Monday, 9 November 2015

Photographing the Wildlife of Borneo

The Natural History of Sabah,  Borneo

When I was around 9 or 10 I was given an encyclopaedia of nature for Christmas. It contained a photograph of a Malaysian man, wearing a traditional hat, sitting next to an enormous orange plant – the largest flower in the world. Ever since, I have wanted to visit Borneo where the photo was taken, and finally got the chance a few weeks ago.

 We started our trip at Mount Kinabalu, where only a few weeks before our visit a  major earthquake  occurred. The locals still maintain this was caused by stupid, childish  foreign students who danced naked on the summit after climbing the mountain (even after the guides had asked them not to!) – it is very sacred to the Bornean people.

One of our  main aims was to see carnivorous pitcher plants in the wild, on the slope up the mountain. Unfortunately the path up was shut due to the earthquake, so we were taken to an alternative site near Kinabalu golf club, apparently the highest in the world. After a very strenuous climb (involving machetes)  through dense jungle (when several members of the party turned back) we arrived at the spot, and were shown Nepenthes rajah, the largest of the pitcher plants. It was extraordinary to see them growing in the wild, and a real privilege. Just as we finished photographing them it started to rain, and when it rains in Borneo, it rains!! Our journey down became hazardous with mud which turned into a highly slippery surface – I fell a couple of times and got caked in thick, orange mud.

This pitcher plant (Nepenthes rajah) was well worth the strenuous climb. Half filled with fluid they are quite heavy to hold.
Another key species for me was to see Rafflesia, the flower from the picture in the encyclopaedia. This is a very hit and miss affair, and you are by no means guaranteed to see one, but we were lucky to be shown a pristine specimen, three days old. It wasn’t the largest (they grow on Sumatra) but still a very impressive sight. Apparently only 10% of the flower buds actually flower, taking around 18 moths to do so!

Rafflesia keithii. A pristine flower, three days old, approximately 50cm across.

 After that the trip involved  travelling further and further into  the rainforest, staying at a succession of lodges, finishing with 6 days at the superb Danum Valley. We did several boat trips on the Kinabatangan river, where we got great views of the wonderful Proboscis Monkeys, as well as brilliant views of the Bornean Pygmy Elephant, both by day and by night.
Bornean Pygmy Elephant
Proboscis Monkey

We saw plenty of wild Orangs (much better than the rather disappointing Sepilok Centre) as well as other monkeys including Silvered Leaf and Red Leaf Monkeys.
 Female Orang-utan with youngster
Red Leaf Monkey

The rainforest was drier than expected (it is an El Nino year) but we still saw a great array of frogs, snakes lizards and insects, my own favourite being the huge Three Horned Rhinoceros Beetle.
Three Horned Rhinoceros Beetle


Throughout the trip we used a variety of photographic techniques, including long lens work from boats, long exposures of fireflies at night, ultraviolet images of scorpions, time lapse cloud scenes and high speed photography of seeds spiralling down from trees.
Fireflies at night. A 30 second exposure from the bank of the river, from a wooden platform provided by the guides from the lodge.
Large scorpion fluorescing in ultraviolet light at night in the Danum Valley
A tiny bat, roosting in a rolled up banana leaf. It became an obsession to check every leaf for bats!
Dipterocarp seeds spiralling down from tree


Seed of Alsomitra, one of the largest winged seeds in the wold, spiralling down from the canopy

A Dead Leaf Mantis - showing extraordinary camouflage

A Bornean Horned Frog

Oriental Dwarf Kingfisher

Lantern Bug

Mossy Tree  Frog
 Long Crested Forest Dragon
Short Crested Forest Dragon
Wagler's Pit Viper - a beautiful snake, which we saw on several occasions

Gomantong Cave, a major source of nest of Cave Swiftlets used in Birds Nest Soup. A hopefully subtle HDR image, composed of three separate images.

 Sunrise in the Danum Valley.

My trip was organised by Wildlife Worldwide, and led by the brilliant Nick Garbutt, whose knowledge of the natural history of Borneo is second to none, and whose animal wrangling skills led to some great images (though don’t mention Atlas Moths !). For more details other trips organised by Wildlife Worldwide and Nick, see:

All in all a brilliant trip, and I can’t wait to return!

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