OMG – endangered species right beside me!

Night two safari at the Tabin Wildlife Resort, Sabah was OMG great: as well as seeing the giant-eyed slow Loris, an Italian man in my little group spots the prize – the stealthy carnivore, the silent killer, the wonderful, and endangered, Sunda clouded leopard.

Clouded Leopard. photo by Cristian Morettin. August 2013
Sunda Clouded Leopard. photo by Cristian Morettin. August 2013

I cannot believe my luck. It is right beside the road and we stop, and in amazement, remain silent, looking down on it as it too freezes briefly, before slinking slowly into the bush. Beautifully marked with large irregular patches of colour it is about the same size as a medium-sized dog. I’m sure not many tourists get to see this vulnerable creature which research estimates there are only 275–585 of them in the four totally protected reserves that are large enough to hold a long-term viable population of 50 individuals.

How much deeper will it get? Photo by Cristian Morettin.
How much deeper will it get?
Photo by Cristian Morettin.

Despite having no photo of my own, Cristian Morettin, our hero who spotted the leopard, sends me one of his, as well as one of me up to my knees in water as we cross a river, before cooling down in a waterfall pool.

On the same day that we saw the mainly nocturnal leopard (Tabin is considered to have 2 or 3 hundred according to Wendy Hutton in her book Tabin) we also see another rare sight: the Bornean, or Pygmy, Elephant of which there are about 1500 and are only on Borneo.

Getting ready for the afternoon safari, all of which are included in the charges to stay at this luxurious resort, our guide rounds us up with urgency.

My guide who found the elephant
My guide who found the elephant

‘Quick, an elephant in the area’ gets us moving fast despite the heat – I’m the first on ‘our truck’, the first of three trucks and in only moments spot him slowly disappearing into the bush.

The driver’s told to where to go and wait for him to hopefully reappear. While the guide is scanning the bush, I photograph oil plantation workers on the opposite side of the road – it’s a hard job and I believe 90% of the manual workers in these plantations are Indonesian migrant workers, employed to do the harvesting, weeding and maintenance.

Oil plantation work is heavy work
Oil plantation work is heavy work

Ten minutes later our guide proves right about where the elephant would hopefully go, and he, one lone animal, emerges from the bush into the long grass he loves to eat. Despite being smaller than other elephants, and are called a pygmy, they are actually between 2.5 and 3 metres high, have big ears and straight tusks. Beside an Indian or African elephant I’m sure they’re tiny, but I’d be a little intimidated at his size had I met him on the path. He may be small, but the grass is high and the photographer in me keeps hoping he would come out into the more open areas – but no such luck.

the grass is as high as  an elephants eye!
the grass is as high as an elephants eye!

We just sit and watch him for 20 or 30 minutes; he ignores us, busy eating the ‘elephant grass’ he loves. An older elephant, these lone males are at the bottom of the pecking order and can be a problem: however it seems this one, a well-known regular, has caused no problems.

While a national treasure, the elephant is sometimes regarded a nuisance and can destroy acres in a night. With the fragmented forest reserves and deforestation this has sometimes placed the wildlife in conflict with landowners and villagers. Sadly ‘the 14 pygmy elephants which were found dead at a forest reserve near Tawau, Sabah (January 2013) were killed by severe poisoning’ the Sabah State Tourism, Culture and Environment Minister, Masidi Manjun said. More positively, quick action by wildlife rescuers saved a herd of 10 Bornean pygmy elephants that had wandered off their range and ventured as close as 10km to Lahad Datu: the Sabah Wildlife Department, over eight days, captured and relocated them (nine female adults and a four-year old male calf) back into Tabin. The Sabahmas Plantations have electric fences and ‘green corridors’ to help keep elephants out of their palm areas because of the damage they can create.

Bucket list ... return to Tabin Resort for better pygmy elephant photos
Bucket list … return to Tabin Resort for better pygmy elephant photos

Adding Tabin Resort onto my ever getting longer ‘revisit-bucket-list ‘this country has produced, I fly back to KK and home to New Zealand. Nevertheless I have another Malaysian Air ticket with my name on it – this time I’m off to Miri for the annual Borneo Jazz Festival in May 2014, and to see some caves in Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo.