in the world (in relationship with its size)!

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Slow Loris is actually a primate also and could be considered POISONUS! It secrets enzymes from its armpits that when mixed with its saliva create a noxious substance for its predators. In fact there has been a report of a human death from an anaphylactic shock after being bit by a Slow Loris. This nocturnal arboreal mammal moves very deliberately and slow as its name suggests. Cindy spotted this one!

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Banded Linsang is one of the Civets. Civets are cat/ferret- like creatures and the Banded Linsang one of the least encountered. One of the guides here had never seen one and the other just once before after years of working in the forest! This very special and elusive civet has a very long tail, a long neck and retractable claws just like cats (the only civet with this characteristic), and has a coloration similar to the ocelots and margays in Costa Rica and Mexico. We can’t believe we actually have a picture of a Spotted Linsang!!!!! Wooohoooooo!

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Hiking at night yielded some amazing animals. The kingfishers in Borneo are just outstanding and we spotted several species sleeping during these hikes.

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Pittas are also beautiful birds that we encountered during the nightwalks.

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But the animal we encountered every single time we went out was not necessarily the most loved. Checking yourself for leeches every few minutes was indispensable, and flicking them away may sometimes present a challenge. But they are painless and not known to transmit any disease, and after a while you start to tolerate these interesting creatures. Cindy even began to think they were cute (as long as they were on a leaf and not sucking her blood).

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And we will never get tired of seeing the Proboscis Monkeys! They are so beautifull and interesting to watch and hear. Adult males can weigh up to 22 kg, making them one of the largest monkeys in the world!

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Believe it or not we actually saw many more animals, but we can't post everything. What we do know is that surely the Kinabatangan will be one of the highlights of our trip.

From here we move on to Danum Valley, an amazing primary forest with a serious research station and then going to the world famous Sipadan for what promises to be one of the best diving of our lives.

Keep checking our blog and we'd love to get your comments!

Un abrazo!

Juan y Cindy

Posted by juan y Cindy 18:26 Archived in Malaysia

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Comments

No había visto el blog tan profesional y lleno de fotos preciosas que hicieron!!! Que increíbles experiencias están teniendo por todo el mundo!!!gracias por compartirías y siga las disfrutando...no cabe duda que será un año inolvidable :) Les mandamos un abrazo cariñosisimo !!!!!

by Denisse

"...at one-hundred kilograms make them the largest tree-dwelling animal in the world. These extremely intelligent, magnificent cousins of ours..." <<<< Fuera de contexto esto puede ser altamente ofensivo...

Qué bonito viaje!! Pongan más fotos de ustedes ok? Mmua!

by Lili

Buena Lily!! Muy propia de tu ingenio...(Y de la genetica que llevas).ja.ja.ja

by Denisse

Si me vieran lo emocionada que me estoy! Es increible todo lo que transmiten, además negro, te estás volviendo un experto narrador! Pero como dice Denise, una o dos fotos más de ustedes y que salga el fotografo también, para verlos en ese entorno.

El siguiente puerto promete ser tan emocionante como este último! Qué fantasía!

Muas!

by Lorena

Oh my goodness! I am so excited that you had so much luck seeing animals! and Fabulous photos!What is the name of the lodge there or is there only one (so I can plan our trip!) Asher said the hornbills look like they have a banana on their head! much love to you both

by Madeleine, Asher and Ruben

Impresionantes fotos... estaría bien alguna de ambos!! ;o)
Millones de besos y a seguir disfrutando!! Muaaaaaaaks

by Adriana

Eso, todos pedimos fotos de ustedes!! Así de falta nos hacen... espero que estén felices!! =)

by Lili

Me mando Eu el Link para poder seguirlos por el mundo. Que viaje y experiencia tan sensacional. Gracias por tomarse el tiempo y hacernos compañeros virtuales!

by GabyPacheco

A comment on how Oil plantation is a Environmental friendly agroproduct ---- > read this "Several forest reserves were created in Sabah in the 1970s, but were
subsequently reallocated for agricultural development, and by 1996 half
of the forest had undergone conversion. The landscape now consists of
patches of protected forest surrounded by expansive oil-palm plantations
and secondary forest degraded by logging activities. The river basin is the
largest remaining forested floodplain in Sabah, containing some of the
only remaining freshwater swamp forests in South-East Asia, but the area
has been severely fragmented, and has suffered widespread pollution
from palm-oil mill effluent, pesticides and fertilisers, as well as sediment
from land-clearing activities." End of fairy tale.

by Lutfi

Un comentario en la plantación de aceite de cómo es un agroproduct Respetuoso del medio ambiente ----> leer esto "varias reservas forestales se han creado en Sabah, en la década de 1970, pero fueron
posteriormente reasignado para el desarrollo agrícola, y en 1996 medio
del bosque se habían sometido a la conversión. El paisaje se compone actualmente de
parches de bosque protegido rodeado de amplias plantaciones de palma de aceite
y el bosque secundario degradado por las actividades de tala. La cuenca hidrográfica es la
llanura de inundación más grande que queda forestal en Sabah, que contiene algunos de los
Sólo queda de los bosques pantanosos de agua dulce en el sudeste de Asia, pero el área
ha sido muy fragmentada, y ha sufrido la contaminación generalizada
de la fábrica de aceite de palma pesticidas residuales y fertilizantes, así como los sedimentos
de las actividades de remoción de la tierra. "Fin del cuento de hadas.

by Lutfi

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